Tag Archives: Vita Sackville-West

TO SISSINGHURST – IN JANUARY – TO ADMIRE THE ROSES

BALLETIC ROSE PRUNING, CRISP STRUCTURAL PLANTING, PREPARING FOR ‘THE EXTRAVAGANCE OF SPRING’img_3305

Immaculately choreographed, pruned stems of Rosa mulliganii against the sky, The White Garden, Sissinghurst.

img_8392 img_8395

Effervescent – also beautifully choreographed, obviously –  Burns Night Haggis Dinner in Peckham given by Jake TilsonJeff Lee and their daughter Hannah Tlison (above).

img_3377The Top Courtyard, Sissinghurst Castle, the walls laced with the curving stems of pruned roses.

I am standing at the entrance to Sissinghurst Castle barely able to keep myself away from leaping over the box hedge and forensically examining the wall ahead of me. It is almost the last day of January. The glowing end-of-winter Burns night festivities are over and after a freezing couple of weeks – down to -7ºC here in Kent – the weather has become milder and there is a feeling that things in the garden are beginning to get on their way. I am with Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Troy Scott Smith, who bends down gently to point out the emerging shoots of peonies –  for now just tiny dashes of carmine red against velvet brown soil. He is describing how it feels to be in the garden at this time of year “There is something nice about a quiet spell.  I think gardens that are open to the public need it. There is something wholesome about that full cycle, the contrast with the extravagance of spring and summer”.

Troy has generously agreed to show me the garden in winter and knows I am dead keen to start with the roses.

img_8516

img_3370 img_3371                  The entrance to Sissinghurst Castle, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’ against the brick wall.

To the right of a brick arch there is an eighty year old ‘Golden Rambler’, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’. Peter Beales describes it as ‘ a repeat-flowering Noisette rose with cascading clusters of double, shapely flowers, yellow with ‘eggy’ centres paling to cream and eventually white at the edges. Highly perfumed and producing long, slightly spindly branches ideal for arches and trellises’. It is wonderful to see how carefully and cleverly the rose has been pruned for maximum coverage and softly-falling flowering. Long stems are retained and curved to form softly rounded steps and counter-steps against the wall. There are plenty of the horizontal stems (necessary for maximum flowering),  but the whole system is flowing rather than rigid, as so much rose-pruning tends to end up. These gentle shapes will be entirely achievable (I tell myself) if I look hard enough at these images and use them as a guide next time I head out into the garden with my secateurs ….

I feel a little pressurised to learn that rose-pruning at Sissinghurst is almost over – indeed pruning began on October 15th! The climbing roses against the walls go first – ‘for two reasons: first it is cold and windy high up, second we can clear the beds after pruning at the right time of year.’ Troy uses the classic Nutscene garden twine (in green) and was so frustrated with the flimsiness/garishness of modern vine eyes that he had a mould made of an old one and now a blacksmith keeps the garden supplied with these bespoke chunky vine eyes for the 2mm wires that stretch along the brick. ‘We tend to go twice round the wire and once round the stem of the rose’.img_8605                                                                  Nutscene garden twine.

img_8581             Troy Scott Smith’s handmade vine eyes based on an old example from the garden.

When the roses have been pruned they are given fertiliser (Sissinghurst has its own recipe: 2 parts Sulphate of Potash to 1 part Kieserite), and then a layer of compost – ‘compost is an underrated thing’ sighs Troy – is spread at the base of the plant. Once the buds have started to break in mid March, a fortnightly spraying regime begins – it takes two gardeners two hours to get round the extensive rose collection. There is a wisdom combined with an experimental curiosity in Troy’s approach which I will see again and again over the course of the morning. He will try out different combinations of traditional fungicides and Savona soap solution and regularly sprays with liquid seaweed feed or SB Plant Invigorator (which is new to me and looks impressive) too. ‘We pause for the main flowering period June, July. Last year we did a little bit of an experiment where we didn’t spray a number of roses for the last part of the summer’. The blackspot and rust came back with vigour but he is happy that he has tried.
sb-plant

SB Plant Invigorator.

Against the entrance arch the octogenarian ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ is not as vigorous as it used to be so instead of trying to get it to stretch over the entire arch it has been ‘retreated’ to one side and a new ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ planted on the opposite side of the arch so that the two can meet.

Ageing plants provide a constant challenge for Troy and his team throughout the garden. In the White Garden there is a famous central arbour smothered in Rosa mulligani .

rosa-mulliganii

Rosa mulliganii in flower.

 In fact, to maintain a spectacular display of this fragrant rose (believed to be the biggest of climbing rose available in the UK), there are now three roses, the original one, a second one planted by the previous Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Alexis Datta, and now Troy has added a third rose – all trained over the iron arbour designed by Nigel Nicholson, with assistance from rose expert Graham Stuart Thomas, when the original rose was at its most vigorous. The pruning regime of the three roses remains the same with the aim of producing spare, dancing ‘living lace’  that stops the heart on this cold winter day and will produce an incredible frothing canopy of white in midsummer.

img_3307

img_8412

img_8408 img_8411 The Rosa muliganii arbour in The White Garden – the stems of the rose are pruned into heartstoppingly beautiful ‘Living Lace’.

Elsewhere in the garden the same looping pruning discipline prevails – against walls, next to a spur-pruned apple tree at the back of the shop, along strong wire to create a stand alone rose ‘fence’ and, looking particularly handsome on this grey January day, against the white clapboard building next to the café:

img_8475

img_8573 img_8489img_8545

img_8560img_8542

The Sissinghurst ‘living lace’ style of rose pruning against walls and fences.

