Too Good to be True?

Have some entertainment gardens left the practices of normal gardening so far to the side that they have become artifices of what a garden should be? Has the desire to be a constantly perfect attraction lead to gardening in a manner and style which is far removed not alone from the practices of the common gardener but from nature itself? Of course, the reasons are perfectly understandable – the desire to attract more and more paying visitors and increased cash flow – normal gardening practices, even good taste, are often sacrificed for these gains.

Troy Scott Smith is the latest head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle Garden has made some interesting comments on the state of the garden and his future plans for it. “Sissinghurst”, he says, “has lost its way. In becoming a totem of horticultural perfectionism, it has forgotten what it really is.” On his appointment, he gave himself time to review the present situation in the garden, going back to the gardening notes of the garden’s creators Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. He concluded that the garden had changed radically over the years since her death and nowadays could be more considered the garden of Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger who had been employed as gardeners by Viva Sackville-West in 1959 and who continued to manage the gardens until 1991. Their successors, Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta continued to maintain the gardens in the style and manner which Pam and Sibylle had established and which the visiting public had come to expect.

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Troy Scott Smith is pictured on the cover of Ambra Edward’s book

Under their care the gardens had been brought to a level of perfection rarely seen elsewhere as they wished the garden to look at its best for every day that it was open to the public. Troy Scott Smith believes that the garden no longer reflects the style or the intentions of its creator, being too perfect, fails to show how a gardens changes through the seasons and has concluded that two thirds of the plants grown were introduced by Pam and Sibylle with several of today’s much admired features introduced by Sarah and Alexis all distancing the gardens further from its creator and that now it is time to return it to how Vita Sackville-West imagined it.

Developments at Sissinghurst will be of interest as Troy Scott Smith makes the changes he has in mind. You can read further on his thoughts in a recently published book, Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, published by Pimpernel Press and you can hear Troy Scott Smith speak to the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society in Cork on Thursday, 25th January, 2018 or on Wednesday 24th January 2018 in Enniscorthy at the Co. Wexford Garden & Flower Club..   Both groups welcome non-members – at a small charge.

In general and for the sake of fairness and balance we should consider this perfectionism in gardens from another perspective. We must realise that all gardens are  the construct of the gardener and are always a departure from or, at least, a control of nature. Perhaps, those who have developed gardens of perpetual perfection as discussed above have simply moved further than most along the continuum between what nature dictates and what the gardener can control. We can admire them for the lengths they have gone to in achieving such perfection though it might be a case of being happy to admire such gardens rather than imitating them. It is a question of how much control is too much.

Paddy Tobin

Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today,  Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.

The Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society meets at the Lavanagh Centre, Ballintemple, Cork on the fourth Thursday of the month.

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10 thoughts on “Too Good to be True?

  1. A thought-provoking piece, Paddy Tobin. The open garden season here in NZ is in full throttle. While it’s a good way to raise funds for charity, it also places huge demands on those who open their gardens to an often critical public. Many who do the rounds don’t actually garden, or do so because they have to “keep things tidy”, but see it as a nice day out. I have heard the comments about Sissinghurst echoed by a NZ gardening notable, Abbie Jury, who with her husband Mark runs a Taranaki garden famous for its magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons. She didn’t like it! At the time that seemed like heresy to me. I enjoy your writing, and shall look forward to finding the book about head gardeners.

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  2. I suppose gardens which are the pinnacle of perfection can be an affront to the ordinary gardener as they present a picture of what they have been unable to achieve or don’t have the resources to achieve. This takes them, in a sense, outside the realm of what is generally considered a garden – perfect beyond any reasonable expectation. I have enjoyed visits to Sissinghurst – parts are utter perfection while others are softer in approach, so I found a mixture and thought the experience very worthwhile. The new gardener must make his mark, I suppose, and a little bit of drum beating along the way attracts attention – not that Sissinghurst needed attention as it is one of the most visited gardens in England.

    Abbie Jury – the origin of Camellia ‘Jury Yellow’ ? This is a popular and much liked camellia here.

    Many thanks for your response, Carol.

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    • Yes, the same Jury family.The late father of the present couple, Felix, bred some fine magnolias which are grown around the world. Mark continues his work. I had Jury’s Yellow in my former garden and loved its creamy blooms but found they were prone to browning in frosty or excessively wet weather.Thank you for responding.

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  3. Hey Paddy, to paraphrase something I’ve read somewhere that goes – he said perfection did not exist..until he considered the rose.

    I know what you mean about ornamental gardens, everyone will have a different take but I suppose it depends on the intention and purpose of the gardener. Ultimately, nature will reclaim all 😉

    John H.

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  4. There’s a melancholy about that. Perhaps what we leave behind is an enthusiasm and love for gardening in those (our children?) who have been influenced by our toil.

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