My hubby is good to me. He recently took me on Bridget Jones style ‘Full blown mini-break holiday weekend!’ Fortunately, I arrived looking less wind-blown than poor Bridget did. This holiday was a surprise, and I didn’t know our destination until late in the day. We were en-route to the Weald of Kent to visit two of Britain’s most famous and iconic gardens, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.
Our garden design and nursery work keeping us busy throughout the summer months, so it is difficult to get away. This means we’ve visited many cities and gardens in mid-winter. And while these are always interesting, you never get to see a garden in all its summer glory. So it was a fabulous treat for me to finally visit two important gardens (that have been on my bucket list for ages) while they were in full flower.
Sissinghurst Castle and Garden
Sissinghurst Castle was the home of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson. It is a beautiful large property, and not a castle at all. There are barns, a Kentish oast house, and a tower which was Vita’s retreat to study plants and gardens when she wasn’t planting.
The garden is divided up into what we now call ‘garden rooms’. Harold took great pleasure in designing doors, connections and views that separated each section. What is most noticeable is the sheer number of plants and how vast and deep the borders are. This makes for interesting plant choices and gives the scope to plant in large groups, keeping the flow of colour going for long seasons of interest. Over 200 rose species are planted throughout the gardens and a lot of hedging, so a team of gardening volunteers are required as well as full-time staff. Sissinghurst is not a low maintenance plot!
The various gardens are divided into colour themes. Maybe the most well known, famous White Garden is lovely and comprised of (not entirely) white flowers. The planting includes textured, coloured or variegated leaves and lots of white flowers, but also cream flowers or those with a very pale hint of pink or blue. The other thing that was evident was weeds – the gardens weren’t pristine by any means, and there were large areas given over to meadow planting and wildflowers. Perhaps, in Vita and Harold’s day, these areas would have been maintained as ‘proper lawn’. Nowadays, even with an army of volunteers, it’s such a big garden that some areas have been left to grow more naturally.
Great Dixter at Northiam
Great Dixter was the family home of gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd. This garden is famous for its bold planting and our visit, the next day, felt like an assault on the senses. It was overwhelming to see such a quantity of plants and the size of some specimens. Again large, thick borders had been created a long time ago. Now, these are stuffed full of very well-established plants, some of which tower overhead. In places, the garden had a claustrophobic, jungle like quality.
Further, around the garden, there is a classic chocolate box view of the house itself (a 15th century manor house re-designed and augmented by Sir Edwin Lutyens). To one side is the Long Border – a proper cottage garden style bed which is as deep as some of the small gardens I have designed are wide.
An unexpected treat at Great Dixter was a fantastic plant nursery. This contained plants grown on from seed or cuttings from those growing in the borders in the garden. I did buy some to take home, and no, I haven’t had time to plant them yet.
So our mini break weekend, like all good things, had to come to an end, and fortunately, Keith didn’t fall in the lake as Hugh Grant did. The long journey back home was slow, but that gave me time to reflect on just how lucky we are to have such well loved stately homes and gardens to visit in this country, to inspire us to improve our little gardens back home.