In the walled Rose Garden the shrub roses are supposed to be finished by the end of the week.  There is a rhythmic calm as the team (there are six full time gardeners, two part time gardeners and a number of invaluable volunteers) make their way through the space, pruning and clearing as they go, creating a low creeping world of supple crinolines and elegant towers. The crinolines are created by arching the new, flexible stems into semi-circles and training these onto hazel hoops or ‘benders’ in the ground.

img_8464

img_8469           img_3368Shrub roses, trained into Louise Bourgoi-like spider shapes, take over the Rose Garden.

The South facing Rose Garden walls are dizzy with fabulously tangled figs. It is fascinating to see, again, how crucial curves are to achieve the right sort of comfortable fullness when the figs come into leaf. Pruning the figs is a finely judged matter – it takes place as late as possible at Sissinghurst because of the tenderness of the figs. But in a warm spell the leaves break fast so when the moment comes the walls need to be tackled at speed.

img_8465 img_3342

The fabulously tangled wall trained figs – pruning to take place as late as possible.

As we watch the steady transformation of the taller shrub roses from stands of impenetrable shagginess to clearly defined towers with neat scalloped frames, Troy explains his plans to reintroduce an avenue of cherry trees into the Rose Garden. Despite extensive research, it is not known which cherries Vita Sackville-West originally planted so he has decided on the winter flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella autumnalis) which she is known to have liked and which crucially has a reasonably  light  canopy. Obviously the moment you plant trees in a border there will be a knock-on effect on the planting beneath it … …’The only problem with the winter flowering cherry is that visitors won’t really see it’ he adds with a slightly anxious laugh (giving me a glimpse for a moment of the incredible number of ingredients that must be juggled for every decision made in this world famous, historic garden), but then he is reassured by the fact that the Rose Garden can be seen from the Tower and glimpsed en route to the the newly open-to-the-public South Cottage, both of which are open throughout the winter.

img_8467 img_3367The transformation of a taller shrub rose.

img_3366

The compact boards which are used throughout the borders during pruning to protect the heavy clay soil.

As I walk to take in the famous view from the Tower I am reminded that there is one rose in the garden which will not, of course, be pruned until just after it has flowered. The thornless evergreen rambler, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, is one of the earliest roses to flower – it has clusters of pale lemon flowers in late spring – and at Sissinghurst it forms a delicate screen of foliage in the central arch which beckons you onwards and which will explode into a haze of yellow later in the year.

img_8558 img_8580 img_8576

Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ against the arch that separates the Top Courtyard from the Lower Courtyard.

Once at the top of the tower it is a complete pleasure to take in the clean-edged sculptural quality of the yew hedges and the quartet of Irish yews in the garden of South Cottage. If you are ever flagging in your faith in the power of structure in the garden, head to Sissinghurst as early in the year as you can (the entire garden will be open this year from March 11th).

img_3379 img_3381The clean lines of yew hedges especially seen from the Tower.

Within the garden the hedges play a shifting series of roles. Here, tight clipped yew provides ballast and guides the eye firmly into the distance:

img_8488                                     Yew hedges guide the eye firmly into the distance.

Elsewhere the velvet green planes provide a wonderful back-drop to red winter stems or the pale silvery buds of magnolia  :

img_3349img_8570Red winter stems and silvery magnolia buds against velvety green yew.

I love this glimpse of the Herb Garden with pea sticks leaning ready for action against the wooden bench which nestles so comfortably between buttresses of yew. The bleached-out, silvery-mauve aromatic plants remain soft and inviting against the vivid green backdrop.

img_3317The Herb Garden.

Not a hedge – obviously – but this mown path through the damp grass of the Orchard has a surprisingly powerful presence.

img_3310The serene Orchard path.

There is a considerable amount of important box hedging in the garden which carries the usual worries of box in the 21st century – plus particular stylistic concerns for this famous garden.   Troy is tackling the situation in his characteristic surefooted and gently experimental way. In the White Garden he wants to loosen up the low box edging for a more abundant, relaxed feel – ‘I think Sissinghurst became too tidy’ – but at the same time has to balance the more fitting, softer aesthetic with the level of irritation the narrower paths might bring forth from demanding visitors. He is relaxed about the way the expanding hedges are looking a bit rough around the edges as they are allowed to grow. If there is an ailing section of hedge he moves box plants from elsewhere in the garden to fill the gap (he would not consider introducing new box into the garden now) and, in case the worse happens – ‘I have the sad feeling we will have to take all our box out one day’ – he has just brought in a load of Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’ (the box leaved euonymus) to trial.

img_8416             Box edging in the White Garden – beginning to bulge satisfactorily.

Elsewhere in the garden the Lion Pond at the base of the old Elizabethan wall is brought alive in winter by the vibrant fresh green of some low box hedging.

img_8571The fresh green of a section of box hedging near the Lion Pond gives this area energy at the beginning of the year.

Yew and pleached lime trees are a vital and anchoring combination both at the front of the Castle and at the approach to the Lime Walk from South Cottage.

img_3385Yew hedge and pleached limes at the front of Sissinghurst Castle.

The four Irish yews in the Cottage Garden are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In this photograph there is the wonderful extra layering of Irish yew with box drums behind and then a clipped yew hedge directly in front of a section of  pleached lime.img_3364              Rich layering of Irish yew, box, yew hedge and pleached lime in the Cottage Garden

The Lime Walk is famous for its immaculate avenue of trained lime trees underplanted with spring bulbs.

img_3323The Lime Walk.

