Tag Archives: Sissinghurst

“A garden is really the gardener”

The woman on the left looked a little underwhelmed by Sissinghurst too

I have always felt I needed to whisper rather than shout that, while we enjoyed our one and only visit to Sissinghurst, it did not inspire us to return. Considering the huge influence this English garden has had throughout both the UK and, more surprisingly, little ol’ New Zealand, I have wondered if we were being overly critical, maybe “gardened-out” when we visited it.

The thyme lawn was not a crowning glory when we visited Sissinghurst

It seems not. I was just going to share the link to English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s latest blog  on our garden Facebook page  but then I thought there is a bigger context for this interesting post of his. Pearson is writing about his advisory work with the head gardener at Sissinghurst to re-personalise that famous garden, restoring some of the energy and also the intimacy of what started out as a very personal garden. Over time, Pearson observes, “The way the garden became was ultimately driven by the need to provide for increasing numbers of visitors and, in so doing, the intimate sense of place was slowly and gradually altered.”

And there is the conundrum when a private garden enters the public domain following the deaths of its creators. If it is successful and well-resourced, the expectations of the visiting public play an ever-larger role in determining how the garden will be presented and maintained.

… but the Sissinghurst tower did not disappoint. However, it is structural and therefore a permanent feature

I had been reading some debate about this in the book by Tim Richardson, “You Should Have Been Here Last Week”. As far back as 2004, he was sounding the alarm bells about Sissinghurst. Writing for the Garden Design Journal, he said: “Every day, coachloads of people turn up at Sissinghurst to experience Vita Sackville-West’s garden, yet what they get bears no relation to the original in terms of content or atmosphere”. Further on in the book is his 2015 update, welcoming the appointment of Troy Scott Smith as new head gardener with Dan Pearson in an advisory role.

We have watched with interest the developments of the “regional gardens” in Taranaki – the ratepayer funded gardens of Tupare and Hollards (both created as very personal visions with owners long dead now) and Pukeiti. When the takeover was first being promoted by the regional council, I wrote several strong pieces for the local paper (see below), frankly alarmed at what was being proposed, let alone the budget. In the years since, we have backed off expressing our views publicly about what is happening in these gardens. All I can say is that in my last visit to Hollards, I felt that the originators, Bernard and Rose Hollard, had pretty much disappeared, bar some faded photographic display cut-outs of Bernie.

The faded life-size cut-out of Bernard Hollard is a little poignant

I don’t think these gardens are a victim so much of their own success – we simply don’t get enough garden visitors to Taranaki to put extreme pressure on gardens. I think they are a victim of the drive to attract numbers of general visitors to justify the expenditure. If that means sacrificing the original ambience and character of these gardens, then so be it.

Matched by faded information boards, purportedly written in the first person. Was the term “food forest” even heard of when Bernard Hollard was still alive?

Mark knew Bernie, as he was known to his family and friends, personally and is adamant that he would never have grown yams in an old tractor tyre and indeed his tidy vegetable garden was hidden away from public view

Pearson captures it in a nutshell, when he writes: “Even when the blueprint is strong, gardens can easily assume a different character, for a garden is really the gardener.”

Hollards’ modest home was demolished to make way for a visitor centre, designed in the style I call “Utility Department of Conservation”

Earlier published columns on the topic of regional gardens:

1) A letter from a ratepayer. Published July 2010 I am not sure I would be brave enough to publish this piece in the newspaper these days. I must have been more fearless back then.
2) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
4) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
5) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. (first published 2005). When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

Learning from the Old Country – the appeal of traditional English crafts

Reality didn't quite match the romantic mental image - charcoal making at Hestercomb

Reality didn't quite match the romantic mental image - charcoal making at Hestercomb

Prime Television appears more willing to deliver gardening programmes to us than TV1. Clearly the head of programming on the state owned channels is no gardener – maybe we just don’t fit the target demographic? It seems a long time since we have had any garden programme, good or otherwise, on state-owned television but Prime are currently running a doco series on the famed Sissinghurst Garden on Friday evenings.

For those of you not in the know, Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent is one of England’s most famed. Created in the first half of the twentieth century by a flamboyant and eccentric couple, Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West, it was cutting edge in that very pretty, flowery style the English do so well, confined within tight, formal design. It certainly helps to have huge walls and castle remnants including a splendid tower. Alas it fell prey to England’s savage inheritance taxes so the Nicholson and Sackville-West progeny could not afford to keep it in private ownership in the 1960s and it was given to the National Trust with the proviso that the family be allowed to occupy the house for up to three generations. The current occupant is the grandson, Adam Nicholson and his wife Sarah. It does appear that Adam sees himself as the guardian of their dream though it is the National Trust which provides the money and the labour force to maintain the dream. The rather drawn-out series is worth dipping in to even if you don’t find it sufficiently compelling to last the full hour each week.

