Like all gardeners it wasn't the farmhouse that captured her imagination but the romance of decay and the remains of grandeur which to her was preferable to grandeur itself. The soft pink bricks, huge old barn, romantic moat, and long views over the countryside entranced her. Even more importably the tower caught her imagination - she wrote that she had dreamed of writing in her own tower since childhood.
Harold Nicolson saw it a couple of days later in the rain and was much less enamored, writing in his diary that 'it all looks big, broken-down and sodden'. He complained, only half jokingly, that for the amount of money it would cost them to renovate it they could buy a palace with central heating, hunting park and lodges. A close friend, the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote "we all thought Sissinghurst a gloomy place in hideous flat country with commonplace cottages and no view and couldn't think why they wanted it."
Vita won Harold over and their collaborative restoration created one of the most photographed gardens in England. Within five years of purchasing it Harold had the garden's structure in place and Vita then took over as plantswoman. In 1938 they opened the garden to the public for the first time for just two days a year under the National Gardens Scheme - it is now open almost daily and attracts around 150,000 visitors each year.
As fortune would have it Vita and Harold's grandson's second wife is Sarah Raven, a well known English garden designer and writer. She has written a wonderful new book Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden which is being released in America in November. There have been so many books written about Sissinghust I was ready to give this one a miss despite being a fan of Sarah Raven's writing but opened a copy in Sissinghurst's gift shop and was hooked. The book is a complete delight, wonderfully written and full of stunning photographs both old and new and is everything I think a gardening book should be.
Vita wrote a weekly gardening column for the Observer newspaper from her perch in Sissinghurst tower for 15 years between 1946 and 1961. Although nothing was overtly included about Sissinghurst in her columns, everything she wrote related to it and Sarah Raven's book quotes extensively from these articles. Vita's plant descriptions are fantastic, witty, affectionate, informative and funny. I really don't like Billbergia nutans, commonly called Queen’s Tears, but after reading her endearing description wanted to rush out and buy one: ‘It is more like a crazy jeweller’s dream than a flower, an immensely long earring in the most fantastic mixture of colours... with a 4-in-long dingle-dangle of green, blue, pink, and yellow, a thing to swing from the head-dress of a Balinese dancer or from the ear-lobes of a beauty in a Persian miniature.’
Vita entices her readers to plant her favorites and place them in her garden as she has in Sissinghurst - "May I put in a good word for dill?" Or of old roses: "They load the air with the true rose scent… Have I pleaded in vain?" Of Jasminum polyanthum: "I hope I have said enough to stir temptation." She advised: "Always exaggerate rather than stint." Why plant one lily when a 1000 would do, truly a woman after my own heart! I now plan to grow Tweedia caerulea in a verdigris pot, Helleborus niger as a houseplant at Christmas, and to introduce the incense plant Humea elegans into my life. Many of Sissinghurst's plants are for sale in the garden shop, strategically placed by the entrance parking lot. It was very difficult to resist picking up the fabulous climbing rose 'Meg' that scrambled gloriously over the front entrance, even though I had no UK garden to plant it in.
Sissinghurst was an all consuming passion for Vita, she wrote in one letter to a reader "For the last 40 years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation." For Harold it was a place where he could walk unobserved and quietly "read the Sunday papers while sipping China tea". Just before she died, Vita wrote to Harold "We have done our best and made a garden where none was". They would both be overjoyed that their garden still thrives and remains an incredible testimony to their joint artistic vision and collaboration.