But of course nothing about a garden can stand still and it takes a skilled and subtle gardener to tackle the challenges that the Lime Walk quietly but insistently poses. Troy has changed the pruning regime of the trees themselves – bringing the date forward from August to Midsummer’s Day. This brings more light into the walk itself during the summer and leads to a haze of wonderful ruby growth.

img_3325Deep red new growth on the lime trees a result of midsummer pruning.

He is fond of this effect, but at the back of his mind is a slight worry that this pruning regime may perhaps be weakening the trees. At the same time the branches are becoming altogether too long and a further experiment is taking place – luckily on a shorter stretch of lime trees elsewhere in the garden – to reduce the branches considerably .

Then there are the bulb beds underneath the trees. I can see hundreds of Crocus tommasinianus shoots, but my enthusiasm is quickly checked as Troy explains that the crocus has become ‘so aggressive and spread so well that it outcompetes some of the finer tulips and fritillaries’.  Sections of border are being taken up each year, cleared, sterilised and then the bulbs (which are planted in mixed groups in pots to create as natural an effect as possible as quickly as possible) are sunk into the beds.

img_8440

Hundreds of unwanted Crocus tommasinianus shoots in the beds of the Lime Walk.

Then there are questions of opening up the area immediately beyond the Lime Walk so that visitors can stroll down unimpeded to the lake – and how best to do this of course – and beyond the Lime Walk is the Nuttery where the underplanting is also getting out of balance (Troy remembers a lighter, more dancing tapestry of planting when he was here before in 1992-97 ). Added to this, the mostly yellow azalea border across the path is about to be replaced with a much richer palette of azaleas underplanted with brightly coloured polyanthus (which Vita had until 1973) and glamorous peonies and lilies ‘It might be a bit bold in places but you don’t want to be too tasteful’ muses the Head Gardener with a grin.
img_8443                                                   Silhouette of pleached lime against the sky.
img_8431

img_8433The Nuttery – the underplanting is under review so that the epimedium seen here for example does become too dominant.

img_8427

The Azalea Bank left – about to undergo a 1970’s polaroid transformation.

As well as a host of venerable garden advisors and historians, Dan Pearson comes on a voluntary basis twice a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. I can imagine that these are productive and hugely enjoyable days much appreciated even by the most thoughtful of Head Gardeners..

Before I leave the garden I make a note of the straightforward plants which are looking good even at this time of the year. The blue-grey leaved Euphorbia characias is as always looking fresh and strong – such a great architectural plant that always helps an area of the garden look well furnished and happy.

img_8470

Euphorbia characias adding fullness to the spare winter border against the Elizabethan Wall.

At the entrance to South Cottage Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus look bright and fresh, especially perhaps because they are each given a good amount of space in which to shine.

img_8564Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus against the entrance to South Cottage.

One of my surprise favourites is this fine, spikey pair of Astelia chathamica which I admit to never having used, but which looks wonderfully at home with box and rosemary at the base of this aged red wall.

img_8515

Astelia chathamica anchoring the entrance border.

One sneaky inclusion in this list is Rosa ‘Meg’ which is also growing at the entrance. It is a rose I have not grown – and which was obviously not in flower! –  but which has, I discover, large, almost single, beautifully waved flowers and a delicate pink-apricot colour, with red-gold stamens. It would look wonderful in a garden with my favourite Rosa mutabilis whose flowers pass through shades of apricot yellow to coppery pink.

15094Rosa ‘Meg’.

Another new discovery is the rare evergreen shrub Distylium racemosum, or Winter-hazel, which is sunning itself on the left of the central Courtyard archway with some Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Sissinghurst Blue’ bursting out at its feet. I have tracked it down to the wonderful Bluebell Nursery where it has a rave review ‘a slow growing attractive evergreen tree from Japan… in spring attractive, small, red Hamamelis-like flowers with lurid purple stakes appear on the older branches’. One for the shopping list.
img_8578

 

Distylium racemosum growing to the left of the Courtyard arch.

956_2

The red witch hazel like flowers of Distylium racemosum. (Photograph courtesy of Bluebell Nursery).

The oldest rose in the garden is the ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ that covers the front of South Cottage. This was the first thing planted by Vita Sackville West in the entire garden and it is this rose that gets ceremoniously pruned first in the middle of October. I was charmed to discover that Vita had determinedly planted the rose before the couple had actually signed the Title Deeds for the Castle, a sort of guarantee to herself that she was going to make a garden here.

It is a move I might employ myself in some lonely country plot in the coming years. Husband, be warned.
img_3334

Rosa ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ against South Cottage – the oldest plant in the garden.

 

THE WHITE ROAD – FROM EDMUND DE WAAL TO SISSINGHURST

ON LOOKING HARDER, HARD WORK AND THE COLOUR WHITE

edmunddewaal

Edmund de Waal  – portrait ©Ben McKee

Edmund de Waal is a potter whose quietly radiant work pushes the boundaries of what you think a pot can be. After more than thirty years of friendship with Edmund, I should not be surprised that his writing continues to be intoxicatingly erudite and singingly story-telling. I have just finished the newly published ‘THE WHITE ROAD a pilgrimage of sorts’ and my mind is buzzing.

