Thursday, September 7, 2017

Finally Sissinghurst Gardens

One final and very belated blog about my trip to the UK in July. The day after Great Dixter, we made the journey to Sissinghurst Castle. The day started badly as our journey was spoiled by a school mini bus that collided with us, leaving us a little jumpy. I have been to Sissinghurst before but not recently and the beautiful gardens soon took away the bad taste of the accident.

 My first visit was probably in 1969 - yes I am that old! It was a student trip, from Writtle College, organized by John Sales (we called him Freddy for some unknown reason!) John eventually became Gardens Advisor for the National Trust for many years.  On this particular day we had visited somewhere in the morning and then stopped at a pub for lunch. In those days I was very naive and rather puritanical and I, along with a few other like-minded students decided we wouldn't waste time in the pub but would walk to the gardens and get started. As you can imagine, it caused chaos when it was discovered that we were missing! Freddy was not pleased!

The gardens at Sissinghurst surround the remains of an ancient manor house. There is still a lovely old 16C house and a splendid Elizabethan tower  but its the garden that makes Sissinghurst iconic.  The property was derelict when bought by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in 1930 and they proceeded to create a garden that is even today one of the most spectacular in the UK. Vita and Harold were married and had a son but their committment was not exactly the norm! Both had extramarital liaisons with members of the same sex yet maintained a loving relationship. Vita was a writer and was very influenced by the author Virginia Wolfe. The garden is based on a series of 'rooms' each with a different theme or style. There is a rose garden, herb garden, cottage garden, lime walk and the famous white garden.  This was very much the fashion in the mid 20C and shows the influence of Gertrude Jekyl and the architect Edwin Lutyens.  Hidcote Garden in Gloucestershire was created at the same time in a similar style. Both properties are owned and managed by the National Trust.

And finally I was fascinated to see Vita's writing room in the tower and this  amazing old printing press. As a kid at school I was taught how to set type the traditional way and then had to print school programs on a press just like this. All powered by me on the treadle - slave labor when I think back now!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Happy memories - Great Dixter

Although now back under the blue skies and searing Californian sunshine, my memories of a lovely month spent back in the UK are still vivid. My husband Philip asked me what was the highlight and without hesitation, I had to say that my visit to Great Dixter Gardens was top of the list! Great Dixter was owned by the garden writer Christopher Lloyd, who died in 2006. The gardens and house are now maintained under a trust and open to the public. The Head Gardener, Fergus Garrett worked with Christopher Lloyd for some years before he died, so the ethos of the garden is still very much that of its creator. It has to be said that this must be one of the top UK gardens.

I met Christopher Lloyd a couple of times, once when visiting his garden many years ago and also when he came to visit my 'patch', when I was Superintendent of Grounds at Reading University. I was pleased to show him our beautiful landscape, lakes and many trees. Some days after his visit I received a hand-written postcard, thanking me but suggesting that it would be better if I spent more time outside with my pruners and less time behind my desk! Maybe he was right!


The garden at Great Dixter was his experimental ground and many of his plantings may originally have seemed ambitious or even outrageous but time has shown that his eye and imagination rarely failed. Some years ago he cleared his mother's historic rose garden and to cries of shock and horror, planted with a dazzling mix of exotic plants. It worked and this little tropical oasis is undoubtedly one of the best exotic gardens in the UK. The bones of the garden and the design of parts of the house are by  Lutyens but everywhere the garden is filled with wonderful plants.

I once asked Christopher how he planned his color schemes. He replied that he never did but put any old colors together. I think this was partly true in that he tried all sorts of color combinations but I am sure he repeated those that worked. His book 'Colour for Adventurous Gardeners' is a classic! I was also thrilled to find one of my own books on a shelf in Christopher Lloyd's library. Opening it, I found that I had signed it with a little message and sent to him personally. It was a 'thank you' for a purple banana he gave me!

Monday, July 31, 2017

UK reminiscences - University of Nottingham - my big garden!

A month ago I posted about my little garden on my arrival in the UK. The four since then there were a whirlwind, visiting friends, catching up with family and several trips to gardens and art galleries. I'm now back sweltering in the Californian heat! In the next few posts I'll tell you about the University of Nottingham gardens where I used to work, Great Dixter, Sissinghurst and the Tatton Park Flower Show! Keep reading! A week after I arrived I was delighted to find that the Friends of University Park were scheduling a 'Picnic in the Park'. This was an event I started some 12 or more years ago.  The public were invited into the gardens, we had the Newstead Band playing, an artist painting and activities for kids. I was delighted to find the event still running and popular as ever. It was great to see crowds of people enjoying the gardens I had created back in 2000 and once again hear the band playing! 

When we first ran this event local residents visited and the most frequent comment was 'We didn't know we were allowed in here and didn't think there was anything to see but its wonderful!' Such an encouraging comment. And the Millennium garden was still looking spectacular. 

I did also wander around the grounds for an hour or so and was delighted to see how well maintained it still is and how shrubs have developed and trees grown! My favorite place, the Walled Garden looked fantastic. The rock garden is looking a bit overgrown - hope it doesn't disappear back into the jungle it was when I discover it 15 years ago.  Sad to see the prairie garden has been cleared - I guess a new building is due.  Bedding at the north entrance looks great - pleased that this tradition has been continued. Sorry - no pic of this.

The Botanic Garden

Hugh Stewart Hall of residence

The rock garden