Posted by: marymarthatours | August 25, 2010

Two Quintessential English Gardens: Sissinghurst Castle and Great Dixter

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Sissinghurst Castle Garden and Great Dixter Long Border (M&M 2007 tour)

On a September day in 2007, our M&M Magical English Gardens tour went to two of the most frequently visited gardens in southeastern England, Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent and Great Dixter in Sussex. It was a day to satisfy every gardening taste.

These two gardens have a number of things in common:

· Each was designed by a dynamic, eccentric and creative horticultural talent.

· Each began with a historically interesting structure to work around.

· And each includes a variety of garden “rooms” and styles.

And yet, in many ways, they are quite different.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden was the creation of aristocratic author Vita Sackville-West and her husband, diplomat and journalist Harold Nicolson. In 1930, Vita visited the run-down and derelict property at Sissinghurst Castle and fell in love with the place. “I saw what might be made of it,” she said. “It was a garden crying out for rescue.”

After buying the property, the work of reclaiming and recreating the garden took the next 20 years. Harold was responsible for the garden’s mostly formal design, which Vita filled with lush, romantic plantings. Above it all stands the fairytale Elizabethan-era tower housing Vita’s writing sanctuary.


The tower from the cottage garden

The tower is the ideal starting point to begin a visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden. From the top you can see the perfection of Harold’s design of straight sight-lines and formal hedges dividing the whole into sections for Vita’s horticultural energy. You can plan your route through the garden’s rooms, and on the way down the stairs, you can pause to look in through the doorway of her study and imagine that she has just stepped out to check on the roses. Be sure to leave plenty of time to take it all in — the courtyards, the rose garden, the lime walk and nuttery, the herb garden tucked away at the far end, and of course, the especially beautiful white garden.

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The rose garden and the white garden as seen from the tower roof

Not far south of Sissinghurst, across the county line into Sussex, is the gorgeous garden of Great Dixter, which is a very, very different kind of garden experience. Like Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Great Dixter is the creation of an icon of horticulture, the amazing Christopher Lloyd. Here the structure is provided by the old farmhouse purchased by Lloyd’s father in 1910 and “reworked” by architect Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the framework of the gardens with their walls, terraces, steps, and paths of native stone. Within this framework, Christopher Lloyd experimented boldly with color, texture, and extravagance in his planting schemes. It is this horticultural ingenuity and excess that awaits the visitor today. From the moment you see the flamboyant array of pots at the front door, you know that this garden will be very unlike Sissinghurst.

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Masses of flowering containers at Great Dixter

Although Christopher Lloyd had died the year before our M&M group visited the garden, his friend and head gardener, Fergus Garrett, has stayed on to manage the garden in the vibrant Lloyd style. I thought that walking through the “Exotic Garden” was like being transported to South America.

After our visit to these two spectacular gardens, we took a poll on which garden our travelers liked the best.  Not surprisingly, the results were about 50-50.  If you have been to both gardens, leave us a comment on which one won your heart and why.  We look forward to your comments.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden:

Great Dixter Garden:

My favorite Vita Sackville-West writings:

· The Land, a long, narrative poem that won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927

· The Garden, another long poem, Vita’s tribute to Sissinghurst Garden, 1946

· All Passion Spent, a wonderful novel about aging and independence, 1931

· Some Flowers, short essays on 25 of Vita’s favorite flowering plants, 1937


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