31K7POONV2L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

‘THE WHITE ROAD’ is the story of Edmund’s journey to find out as much as he can about the history of porcelain – the medium in which he makes his pots. He travels from his studio in Tulse Hill, South London to China, Germany and Cornwall “I need to get to these places, need to see how porcelain looks under different skies, how white changes with the weather. Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”

And you are there inside his head and looking through his eyes as he unravels the past and weighs up the present. His description of working with porcelain, the need to get it “thinner and thinner until it is as thin as gold leaf and lifts into the air” – thin enough to let the sun shine through, hard enough to ring like a bell – is a crucial hook. He describes the French porcelain clay he has on his bench – “the colour is of full-fat milk, with a bloom of green mould” – and importantly he explains how when he throws a pot he is “trying to still a small part of the world, make an inside space.”

a-mind-of-winter-01-767x1024

A mind of winter (2015), Edmund de Waal © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Mike Bruce

Edmund and I met on a student committee for the extraordinary Kettle’s Yard  in Cambridge – the private house and collection of art, furniture and found objects belonging originally to Jim and Helen Ede which has evolved into an important contemporary art gallery. Crucially at the heart of Kettle’s Yard there is still a home, with its modest, white loose-covered furniture and small jugs of flowers from the garden, alongside paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson and inscriptions by David Jones. The great perk of our student role was the requirement to be in the house as invigilator on a mid-week afternoon – escaping the bustle of university life and giving us time to think amongst the cast shadows and inspirational landscape of this calm interior:
k yard dining room

Dining area, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
pebb;es‘Spiral of Pebbles’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yard shadow Objects and shadows, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yardInterior Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
k yard window

mag k ypot k yardWindow recess with potted plants, magnifying lens and engraved glass, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

As Edmund tracks the centuries-old hunger both to create and collect the ‘white gold’ that is porcelain, it is riveting to follow his considered account of his own fiercely pioneering journey. A degree in English Literature was followed by two tough years in the Black Mountains “My friends were in London with jobs, writing , partying … and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oatmeal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to  disappear into the landscape.”

I visited Edmund in Herefordshire and made a ridiculous chart to encourage him as he laboured to build his first kiln and I still treasure one of his – now unlikely – rich brown bowls:
IMG_1071

Cox’s apples in a brown fruit bowl by Edmund de Waal

I visit him in Sheffield too, where he has set himself up to make pots and study Japanese. “I got to work. As I was starting again, I chose white”. Edmund shares with us his longing to get the white right. “I want poems that compare white porcelains to smoke coiling up from a chimney, or from incense on an altar, or mist from a valley.” Finally a year’s scholarship to Japan “I know how this porcelain feels.  Japan is where my porcelain changed.” From now on, Edmund is unstoppable.

IMG_1087Thin white porcelain – Christening mugs for our twin boys, 1996

‘The White Road’ takes us from medieval Florence, where porcelain is so precious that drinking from a porcelain cup is thought to prevent poison, to Nazi Germany where a chilling production line is revealed in the belief that “white porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul.” In 1708 in Dresden, after years of perilous pioneering, the mathematician Tschirnhaus “makes himself a little jar. It comes out ‘half translucent and milky white, like a narcissus.”

Throughout the book Edmund tries to weigh up the fragile and tantalising quality of white itself. Herman Melville’s description from Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ is a key moment “In many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas and pearls” – and he talks eloquently about the quality of light on his own work: “I’m watching the light play on the wall opposite me …great Gerhard Richter-like smudges across the top that move across an installation I made last year for Sue, seven stacked dishes inside a white lacquered cabinet. The top dish is gilded on the inside so that there is a reflective halo above it.”

I love the book because at the root of everything is Edmund’s drive to look harder, read harder and keep making pots with his hands. He is generous and inspiring. No-one is too young or too old to fall under his spell.

bear ed

Our son Arthur aged three at Edmund’s studio.

And if the book is not enough, Edmund has curated an almost secret collection of exquisite white objects, from Turner’s porcelain watercolour palette to the death mask of a Royal Academician, in the Library and Print Room at the Royal Academy.
lwq7kcyfjxnlidpe6egs

Two handled porcelain cup & saucer, Meissen, Germany, c.1715. Collection of Edmund de Waal

e1jqx52qatlplznwlexg

 Bust of a woman, possibly Ippolita Maria Sforza, after Francesco Laurana (1452-1502).         C.19th plaster cast, RA Collections

svxoncmobc2b92dkewic

Horatio Ross, Fir trees on the banks of Dornoch Firth between Ardgay and Fearn, c. 1850-60. Waxed paper negative, Hans P Kraus Jr, New York

And what about white in gardens? I decide to head to Sissinghurst to visit Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden to concentrate, if only for an afternoon, on the matter.

IMG_0984

Sissinghurst Castle, Kent

Unsurprisingly perhaps, using white in the garden is more demanding than you might at first suppose. The photographer Andrew Lawson, in his newly republished classic, ‘The Gardener’s Book of Colour’, has wise and practical advice:  “the brilliance of white means that the shapes and patterns that the white flowers make catch the eye and so are more intrusive than those of other colours in a mixed colour planting. Because they are light-reflecting, flowers with a solid silhouette, such as lilies or phlox, tend to stand out most among other darker colours.”

 I am looking out, as I type this, at a rather startlingly clump of white japanese anemones in my own garden that draws the eye away from the fading pinks and yellowing greens elsewhere, and needs to be divided and broken into smaller groups as soon as possible.

