Revitalising Vita at Sissinghurst

Troy Scott Smith, the head garden at Sissinghurst Castle, gave an interesting, informative and entertaining talk to the members of the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society recently. His appointment followed on the lengthy tenure of the famous Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger and later by Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta who had brought the gardens to the pinnacle of perfection, attracting approximately 600,000 visitors in their eight month open season.  He was faced with a challenge: to continue with the garden along the lines well established over the previous forty or so years or to make changes.

Sissinghurst (2)

Sissinghurst (1)

The gist of his talk was that he had researched the manner in which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had created the garden by reading her gardening notebooks, records and general writings and was now moving along to “Revitalise Vita”, to return the garden to a style which more reflected her ways and he postulated that in the intervening years since her death it had reached a level of perfectionism which did not reflect her attitudes to the gardens. Her’s was a more relaxed style and approach – she was an amateur gardener after all – while Pam and Sybille, consummately competent and professional horticulturalists, did things properly, by the book, correctly, brilliantly and perfectly.

Therein lies the problem of all gardens left in care after the death of the creator – how do we know how Vita and Harold would have developed the garden over the years? Of course, it is impossible to know and Troy Scott Smith, even with the best of research and the best of intentions, can only surmise and give it his best shot and in that one must wish him every success.

In the course of his talk he recalled some of the developments since he took charge. The area between the car parks and the entrance are more “gardened” to make them more attractive to visitors. “Meadows” (inverted commas because these instant creations are really not truly meadows and might better be termed “wildflowers plantings” or some such) have been planted near the entrance. A pond – it was noticed on an old map of the property – has been dug out again and the area surrounding it planted. At some time in the past a gateway in one of the walls of the Rose garden was bricked up. This has been reopened, a set of steps reinstated to bridge the drop in level to the area outside the wall where new garden borders and beds are being planted and views to the surrounding countryside opened.  The area outside the restaurant has been revamped with new furniture and plants while some of the old outhouses have been developed to host displays or exhibitions.

Can these developments be attributed or linked to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s thoughts for the garden? I am inclined to think that they probably cannot at least specifically though I believe that as a general development they certainly can. The gardens first opened to the public in the late 1930s when the admission charge was one shilling which lead to the visitors being referred to as the “Shillingses”. They later employed Pam and Sybille to maintain and develop the garden so it is reasonable to assume they intended to develop the garden as a commercial concern. The developments by Troy Scott Smith fit in perfectly with this background, with this commercial outlook. He is developing the garden in a manner which will both attract and facilitate visitors and it is of note when viewing the garden’s website that “Eating and Shopping” facilities feature more prominently and well before the garden. The garden may be the nominal attraction but the shop and the restaurant bring in most money.

Sissinghurst (10)

So, I believe Troy Scott Smith is “revitalising Vita” in a certain sense – the development of what is successful commercially in priority to the developments of the garden.  I am not surprised that he is making some changes to the garden and to the style of the gardening. Pam and Sybille followed by Sarah and Alexis had brought the garden to a perfection unlikely to be surpassed and to simply continue with this style would have committed Troy to a future simply as caretaker and deny him opportunities for creativity. Some of the changes made to date – “meadows” and pond – are very much in line with what is currently fashionable, a sense of conservation, a return to nature and a care for wildlife and I’m sure Vita would have been as influenced by and would have moved with gardening fashion as much as the next though this is hardly referencing any historic direction followed by Vita but a recognition that she would have moved with gardening trends. Troy Scott Smith is young, capable and ambitious and wishes to make his mark on one of the most renowned of English gardens. In this I wish him every success and hope the gardens develop as well as the car park, restaurant and shop.


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Paddy Tobin



Winter Whites

I have been busy – that’s an excuse and half a lie!

Truth is that I have been busy enjoying the snowdrops in the garden this past while and am using this as an excuse for not writing. I enjoy writing very much; find it very relaxing; a pleasant pastime. Then, at times, when I haven’t written for a while I have thoughts that I ought to write, that I am somehow being neglectful. It is often said that guilt is part and parcel of the Irish Catholic and, perhaps, this explains my inclination to think such thoughts, though that might be simply another excuse. However, it is amazing how quickly these thoughts dispel once I get my fingers tapping the keyboard so let me tell you about the snowdrops.

We seem to have a garden which suits snowdrops, a good rich loam which is slightly acidic to which I add generous amounts of leafmould when planting bulbs. We are growing snowdrops for over thirty years and began collecting different cultivars over twenty years ago. In our early years we simply grew the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and its double variety. That word, “common” is, unfortunately, generally used as a somewhat derogatory description but I am not inclined to view it in this light. This snowdrop is common simply because it is the best; it is the one best suited to our conditions; it is the one which grows best for us; it is the one which has persisted with us as a garden plant – and as a garden escapee in many places – for over two centuries. It is common because so many people love it and wish to grow it.

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A garden visited today showing a wonderful use of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis – simple beauty

A few years ago we were shown a garden left untended since the 1950s, a garden shortly to be cleared and the area used as a quarry, where there were many clumps of the common snowdrop and we did as any gardener would in the situation – we “rescued” as many as we could. On our return home they had to be cleaned – the roots washed to ensure we were not going to introduce scutch, ground elder or the likes into our own garden and we planted them into a patch of grass where we already had some crocus, a few daffodils and a pinch of snakeshead fritillary growing. We planted about 4,000 snowdrop bulbs – this may sound a lot but, after the effort it took to plant them, it looked quite miserable. After a few years they are beginning to make an impression though I think the fritillarias will prove to be the successful species in this situation as they are self-seeding generously there. I will watch and see and enjoy the developments.

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Various views of that grass patch with the planting of the common snowdrop

As for the other snowdrops, they are also a delight with various species and cultivars in flower from the first week of October until the end of March, six months of enjoyment right through the dark days of winter. Snowdrops are far from common, even the common snowdrop!

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And, snowdrops around the garden today

Paddy Tobin