Let's Go: Sissinghurst Castle Garden Part II

There is so much more to Sissinghurst Castle Garden than I can reasonably cover. How does one even scratch the surface in a few words? Between my first post from last week and this, Part II, I hope to at the very least document our visit on a fine October day this year. I will try to scratch that surface.

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson were amateur gardeners, having honed their skills in their first garden at Cospoli, Turkey, and their second at Long Barn, their home near Vita's childhood home of Knole in West Kent. Having purchased Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, they promptly began gardening on this historic site and spent the last 30 or so years of their lives here. They gardened until the end, lucky for us. What makes Sissinghurst Castle Garden special? Hopefully we'll get another glimpse into a bit of garden magic here in Part II.

A copper container in the heart of the Cottage Garden surrounded by rather robust Irish yews. This centerpiece for me is what drew me in from photographs in the book Gardening at Sissinghurst by Tony Lord. More on the Cottage Garden to come. Also, the history of the estate was briefly covered last time, so I will not repeat it here. It is a fascinating one, worthy of a deep dive.

Beginning where we left off last week, we're headed to the Rose Garden. This is the west side of the tower facing the top courtyard. Through the tower arch we go. The rosemary in the foreground is 'Sissinghurst Blue', one of several plants found as sports or seedlings in the gardens and have proved to be worthy of the Sissinghurst name.

Turning right or south we enter into the Rose Garden. Here is the curved Powys Wall with an espaliered fig obscuring its left corner end. 

The Rose Garden as seen from the tower. Note the gate in the wall, also the curve of the Powys Wall can be seen in the upper right corner.

Gate detail in the Rose Garden. I love the juxtaposition of red orange bricks with blue.

The Powys Wall behind the Lutyens bench. Difficult to make out but the wall is a curved semi-circle, easily seen from above as from the top of the tower in my last post. The wall is famously covered in climbers, most notably Clematis 'Perle d'Azur', which was sadly not in bloom in October.

In the Rose Garden looking north through the Yew Walk to a sculpture at its termination point. Speaking of visiting in October, while the flower show that the gardens are so famous for was well past its peak and very few roses were in bloom, the crowds were thin. That alone for me is reason to travel in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn, although I would love to see Vita's color harmonies on full show another day.

Anemones and rose hips against the dark of the yew hedge with the South Cottage behind.

The Sunken Garden (alternatively called the Lion Pond, see the lion fountain on the right) with Osmunda regalis, regal fern, dipping its toes in the pond below.

The Yew Walk

Begonia sutherlandii behind the South Cottage hinting at the colors to come around the corner.

The back side of South Cottage, a rather shady spot with mahonia, Garrya elliptica (out of frame) and other shade-tolerant broad leaved evergreen plants.

Staying to my right the shade gives way to brilliant sunlight and hot-colored flowers of the Cottage Garden. The four Irish yews in the center of the garden casting a mighty silhouette were planted by Harold and Vita to add a vertical element. In time they widened and although Vita preferred the shaggy unclipped look, they eventually had to be reigned in and also shortened. Today, although they seem out of proportion, they add to the charm of the place, adding something unexpected.

Arctois and Tagetes 'Cinnibar' (likely) at the front of the cottage basking in the sunshine and warm bricks. The South Cottage, whose garden faces south, is full of warm sunset colors from spring right through autumn where I was pleased to encounter so many vibrant blooms. The term Cottage Garden usually evokes pastel images, however this was a case of Vita's romantic vision, her own interpretation of country cottage living in exciting shades in what was effectively Harold and Vita's private garden, the first and last they would encounter during the course of their day.

Grasses, dahlias, cupheas on the edge of a broken stone path.

A wider shot of the front door of the South Cottage. This is where Harold and Vita each had a bedroom, as well as Harold's office. There was once Rosa 'Mme Alfred Carrière' climbing on the wall, the first thing Vita and Harold planted here having found their offer on the property was accepted in 1930. According to Adam Nicolson, grandson to Vita and Harold, it died recently. The South Cottage was also part of a larger great house built in 1573 by the affluent Baker family to welcome Queen Elizabeth I.

Tagetes 'Cinnibar' were sprinkled throughout and are much taller than the typical marigolds found at garden centers. I should like to add some to my garden after seeing them here and also at Great Dixter, which we will see in future posts.

The centerpiece of the Cottage Garden, a copper planter Vita and Harold discovered on the property in one of the outbuildings thought to have dated back to the Victorian work house and its laundry program. Stone sinks were also found, they too were repurposed as planters. This image makes me swoon, the color of the verdigris in combination with the orange begonias is perfection.