IMG_0062

Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Lawson continues: ” Plants that have sprays of tiny white flowers on the other hand, like gypsophila or Crambe cordifolia, create a misty diaphanous effect that is bright without being intrusive. Other colours seen through this translucent haze are fragmented and seem to shimmer.”

As with porcelain, there are of course endless subtle distinctions to watch out for between the whites of flowers. Very few turn out to be pure white and, as Nori and Sandra Pope lament in ‘Colour by Design’  (the account of their brilliant homage to colour in the garden they made in the 80’s at Hadspen, Somerset ) “please note that very often white flowers die badly – their petals turn brown and cling to the plant instead of dropping off.” And white planting schemes, because of their simplicity, draw particular – if you are not careful, unforgiving – attention to the shapes, sizes and textures of flowers and foliage.

Generally, however, as Lawson says “the effect of white in gardens is to lighten them and make the mood more cheerful” and this is especially so in shade. I love Gertrude Jekyll’s description of white foxgloves illuminating a patch of woodland –  she writes of the way they “spire up among the birches.”

Perhaps the ultimate trigger for the creation of an all white garden is the dream of a ‘moonlight garden’. White flowers (as well as pale pinks and creams) have a luminous quality and will remain visible after dusk. Vita Sackville-West’s winter vision of sitting on an imagined seat made of rough oak and living box and looking out at her new garden is as intoxicating as ever:

” When you sit on this seat you will be turning your backs to the yew hedge and from there I hope you will survey a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers….I cannot help hoping that the grey ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight, the pale garden that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.”

It is Saturday afternoon and I have not been to Sissinghurst for years. I am easily distracted on my pilgrimage. Firstly by the simple, handsome planters made from salvaged galvanised cattle troughs which look wonderful planted with just white valerian – Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’ – against whitewashed timber, or the billowing purple and white Salvia leucantha against warm brick.

cattle trough 1Galvanised cattle trough planted with Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’
salvia troughIMG_0867Galvanised cattle trough planted with Salvia leucantha

I am struck again by the Sackville-West/Nicholson brilliance of opening up the brick barn to create a perfectly framed view to the Kent countryside beyond the garden – and by the gorgeous patterns and shades of red in the brick itself:

arch with viewFramed view through barn, SissinghurstIMG_0857 (1)Barn wall, Sissinghurst

This is a garden with wonderful bones. There are patterns and rhythms everywhere you look.  Here the brilliant emerging shoots light up the dense framework of pollarded limes:

lime tree close upPollarded limes, Sissinghurst

Here handsome, dark soldiers of Irish yew, cast dark egg-shaped shadows away from the pale strip of path:
IMG_0896                                          Irish yews lining the path, Sissinghurst

Within the entrance arch there is a flurry of colour in vases to entice you:
entrance flowers

From top left to right: Dahlia ‘Pink Michigan’, Salvia uliginosa, Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’, Boltonia asteroides, Caryopteris x clandonensis, Salvia involucrata bethellii

I feel encouraged now to look at everything closer up – the delicate creamy bells and twining foliage of Clematis rehderiana – in such perfect scale with the diamond leaded glass window panes – and the solid, speckled antique-looking fruits of ornamental quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) and, further on, fat timeless rose hips against brick:

clem rehdclem rhed close

Clematis rehderiana

quince

rose hipsFruit of ornamental quince above, rose hips below

Wherever they can, the plants are having their tousled, exuberant, last-gasp September burst:

IMG_0976

Soaring rose branches, dusky pink flowerheads of Abelia grandiflora and Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba agains the wall of The Tower Lawn

I walk through a haze of rich pinks – Salvia, dahlias, asters, cleomes – and the very lovely shredded pink petals of Anemone hupehensis japonica var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’.IMG_0953IMG_0892
IMG_0960IMG_0956 (2)IMG_0969

Anemone japonica hupehenis var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’

On this hazy September afternoon, everything comes together in the Cottage Garden – which has always been filled with hot colours. Apparently both Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson claimed this ‘sunset’ scheme as their own idea. I love the stormy silhouette of rounded black green irish yews and the tapering sky-scratching poplars beyond.


IMG_1006Silhouette of Irish Yews and poplars, The Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst

With the sun more helpfully behind me, I can revel in the towering shapes – I particularlyl ove this leggy annual, Leonotus ‘Staircase’ –  and bicolour dahlias:
IMG_0995IMG_1012

Most of all I keep coming back to the wonderful anchoring, framing effect of the towering yews at the centre of which a verdigris coated copper planter is glows magnificently, billowing over with the bright yellow Bidens ferulafolia.cottagwIMG_1000

Bidens ferulafolia in a copper urn at the centre of four Irish Yews in the Cottage Garden

I have lost my husband, Nick, to a sunwarmed wooden chair against the cottage wall. It is time to go and find The White Garden:

IMG_0973

The White Garden was always going to be something of a disappointment, I suppose – not being June when the roses would be famously powering over walls and pergolas. Not very disappointing, of course, just a bit quiet and less obvious. I need time to start to appreciate the blocky patterns and undulations of the clipped box and surges of paler planting:
white est 2

The White Garden, Sissinghurst

From some angles The White Garden is teeming and a little shapeless in that lovely end of summer way. If you look the other way, patches here and there feel a little empty and end of season:
IMG_0937

The White Garden, teeming softly
IMG_0931The White Garden beginning to look a little empty

I like it best when there is a dense coming together of contrasting shades and textures – here the soft, velvety Stachys byzantina, the dainty wiriness of Potentilla fruticosa ‘Abbottswood’, the silvery grey of artemisia, and right at back the handsome architectural grey-green of Melianthus major:

