(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 12, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Vita Sackville West was born on 9 March 1892 at Knole House in Kent which was built between 1456 and 1486. She was an only child. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the house came into the possession of Thomas Sackville from whom Vita is descended. Because of the laws regarding inheritance at that time, when her father the 3rd Baron Sackville died the house passed into the ownership of her uncle Charles. Vita was devastated by the loss of her childhood home and the pain of it remained with her throughout her life.
Vita was a born writer, and wrote poems and ballads from an early age. 'Chatterton' was published privately when she was 17. Her poems particularly 'The Land' express her closeness to the countryside. 'The Garden' won the Heinemann prize, and Vita famously used the prize money to buy azaleas for her garden. She also wrote 13 novels.
At age 21 she married the diplomat Harold Nicolson, and despite both having numerous extra-marital affairs they remained devoted to each other until Vita died in 1962 and had two sons. Virginia Woolf used Vita as the inspiration for her novel Orlando.
The couple bought Sissinghurst in 1930. A medieval manor farm existed on the site which progressed through many developments becoming an Elizabethan mansion where Her Majesty spent 3 nights in 1573 when it was owned by Sir Richard Baker who added the tower which still exists today. It is one of the first houses in Kent to be built of brick rather than stone and timber. In the 1600s the buildings became neglected. In 1756 it was leased to the Government as a prison during the Hundred Years War. The French prisoners suffered terribly in the dilapidated buildings and destroyed much of the house and furniture for firewood. The farmhouse was built in 1855, and the estate was put up for sale in 1928. A buyer could not be found until Vita and Harold bought the estate which included 400 acres of farmland.
When Vita and Harold bought Sissinghurst the garden was "muddled up in a tangle of bindweed, nettles and ground elder." When the task of clearing the rubbish away was done, a garden with large open spaces and beautiful walls was revealed. The Nuttery was one of the features of the garden that persuaded the Nicolsons to buy Sissinghurst, a symmetrical planting of hazelnuts which is underplanted in a green and yellow colour theme with Euphorbias, ferns and woodruff. The primroses which Vita grew have sadly died out. A stream was dammed to make a lake, and the moat wall was discovered beneath brambles.
The remaining walls of the Tudor buildings allowed the garden to be planned as separate 'rooms' but it wasn't until 1933 that the first plantings could be made. It was Harold who designed the structure of the gardens using strong classical elements in the paths, hedges and walls whilst Vita was responsible for the planting schemes. Neither was a professional gardener, and they learned through trial and error at the gardens they had at their previous homes at Long Barn and in Constantinople where Harold was based as a diplomat. Vita quickly laid claim to the tower which became her office and almost exclusive domain.
Harold's design used the existing walls to create garden rooms and a sense of discovery and surprise is at the heart of the garden's layout.
Vita's experiences in the garden gave her the belief that a not too tidy garden was not a bad thing, and she encouraged annuals which self-seeded among the garden beds. If a plant displeased her she was ruthless in replacing it. She was happy for the garden to have its own highlights, the lime walk and nuttery at their peak in Spring, the rose garden in which she planted a lot of old-fashioned roses was essentially a one-month garden in June. The purple border is obviously restricted to the blue and violet shades and similarly the white garden which uses strictly white, green and silver blooms all the year round. The cottage garden uses mainly hot colours in yellow, orange and red and has an informal, relaxed feel.
Many books and articles have been written about Sissinghurst garden and many visitors come from all over the world to see it. It has changed since Vita's day simply to accomodate the thousands of visitors, but the gardens remain pretty much as she and Harold designed them, although improved varieties have replaced some of Vita's plantings.
Vita's experience as a gardener allowed her to write a weekly column for The Observer newspaper called 'In Your Garden' between 1947 and 1961. Some of her articles were collected and published in book form.
Vita Sackville-West died in 1962.
Grateful thanks for the use of the Sissinghurst garden photos to John Roger Palmour
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