The Lime Walk, a creation that was purely Harold. It was his "life's work" as he said, though this time of the year it seems rather simple. Multitudes of spring flowering plants come up in succession in the soil on either side of the pleached lime trees, Tilia x europaea, commonly known in the US as linden trees. I would love to see this garden in full bloom in person.

Bacchante sculpture at the end of the Lime Walk.

The famous White Garden is not so white in October. But one can appreciate its structure, the foliage and a few white flowers. Vita imagined this garden as an experiment in silver, grey and whites, including foliage. The arbor, seen here, is at the center of the garden, covered by Rosa mulliganii. It was designed by Nigel Nicolson, replacing almond trees that were grown in Vita and Harold's day.

Hints of silvers and whites show up well against the dark green of the yew hedge behind, the back side of the Yew Walk.

Clipped box hedges wrap arms around individual beds, containing the rambling romance of it all.

Looking south with the tower in full view.

Charming clipped box seat.

Weeping pear, Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' surrounding the little virgin sculpture.

Foliage is as impactful as flowers in the White Garden.

Detail of the Little Virgin sculpture. I have also seen it listed as the Vestal Virgin sculpture.

Some of the last of the white flowers in the White Garden.

The centerpiece below the dome of the rose arbor.

One of the many stone sinks found when Vita and Harold first moved in, repurposed as planters, especially suited for alpine plants. Gazania is planted in this container.

The lower steps on the east side of the tower. Climbing Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ on the left.

Towards the end of our time at Sissinghurst I took in the newly re-imagined Delos Garden and the Priest's House where sons Nigel and Benedict slept. Once attempted in Harold and Vita's day from an inspired trip to Greece, it fell into a slumber as a "not so successful" interpretation of what they intended. Better equipped with resources to provide excellent drainage and the microclimate Greek plants appreciate, it has seen a complete makeover in 2018 by landscape designer Dan Pearson.

A snag of what I believe was a pomegranate tree adds to the windswept Greek island ambiance. I recognize many plants in this garden, having large areas of dry gardens myself.

Wider shot of the plantings with a large skeleton of giant fennel.

The front of the Priest's House.

Wider photo of the Priest's House from the other side of the fence.

On our way out looking back at the arch and the coats of arms above. On the left is that of the Sackville-West family and the right those of the Baker family which was responsible for the buildings during the 16th century. The arms were placed there by Harold in the 1930s. 

Brickwork of the facade of the Long Library.

Stepping through the arched entrance and forecourt on our way out past pairs of beautifully planted urns surrounded by fluffy, romantic plantings of the sort Vita adored.

Walking away from Sissinghurst past a moody shot of the tops of the oast houses on the estate. These were used for drying hops and were indeed in use until 1966.

Looking up into the cowl, the top of the oast house. This type of architecture is specific to Kent and Sussex and these at Sissinghurst date from the late 19th century.

Pretty metal container outside of the Granary Restaurant, the former granary of the working farm at Sissinghurst.

An inspired moment by someone on the inside.

The Farmhouse on our walk back to town. This Victorian era farmhouse on the property is now a bed and breakfast. In Vita and Harold's time they leased it.

Harold and Vita in their garden. Photo by Cecil Beaton.

Parting thoughts...what defines Sissinghurst for you? Tim, I would say for me it is the stubbornness of human desire. The desire of Vita to have lived the opulent life at Knole but was denied her inheritence due to her sex, but who stubbornly hung onto it and made something better. It is the stubbornness of Harold to make sense of the awkward angles and seeming jumble that is the estate. The unique thing here is that together they took action and the results are that two very talented and creative people made a fantasy come to life. We could talk for hours about the romance of the place; the ruins, the Tudor bricks, the moat....but without Harold and Vita Sissinghurst would simply be ruins in the county of Kent.

As I totally appreciate maps, here's a basic map of Sissinghurst Castle Garden: A - Priest’s House and White Garden; B - Delos; C - Top Courtyard; D - Entrance; E - Tower and Lower Courtyard; F -Yew Walk; G - Orchard; H - Rose Garden; I - South Cottage and Cottage Garden; J - Moat Walk; K - Nuttery; L - Herb Garden; M - Lime Walk.