IMG_0933

There is space in the White Garden for the sun to light up the bright green leaved Nicotiana sylvestris like a cool summer torch. The Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’ is going nicely crazy over an arch, and the delicate daisy we met in a vase at the entrance to the garden (Boltonia asteroides) is contrasted by dynamic, velvety green flowerheads of Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’.
IMG_0946

Nicotiana sylvestrisIMG_0940 (1)Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’IMG_0924Boltonia asteroides and contrasting Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’

I am thinking again of Edmund de Waal and would like to collect together a few notional plants to celebrate his book ‘The White Road’ and his Royal Academy exhibition, ‘White’. Edmund is so thoughtful about placing his work – in cases, vitrines, on shelves, plinths. Should I bring together plants and vessels? My mind turns momentarily to the lovely hand coloured photographs of Constance Spry flower arrangements in her books ‘Winter and Spring Flowers’ and Summer and ‘Autumn Flowers’ – so outrageously staged and old fashioned that I think they might zoom back into our way of thinking any time soon:

IMG_0007IMG_0016                                           Constance Spry flower arrangements

I can see this old French wine bottle working too – the narrow neck a perfect light embrace for the soft heads of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Westfalen’, Thalictrum delavayi and Hydrangea quercifolia:
IMG_2307

But I think I would prefer to suggest individual plants which Edmund might like to grow in his garden.

My first suggestion would be snowdrops – any snowdrops would be good. In fact I would wager that the simplest white of the single white Galanthus nivalis might be his first choice. Snowdrops are especially apt because of the way they increase and repeat to form a gorgeous rhythmic carpet to echo the way Edmund creates installations out of series of pots “like an idea unfolding.”

snow drops

A repeating carpet of single white snowdrops

If I had to choose a special snowdrop to be lifted into an earthenware – or indeed porcelain – pot whilst it is in flower and then lowered back into the ground for the rest of the year, it would be Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, with its clear yellow ovary and glimpses of a yellow interior. This would be to celebrate the way Edmund has used gilding on porcelain very lightly on some of his most beautiful work.

IMG_2144

Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’

For later in the Spring, and for their translucent elegance, I would choose the now increasingly rare Narcissus ‘Jenny’, a perfect, demure narcissus with elegant, light-catching, swept back petals and a subtle creamy trumpet. I could not resist the Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus either – Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus. This is a fragrant, later flowering ‘Poet’s Narcissus’ – for Edmund’s evocative storytelling.

IMG_2483

Narcissus ‘Jenny’

IMG_3954
Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus

For spring blossom – to celebrate the influence of China and especially Japan on Edmund’s work – I could choose any number of cherry, almond or plum trees. I think the white ornamental quince Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’ would be a good choice as the flowers have a certain spare clarity to them.  

IMG_2523

Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Alba’

For June there would be the flowering dogwood Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly’ – which has pink blushed white bracts to echo the slight blush or bloom on a glaze or piece of porcelain, carefully examined. ‘Madame Butterfly’ is known also for fantastic autumn colour and generous crops of pendant bright red fruit – so definitely a plant to shake things up a bit if this collection looks for a moment as if it is trying too hard.

IMG_4400

Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly

I think quince would be a perfect fruit tree for Edmund – a simple, oriental quality to the blossom in spring, large oval leaves which are fantastically translucent in the sun and fragrant, slightly downy fruit which can sit quietly in a bowl on his writing desk and be held when a little light distraction is required.
IMG_0003

Quince in late summer sunshine

My final tree choice would be Sorbus cashmiriana – for its porcelain like clusters of fruit and gilt tipped foliage against a brilliant September sky.


sorb cash 1IMG_1579Sorbus cashmiriana

But I haven’t finished yet with The White Garden at Sissinghurst.  Against one wall is my favourite white rose for a sheltered garden wall, Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’. A neat climbing rose with particularly fine, glossy foliage and glistening white flowers, held singly, each with a large boss of yellow stamens:

IMG_0908

Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ against the wall of the The White Garden, Sissinghurst
2770

Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ flower in June

Here in The White Garden the rose is underplanted with a completely magnificent swathe of autumn flowering bulb Zepharanthes candida:

IMG_0912zeph close up

Zepharanthes candida

Clambering lightly over the rose is the loveliest clematis  – with pink-tinged, white, bell-like flowers on slender stems – this is the Estonian herbaceous Clematis ‘Kaui’ which will flower from June to September:

IMG_2573                                                                  Clematis ‘Kaiu’

A strange coincidence occurs as I am about to recommend this group of plants to my friend. I discover that the other name for the species, Rosa laevigata (as opposed to the more highly bred selection ‘Cooperi’) is the ‘Cherokee Rose’. It was introduced from China to the USA in the 1780’s and has been long associated with the ‘Trail of Tears’ – the forced relocation of Native Americans. One of the most poignant moments of the journey related in ‘The White Road’ was  a trip to the Appalachian Mountains to track down the ‘white clay’ so valuable to Europeans such as Josiah Wedgewood and often so roughly prized from the Cherokees.

Such are the dangers of any kind of investigation I suppose. I am a little thrown by my discovery, but still think this group of three white flowering plants are a strong combination. They would be a restrained, elegant addition to a sunny studio wall.

