Favorite Garden Books – Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) is a collaboration of sorts between Vita Sackville-West, the creator of one of the world’s most-loved gardens, and Sarah Raven. The collaboration is a very unusual one because Vita Sackville-West died in 1962, the year before Sarah Raven was born. But Sarah Raven is married to Vita Sackville-West’s grandson, Adam Nicolson; and the two have lived at Sissinghurst, where Sarah Raven has immersed herself in Vita’s style, Vita’s garden, and Vita’s written work, especially her garden writing. In this book, Sarah Raven explores the components of Vita’s gardening style, using Vita’s own words, mostly from her gardening columns in the Observer.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Sarah Raven provides context by recounting the history of Sissinghurst, introducing Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and their purchase of the property, and explaining the formal structure Harold laid out for the garden. Part two is the heart of the book; this is where Raven teases out the principles or “themes” that Vita used to fill Harold’s structure with plants. Sarah Raven notes (p. 69) that Vita “…was mainly a plants person, someone who loved and wrote about individual varieties and new discoveries” and that she seldom focused on garden design in her writing. In gleaning the elements of design from Vita’s writing about her garden, Raven has made an important contribution. In Part three, Raven turns to those individual plants that Vita loved, considering “painterly plants,” Vita’s indoor and container gardening, and Vita’s emphasis on cut flowers for the house. She then closes the book with a chapter on Sissinghurst’s recent history.
While I enjoyed Parts 1 and 3 of this book, Part 2 was the section I loved. Here, Sarah Raven devotes a chapter each to five themes that she identifies as the heart of Vita’s gardening style:
- A Mixture of all things – shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines, and bulbs all mixed together in the same planting;
- A sophisticated palette – Vita’s use of color, focusing especially on the creation of the purple border, the sunset-themed cottage garden, and the famous white garden;
- Cram, Cram, Cram – squeezing as many plants as possible into the space available, covering the walls, covering the trees, covering the ground, and even covering the paths;
- Flowering shrubs and their importance in Vita’s garden design;
- Scents – the importance of fragrance and Vita’s use of it in the garden.
Part 2 of the book relies heavily on excerpts from Vita’s garden writing. The result is that Vita’s voice, with that wonderful breezy, intimate style familiar to those who have read any of the edited collections of her Observer columns, comes through more strongly than in Parts 1 and 3. Sarah Raven has done an amazing job of blending her own voice with Vita’s; several times, I found myself going back and looking for the quotation marks to find the place where Vita’s narration ended and Sarah’s took over.
Although this book focuses on the elements of Vita’s gardening style, it also emphasizes her experimental approach to gardening. She combined imagination, boldness in trying new things, and a willingness to tear out what wasn’t working. This excerpt from Vita’s garden writing provides a delightful example of Vita’s approach (p. 76):
My system is more practical. I observe, for instance, a great pink, lacy crinoline of May-flowering tamarisk, of which I put in two snippets a year ago, and which now spreads the exuberance of its petticoats twenty feet wide over a neglected corner of the garden. What could I plant near to enhance its colour? It must, of course, be something which will flower at the same time. So I try effects, picking flowers elsewhere, rather in the way that one makes a flower arrangement in the house, sticking them in the ground and then standing back to observe the harmony….
One has the illusion of being an artist painting a picture – putting in a dash of colour here, taking out another dash of colour there, until the whole composition is to one’s liking, and at least one knows exactly what effect will be produced twelve months hence.
As befits Vita’s experimental approach, Sarah avoids treating her like a gardening god, making sure we understand that Vita’s experiments were not always successful. For example, Vita’s practice of planting roses and vines to climb up trees sometimes ended up killing the host tree.
Because Sarah Raven married into the family, has lived at Sissinghurst, and has known many of the family members and gardeners involved in the creation and maintenance of Sissinghurst, there is an intimacy in her collaboration with the co-author she never met. The result is a book I had trouble putting down and that provided me with vision and inspiration and practical suggestions as I work on designing my new front garden.