From looking at this map, it feels huge and also a little disjointed. The gardens themselves are about five acres (the entire estate is 460 acres) and in person, are much smaller than what my mind's eye pictured. Although there are odd angles throughout, what you can't tell by looking at this map is that sight lines connect vast areas across the whole garden. For example there might be a cut out in one of the many clipped hedges towards a sculpture on the far side of the property, and as a terrestrial creature it feels geometric when there. It also lures you to explore in unexpected directions and offers unexpected views. Trees are placed strategically to the same effect. You look across, past, through, inward, up and down and each individual garden of the ten or so garden areas, though distinctly different from one another, feel connected. You have pieces of areas that wherever you are, fit together. It's remarkable. And worthy of a visit that I hope you all have the chance to do someday if you haven't already. Also my fellow garden writer and friend Janet of The Paintbox Garden also visited this year (in June when the White Garden is in its full glory), I highly recommend a read of her excellent post here.

 That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you all and your thoughts on Sissinghurst and the great gardens of the world. Happy Gardening!


  1. What a treat to see the garden without the thousands of people there. Seems like it allowed you to really absorb the feel and romance of the place. I have read quite a lot about Sissinghurst (who hasn't) but find each book/article reveals something new. Lots of history. Thanks for the great tour. Looking forward to Great Dixter, a garden on my bucket list.

    1. It was so refreshing to have such light crowds, I'm sure it makes a world of difference for one's experience of the garden. Lots of history indeed, I'm afraid I've only scratched the surface. Yes, more to come with the fabulous Great Dixter!

  2. Anonymous9:09 AM PDT

    I'm totally smitten by the old bricks: both the South Cottage and the priest's house are so charming. I am surprised 'Mme Alfred Carrière' rose wasn't replace... not just because a white climbing rose is perfect to go with those bricks, but also to maintain the historical connection to the owners.
    The stone sink repurposed as planter with Gazania: perfect!
    The Little Virgin sculpture made me smile. She is obviously thinking 'where did I leave that trowel...' (it's that puzzled look I get all too often).

    1. For all the Pacific Northwest's abundance, bricks and stonework are few and far between. The bricks and stonework - I'm smitten too, Chavli.

      I think the rose died recently, as in the last year (I could be wrong, but the article I read was from this summer). I think there's also the issue of disease - replanting in the same spot - but I could be wrong. Anyhow, good take on the Little Virgin sculpture. Spot on!

  3. Another beautiful and informative post. There is so much to learn! The re-imagined Delos Garden only got a couple of photos. Why was this? Is it so much smaller? Not to your liking? Not part of the historical garden? I'm just curious.

    1. Thank you Danger! Well, only four or so photos of Delos - I thought I gave each section about the same? I loved it just as much as the rest, but two things - one, there were a bunch of people in there I was trying to avoid in my photos and two, FM was ready to leave. Its history is that it was indeed originally part of Vita and Harold's garden but wasn't successful due to the soil, conditions, etc. It fell into a kind of unfocused space but has only recently been renovated and is fabulous (but young). I could have spent hours there, honestly.

    2. Maybe it only seemed like less photos because I wanted to see more? ;)

    3. Ha ha...me too! I understand. I wish I had taken a hundred photos of Delos. In hindsight, I should have stayed there until the volunteers kicked me out but...you know, travel. You have to eat, sleep, those annoying things.

  4. I'm impressed by what they achieved while also pursuing other creative interests. In general I don't favor formal gardens but this one seems more like contained exuberance.

    1. They were forces of creativity on all fronts. Makes me want to kill my t.v.
      Yes, I hear you about formal gardens. This one, while formal in its bones, has that exuberance that is so Vita and wild.

  5. Enchanting even in October. It sounds like this place gets a large number of visitors in spring/summer and I didn't see any themed, temporary displays designed to draw in young families (like some of the public gardens do here in the US). Nice that they can draw in crowds based on the beauty of the garden itself. Absolutely smitten with the image of the wood chair in front of the brick South cottage with all the warm floral colors - a place to sit in the warmth, cat on lap, reading. Also love the Delos garden, though I do wonder how it will fair long term with all the rain that England gets. Sissinghurst looks like a place to spend the whole day. Thanks for the tour.

    1. I think they do indeed get a lot of visitors but it could be that it slowed down a little? I have no idea. But indeed they do draw in crowds of enthusiastic garden lovers. It's that way in the UK, though - kids seem interested in gardening, too. They grow up with it more than in the US and let's face it, the entire nation is a garden. The South Cottage is one of my favorites and that warm area, I think Harold used to sit there often. The Delos garden under great care has incredible drainage and has been pretty successful so far after a major rehaul in 2018 I believe.

      Definitely a place to spend the whole day and one to come back to time and time again.


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