‘VIOLENTLY IN FAVOUR OF A COUNTRY LIFE’ – VIRGINIA WOOLF

MIDSUMMER IN THE SUSSEX GARDENS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VANESSA BELL

PART II: VIRGINIA WOOLF’S GARDEN, MONK’S HOUSE AT RODMELL, EAST SUSSEX

I drive on from Charleston (see THE DAHLIA PAPERS June 2015, ‘A dithering blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples’) to Rodmell, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from August 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969. Unlike Charleston, I know very little about Monk’s House. All I have to go on is a memory of a seductive pea green drawing room dull of books, paintings and scarlet pelargoniums in terracotta pots, once seen in a magazine.

monk

The approach to Monk’s House, photograph © Caroline Arber from Caroline Zoob’s book Virginia Woolf’s Garden

The house is right on the street in the pretty village of Rodmell. The National Trust ticket office is cleverly situated a little further down the road which means that when you open the plain wooden gate and walk up along the first brick path that leads you behind the house into the garden, you feel completely as if you are visiting a private house.

The initial impressions are a little confusing. Almost immediately I turn into The Italian Garden. Here a pair of urns flank a rectangular pool and are simply and effectively planted with Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’. The Italian Garden looks dreamy and romantic in the tree-filtered sunshine, but was heartily scorned by Virginia Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West ‘You can’t recreate Versailles on just quarter an acre of Sussex, it just can’t be done.’

urnmH 2 urnsurn water

Geranium macrorrhizum filled urns and rectuangular pool in The Italian Garden

But next up is a disconcerting towering palm tree and I am surprised to see that the entire back of the house is formed of a lean-to conservatory.

MH PALM

Conservatory and palm tree at Monk’s House

Stepping inside the house I am thrown again by a clearly very personal collection of cactus, succulents and vines, together with well worn stripy canvas deckchairs, brooms and a garden table. Except for a single sheaf of leaflets in a plastic holder, the whole scene looks as if its passionate gardener-owner has just popped out to fetch something from the back of the garden.

cactus cupIMG_1442MH CACTUSvineIMG_1445 (1)

Cactus, succulents, pelargonium and vines at the entrance/ conservatory of Monk’s House

Once inside, I find myself quickly in the calm, green painted sitting room. I am convinced that this is the colour I need to use if I ever move into a country cottage of my own. As I read afterwards in Caroline Zoob’s completely absorbing book about the ten years she lived at Monk’s House as a tenant of the National Trust, green ‘was Virginia’s favourite colour and seems to have seeped into the fabric of Monk’s House such that one cannot imagine the house any other colour. On sunny afternoons the plants curling around the windows “green veined and quivering” cast shadows in the sunlight reflected on the walls.’

IMG_1428mh sitting room

IMG_1425Filtered light and shadows in the green painted Sitting Room at Monk’s House.

Throughout the small house there is an atmosphere of thoughtful, polished homeliness – as opposed to the academic chaos I may have expected – and it seems entirely natural to fall into conversation with a retired academic from Sussex University who remembers coming to have tea on the lawn here when he was a young PhD student with the very charming political theorist, author and publisher, Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband.

IMG_1446The Dining Room at Monk’s House

IMG_1435Portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell c 1912 with flowers from the garden

More complicated is the visit to Virginia Woolf’s bedroom. The bedroom is in a stand alone section of the house which opens out onto the garden – but there is something about its simplicity and small size, with its basic washstand and single bed that makes my visit feel too intrusive.

vw bed insideIMG_1449

Chest of drawers and washstand in Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

I wish I had read Caroline Zoob’s book on Monk’s House before my visit:

mon

Monk’s House is now owned by the National Trust and Zoob was a tenant of the house for ten years. Her description of the layers of experience of living in a house which was so famously lived in before by such well known people is fascinating. I love her account of the experience of bathing in the same bath in which Virginia Woolf bathed every morning, reading out loud passages from a work in progress. The bath is fitted at a slight tilt so that water level is always strangely angled in the tub – a detail that makes you smile and that catapults the past into the present.

Throughout the book, Zoob highlights the Woolfs’ deep-held beliefs about the relationship between a house and its occupiers. Leonard Woolf writes about this brilliantly: ‘…what has the deepest and most permanent effect upon oneself and one’s way of living is the house in which one lives. The house determines the day-today, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute quality, colour, atmosphere, pace of one’s life; it is the framework of what one does, of what one can do, and of one’s relations with people.’ It is an enduring approach to living which makes complete sense to me and which adds an important weight to visiting and thinking about both Monk’s House and Charleston.

Before coming to live at Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf were already greatly enjoying the simple pleasures of time spent out of London and away from their busy literary and political lives. While spending Christmas at a hotel in Lewes in 1910, Virginia Woolf declared herself – rather splendidly – to be ‘violently in favour of a country life’ – and when the lease on a previous country house was not renewed, the couple were determined to buy Monk’s House. Leonard Woolf remembers their first impression of the garden in his autobiography. ‘The orchard was lovely and the garden was the kind I like, much subdivided into a kind of patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, fruit, roses and crocus tending to merge into cabbages and currant bushes.’ And on 14th August 1919 Virginia writes passionately: ‘our address will be Monk’s House, with niches for the holy water, and a great fireplace; but the point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you though for you must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables. This is going to be the pride of our hearts, I warn you.’

It is a relief to get out of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom and to look back at it from the garden:

IMG_1506Exterior of Virginia Woolf’s Bedroom, Monk’s House

The planting that frames the door and window is very pretty in an abundant, cottage garden sort of way. The climbing rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’ – a good form is available from Peter Beales – is the perfect midsummer rose to grow around a bedroom window, scented, cupped flowers gathered in generous clusters. I love the way the outer petals fade to a bluish-white.

