Kent part 2: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

Perch Hill shares a link with Sissinghurst castle, the home of Vita Sackville West, now managed by the National Trust. The link is familial (Sarah Raven’s husband is the grandson of Sackville West), but also  conceptual: in the Arts and Crafts tradition, Sissinghurst is split into several garden rooms, each planted with painterly swathes of colour.

Sissinghurst was meant to be a place of retreat for Sackville West, somewhere to write and be alone. I wonder what she’d made of the hundreds of thousands of people who today visit this Kent garden, inspired by its romantic heritage and beautiful planting. I also wonder, if Sissinghurst had not been created by an aristocrat known for affairs with women, including Virginia Woolf, would it get the same level of sustained attention? Perhaps not. But this is churlish; Sissinghurst is a wonderful place.

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Sissinghurst, home to Vita Sackville West

The NT go to great efforts to keep the gardens vibrant and in good order. As with so many Arts and Crafts gardens, Sissinghurst suffers from seasonal flowering (a rose will never look good in November), but the planting is so clever that as soon as one thing finishes, another springs into life. Easy to say, difficult to execute.

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Notes from the gardener

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A selection of flowers from the estate

The best view is from the top of the Elizabethan tower. From here, the garden rooms can be seen and understood as a whole: the strictly formal structure is softened by colour-led planting. The structure without the plants would look staid; the plants without the structure would look scruffy. This is the essence of Arts and Crafts gardening, famously championed by Gertrude Jekyll (although she was not involved with the creation of Sissinghurst).

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View from the tower down to the garden rooms

The marriage of two minds made this garden possible. I like the very modern feel of Vita and her husband, the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson – the artistic sensibilities of Vita were tempered by the technical nous of Harold.

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The marriage of formal and free design

It’s easy to forget now that this generation of artist-gardeners were revolutionary. If Jekyll, Sackville West and their like were operating today, their work would be the subject of exhibitions in white-cube galleries and the Daily Mail would huff and puff about the new-fangled way of doing things.

Over at Great Dixter we see the work of a more contemporary revolutionary. Christopher Lloyd met Gertrude Jekyll as a child; she blessed him to continue as a gardener. He turned Great Dixter into a garden of world-wide renown and lived in the Edward Lutyens-designed house his entire life.

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Great Dixter

Don’t expect pretty-pretty gardening here though. Lloyd ripped out the Lutyens rose garden in the 1990s and was reported as saying: “We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer’s gloaming. Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing”. His garden rooms are crammed full of plants, colours loud and clashing.

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A great forest of these loomed six foot high

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Close-knit and exuberant

If Sissinghurst is a garden for artists, Dixter is a garden for plants-people. It’s dedicated now to teaching and there’s also a workshop for green woodwork. Incidentally, Kent is full of locally-produced green wood products, from fences to gateposts. Much of it is made from hazel, which is coppiced and fast-growing.

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Hazel grove at Sissinghurst

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Green wood hurdles at Great Dixter

The combination of the artistic eye, structured design, technical ability and working with the landscape: this is the essence of the great Kent gardens.

Kent part 1: Perch Hill

Confession: I have a girl crush. I’ve been ruthlessly marketed to and have fallen like a sucker. In short, I’ve been got by Sarah Raven.

If you’re not aware of Sarah Raven, she’s a writer, broadcaster and gardener who also has a very successful business selling seeds, plants, cookery and gardening classes and a certain kind of lifestyle.

My family do not understand this crush. It’s because they don’t tick the demographic boxes: my Mum’s too good at gardening to fall for all the pretty pictures in the seed catalogue, and the men are, well, men. As someone who works in marketing, I am woefully aware that I’m falling for a clever branding exercise…but nonetheless I’m willing to be seduced.

So we went to Kent to poke around Perch Hill, the public face of Sarah Raven, and whilst there also took a look at those classic gardens, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.

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Perch Hill, the public-facing garden of Sarah Raven. There’s spaces devoted to veg, herbs, flowers for cutting, plus many opportunities to spend hard-earned cash.

The concept behind Perch Hill makes a huge amount of sense to me. The point is this: grow flowers for cutting (TICK!). Grow veg for eating (TICK!). Grow the two together so that your garden is pretty (TICK!). Cook what you grow (TICK! TICK! TICK!). Grow stuff all year round so there’s always something to eat (I’m still working on that bit).

Perch Hill is made up of lots of smaller garden rooms, devoted to flowers, veg, herbs and so on. I’ve come away with several ideas for next year’s allotmenting.

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The cutting garden is framed by rusted arches

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A classic view of Kent with oast house, tiling and wood

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Grasses break up the flowers in the cutting garden

First idea to pinch: bright sweet peas were grown against firm meshing. On the allotments a lot of people use flimsy net reclaimed from building sites, but this looks smarter and more able to survive a few years of Brummie weather.

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Idea to steal: sweet peas grow in abundance up semi-permanent willow structures fitted with wire mesh

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This planting style looks familiar… bishop’s finger with white cosmos

The flimsy mesh though would be useful in holding up floppy flowers:

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Idea to steal: The cosmos and other tall flowers are grown through mesh to stop them flopping over

In the cutting garden, flowers are grown in blocks through supportive string frameworks. This dahlia caught my eye, a vivid lurid orange.

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Dahlias are out in Kent. This one is called Happy Halloween.

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Idea to steal: Dahlias are grown in blocks through string support. I think this is easier to do than a lot of individual staking.

I have a lot of white flowers this year, which frame the purple lavender, nigella and sweet peas well. Next year I’d like more bright colours, possibly including this extravagant cosmos.

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Agapanthus give shots of blue colour

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Drifts of lavender line the paths

Over to the veg. There were still baby courgette plants pushing through the soil, and masses of kale and brassicas. Plus a few surprises including quinoa, which I’ve never seen in plant-form before.

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To the veg: we’re growing this variety of onion, but there’s still a way to go before ours get this big

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Cavalo nero envy. Mine are still seedlings, the first sowing have been scoffed by the slug

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This is quinoa! It’s a long flower spike. Who knew?

There’s also a massive greenhouse and converted barn, home to the cookery school and shop. The antiqued vases gave me a mental note to take a look in charity shops for old glass at a fraction of the price.

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Matt cannot stay away from wood; these massive doors frame the barn.

The crush continues…