Sissinghurst Gardens is a testament to the romantic and unconventional nature of the writer and poet who created it. When Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson began work on the gardens, the Second World War was fast approaching. The author’s lifestyle, which included same-sex relationships —most famously with Virginia Woolf—, subverted the social norms and rigid mindset of the times. Similarly, her gardening defied expectations of 1930s style; instead of controlled lawns, tennis courts, ponds and crazy paving, she poured her emotions into more freestyle planting.
loyal and true
To find out more, Speak Up met with Troy Scott Smith, head gardener at Sissinghurst. Over the past seven years he has played a central role in the ongoing evolution of the gardens, and their protection from the impact of time, disease and climate. As he explains, the garden remains true to the spirit of its creators.
Troy Scott Smith (English accent): It’s essentially Vita and Harold’s garden which we still have today, but it’s changed over the years. Gardens do change. They’re a process. It’s not a painting on the wall. So it’s nice to see and translate the insides of these parts of Sissinghurst where Vita wrote and where she slept and ate and just think about how does that translate into the garden.
Many people think of Sissinghurst as a quintessential English garden, located in a beautiful part of the historic English countryside. However, both Sackville-West and Nicolson took a deeper view of culture, the arts, design and gardening. The influences of their travels, experiences and global knowledge are everywhere in the gardens of Sissinghurst.
Troy Scott Smith: People think of Sissinghurst as this quintessential English garden where the epitome of everything that’s English. But when you look at Sissinghurst a bit more deeply, there’s lots of influences from across the world. So we’ve got Islamic influences, Italian airs and French references, that a major part of Sissinghurst is called Delos, named after the Greek island of Delos where Vita and Harold went in the 1930s. Clearly Vita and Harold were great gardeners, but also extremely well-read and educated as well and so they could bring these references into their garden-making.
A VISUAL NARRATIVE
Sissinghurst Castle Garden has been part of the landscape of Kent for centuries. As Scott Smith explains, Sackville-West understood that the skill of a gardener is to preserve a dialogue with the surrounding area and its history.
Troy Scott Smith: I think the best gardeners, the best gardens, have always responded to the landscape and have that strong dialogue and narrative — dialogue with the landscape and narrative that runs through the whole garden that feels compelling and feels embedded in the place rather than something imposed too much on it.