VW ROSE CLIMBINMy new favourite midsummer rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’

The rose is excellent in combination with the slightly frayed-looking, dusky pink Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’:

IMG_1451Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’

allium ger vw bedGeranium, lavender, forget-me-nots and alliums under the window of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

As I make my way out into the main body of the garden along The Flower Walk, I am surprised by the intensity of the birdsong. There is a fantastically peaceful atmosphere here despite the proximity of other village houses. The Flower Walk is beautifully planted with a range of dusky to intense pinks: astrantia, Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ and Pericaria bistorta ‘Superba’ for example – with sudden bursts of the same luminous, crinkly, salmon-pink head of Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’ as at Charleston. The handsome, boxy steeple of St Peter’s Church is a wonderful focal point.

PALE PINK PATHThe Flower Walk with the steeple of St Peter’s Church in the background

MH astrantiaAstrantia

MUTABRosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’

PERS GERPersicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ and geranium

ch poppyPapaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’

Further brick paths thread their way though the dense planting – Virginia Woolf described this style of planting frequently, ‘our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plymasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, cut from coloured papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.’ There is the pair of handsome terracotta urns much used in portrait photographs whilst the Woolfs lived at the house and a stand of brilliant crimson lupins which light up the view from every direction.

IMG_1476

mh conservatory 2Dense planting at Monk’s House – crocosmia foliage amongst geranium, iris and honesty, backlit by the late afternoon sun with the conservatory behind

IMG_1505

One of the terracotta urns much photographed in portraits taken when the Woolfs were at Monk’s House

lupin and lavIMG_1465LIPIN

Crimson lupins catch the eye from every direction

One of the most fascinating aspects of Caroline Zoob’s account of her years at Monk’s House is her thoughtful and detailed research into the timelessly troubling practical and financial side of creating an idyllic country garden. The available archive material ranges from diaries, letters and published ficiton and non-fiction writing and it is riveting to see how elements of the house and garden came about as the couple became increasingly successful and increasingly solvent. A surge in income, from Virginia Woolf’s novels in particular, would translate directly into new furniture, pictures, hot water, the car. In 1926 Leonard and Virginia quarrelled about priorities and how best to spend their money. Virginia wanted to buy rugs and armchairs and complained of Leonard’s ‘assumption that we can afford to saddle ourselves with a whole time gardener, build or buy him a cottage, & take in the terrace to be garden. … we shall be tying ourselves to come here; shall never travel; & it will be assumed that Monk’s House is the hub of the world.’

But they did continue to invest steadily in the garden – even if it was Leonard  who would devote days and days in the winter to meticulously pruning the fruit trees – and the garden continued to give them both huge amounts of pleasure. They managed to buy additional land beyond the original curtilage of the house and the orchard they created there was an important addition. They loved it as a ‘the very place to sit and talk for hours’, for its intense spring beauty when the trees were in blossom, and for its productivity.

orchard 2mh orchardbeehive

The orchard at Monk’s House, with mown and paved paths, and beehives nestled in the long grass

I walk through the timelessly seductive space, making the pilgrimage to Virginia Woolf’s Writing Lodge – a wooden building with a brick terrace outside and an apple loft above, tucked into the furthermost corner of the garden. For 22 years Virginia worked here writing her novels. On the day of my visit, the writing lodge has a slightly dry feel and is disappointingly shut. However, reading Caroline Zoob’s book when I get home brings the writing lodge back to life. Zoob tells how Leonard describes VIrginia’s disciplined approach to her work – when she was well – making the journey across the garden to her writing lodge ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker.’ I smile at Virginia’s rather more romantic version: ‘(tomorrow I) shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.’

But the terrace which emerges from a sea of cow parsley is lovely and alive and I can quite imagine the conversations over tea here, looking out over the water meadows.

IMG_1498

The Writing Lodge Terrace

MH BOWLING

mh grasses downsView from the Writing Lodge Terrace

This spacious, flat, tightly-mowed area of lawn is the final surprise. It was a perfect place to play bowls – and the Woolfs played competitive games of bowls against each other and against their friends almost every evening. Virginia wrote in her diary ‘now I am going to beat L. at bowls, on a fine blowing evening with the children playing with their dolls in the meadow , all the trees in blossom, and some heat in the sun for a wonder.’

Visiting Monk’s House is revelatory and a great privilege. I have learnt so much. I would not have put Virginia Woolf down as an enthusiastic jam maker or a keen bowls player, neither did I know that it was from the house – despite her love for the place even in the depth of depression (she wrote during a dark period in November 1921, ‘the worst of it is that the country is lovelier and lovelier. We have put brick edges to the flower beds. We have a garden room … every flower that grows, blows here. We have pears for breakfast’) – that she walked off on the morning of 28 March 1941, with stones in her pocket, to drown herself in the River Ouse.

It was heartening to discover that Leonard Woolf continued to live at Monk’s House until the late sixties, gardening, writing, entertaining and enjoying a lasting and seemingly completely viable romance with a colleague’s artist wife, Trekkie Parsons. The conservatory and collection of cactus and succulents belong to this later period – which all makes perfect sense. Monk’s House is a wonderful house and garden which has hugely influenced – and indeed influenced by – those who have lived there.

a8da7b7e3cf279dffad03eaed4d6c60f

Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House

Photography © Woolf Estates.