You need Sky and the Living Channel to tap into some of the other back to nature lifestyle programmes coming out of Britain these days. I think it was a Grand Designs episode (also screened on TV3) that finally spurred Mark in to some serious attempts to get to grips with sustainable woodlots. We watched one man hand building his house primarily from green chestnut, harvested from his sustainably managed woodland. In New Zealand we are so used to the notion of kiln drying or air drying timber to season it, that there is little knowledge about which timbers can be used freshly cut and still wet. That is what the term green oak and green chestnut refer to, though to use fresh-cut timbers you must also understand the way each different wood will react as it dries out. We are not talking pinus radiata here.

I don’t think Mark is intending to go into building, but he is certainly interested in sustainable woodlots at a lifestyle block level. We get through a lot of wood here (most of it burned for heating) and while we are currently self sufficient in firewood, we can take that principle further.

Then there is the series on Saturday evenings on the Living Channel where selected candidates learn traditional English crafts. It is hosted by Britain’s very own Expert on Many Things, Monty Don. The first programme was fine – it had the participants learning traditional methods of making furniture using green woods (naturally from a sustainably managed woodlot). The chairs they made were delightful and I would be more than happy for Mark to get back into working with wood. He used to do a lot of it in the days before we had expensive children to maintain and he had more leisure. In fact he became an accomplished wood turner and we still have his lathe in the back shed though it has lathered there in pieces for thirty years under the delusion that he will get back to it. He bought it when we lived in Dunedin and it was entirely rebuilt for him at no cost other than a couple of turned lamp stands by someone who knew someone who worked in the Hillside Railway Workshops. Back then they called such freebie jobs “foreigners”. We still recall those railway workshops most kindly though Richard Prebble’s analysis of how New Zealand Railways operated was probably closer to the mark than many people knew.

The third programme in the series was safe enough – blacksmithery or forging. Mark watched with deep fascination and commented that they made it look really straightforward but I don’t think he is going to get diverted into ironwork. Nor to weaving or leadlighting which have also been explored.

From this (1950's concrete roof tiles)....

From this (1950's concrete roof tiles)....

No, it was the second programme that is causing me some angst – thatching for beginners. Everybody knows that traditional English thatched cottages are unbelievably cute, genuine chocolate box cute. It is just so much more aesthetically pleasing and indeed environmentally sustainable than our long-run roofing iron. And the life expectancy of each layer of thatch is about the same as roofing iron – forty years or so – though finding a skilled thatching team to repair your roof is harder than finding a team of modern roofers. It should be said that apparently you don’t replace your thatch, generally you just add another layer to waterproof the roof. The principle is that the thatch is packed so tightly that it directs the water downwards and sheds it quickly.

... to this, maybe (thatched cottages at Hidcote)

... to this, maybe (thatched cottages at Hidcote)

You don’t want a house fire. I have seen a burned out shell. Once the thatched roof catches, it is impossible to quench. Beneath the more recent layers, there may be dried straw or reeds which are 500 years old. Personally I am a bit worried about spiders and mice too. And maybe other livestock. I feel that the dry and warm under-layers of thatch may be altogether too appealing for them and they might set up home en masse.

So I began to get a little worried by the level of interest Mark shows in thatching, more than a little worried when he commented that he felt our house would look a great deal more appealing with a thatched roof. He has even tried making one of the packed bundles which are the foundation of thatching. With a gleam in his eye, he announced that he could now see a use for his buckwheat straw. It was with some relief that I saw the straw recycled as mulch for the strawberries and he observed that maybe he would be better to start with a smaller project than the house, perhaps a thatched dovecote.

We have yet to get an episode on making charcoal but I am sure it will come. The British are big on charcoal and, in the near absence of the gas-fired barbecue, charcoal is still popular (though these days it is more likely to be cheap charcoal imported from defoliating third world countries). We realised that charcoal-making is undergoing a renaissance when we visited Hestercomb near Taunton last year. The garden map showed a site for the making of charcoal. We were inspired. We even bought a book on the topic – this could be the novel activity to attract additional visitors to the garden. Or so we thought, until we came to Hestercomb’s charcoal campsite. The only aesthetically acceptable aspect was the repro charcoal maker’s hut which may have been cold and drafty and minus a resident charcoal maker but it was at least quaint. No, we figured we would leave the making of charcoal to the Taranaki Regional Council. It seems a suitable activity for the folksy rebranding of their garden at Kaponga. I wonder if I should offer to loan them our book on the topic?

The green breathing space

A restful green on a summer's day - a garden border in dry shade

It is a reflection of our benign climate that I can write a mid-summer column about the soothing role of green in the garden. Overseas visitors are often amazed when they are told that we never irrigate our garden here. Three weeks without rain is nearing a drought in our area of North Taranaki but I hasten to add that we also enjoy high sunshine hours. Much of the world is brown in summer and areas with winter drought or very low temperatures can be brown (or white) in winter, too. We are green fifty two weeks of the year.

As I brought in the washing yesterday, I contemplated the view from the line which includes the modest back border of the house. I say modest because it is the typical New Zealand house border which runs between the path and the house and so it measures about 50cm wide and several meters long. It is not always easy to know what to grow in a narrow border which is cool dry shade in summer and downright cold dry shade in winter but I did think it was looking rather lush, green and attractive yesterday. There are no flowers out at the moment so it was toned green on green and all about leaf texture and shape. The lapagerias clamber up to to reach the guttering and give height. These are commonly known as Chilean bell flowers and we have a towering pale pink one, a teetering huge white one and a red one all in a row with a daphne bush marking one end. There is good textural variation in the fine foliage of a maiden hair fern, the strappy leaves of a cymbidium orchid, a rather understated green hosta and the large, lush leaves of scadoxus, all underplanted with the mouse plant (arisarum). This last plant can be somewhat invasive but it has nowhere to invade in such a confined border and children are enchanted by the curious flowers. At other times of the year, the lapagerias flower and we have seasonal bulbs that come through but for the heat of summer, it made rather a nice restful picture of green.

Restful, simple green gives a breathing space in a busy garden. Most of us achieve this with lawns where the expanse of green is a little like letting out a sigh of relief. Paved patios and decking just do not give this sense of spacious rest even if they don’t need mowing. Mind you, I was raised by a keen gardener who decided that lawns had no merit. She would rather weed and maintain additional garden than mow a lawn. Widowed early, she never got to grips with mowing. I can remember when I was about nine we moved in to a house where the lawns were rather too extensive to manage with the old push mower. She bought a motor mower. After three days and a couple of site visits from the salesman, the shop took the mower back and refunded her money. They were probably deeply relieved to be shot of her. My mother’s aura did not mix with a motor mower. It would not start for her and she decided it was jinxed. She never tried to make the acquaintance of a mower again. She simply dispensed with grass. Now I think she was wrong and it did not suit her to see the role played in garden design by the restful green space.

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

No doubt many readers have been to Sissinghurst in England. Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson employed a radical device in that garden to create a space – a simple circle of grass surrounded by a high clipped green hedge (probably yew). In the wrong hands, this could look overly contrived, or even naff in a suburban New Zealand quarter acre garden. But in all the busy-ness that characterises the arts and crafts garden rooms of Sissinghurst, filled with colour and texture, this simple green circle gave a place to pause. There was nothing to assault the senses. The circular lawn, viewed from above, as one can because of the splendid tower (not to be confused with a viewing platform – the tower is a relic of the former castle) is neatly and obediently striped. They may not wish to unleash a creative or careless lawn mowing person on that lawn – a spiral, bulls-eye or even an untidy mishmash would not look as perfect as the wide and precise stripes.

At Hidcote Manor, Major Lawrence Johnston from a similar era and also with a busy arts and crafts garden full of small garden rooms, achieved a similar purpose with his Long Walk and his circular area – simply referred to as The Circle. The Long Walk is appropriately long, running on an axis spanning over half the garden and it is simply a generously wide mown strip of grass (no manicured lawn here – this was indubitably grass) bounded on both sides by tall hornbeam hedges. The Circle was tidy lawn bounded by clipped hedges and some rather large and splendid topiary birds.

Think of it all as the gardening equivalent of the sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses at an elaborate dinner party. A sorbet would be OTT at an informal barbecue but it is entirely appropriate at a banquet.

A good garden designer (the operative word is good) will understand the juxtaposition of uncluttered space and detail – that is one of their techniques. The reality is that most home gardeners in this country either can’t afford a good garden designer or they prefer not to. The DIY green space is the lawn. While technically green is a colour, in gardening practice it is perceived as colour neutral like the off white walls of the interiors of many houses. Defining the boundaries of that green space, maybe with clipped hedging, gives it more oomph as long as it is immaculately maintained. However, the imposed formality of the perfect circle needs to be managed carefully – you really need your proportions and context right. There is a fine line between circles with panache and being contrived, or worse – pretentious. The sweep of lawn is safer.

It was a revelation to us to see how effective the deliberate green breathing space was in both Sissinghurst and Hidcote. But most gardens will benefit from the framing that a green lawn provides and in the heat of summer, it makes even more sense.