In Focus: How an amateur gardener created Sissinghurst, one of the most influential gardens ever made

'No garden had greater influence in the second half of the 20th century' according to John Sales, the National Trust's former head gardener. Jack Watkins tells the tale of Vita Sackville-West's momumental achievements in creating the gardens at Sissinghurst.

‘It is impossible to calculate the number of roses which are climbing up old apple trees as a result of visits to Sissinghurst,’ wrote the late Anne Scott-James, author of the best-selling Sissinghurst — The Making of a Garden. Despite its country-house setting conferring a scale beyond that of the most amply proportioned cottage garden, Sissinghurst’s inspirational hold on amateur gardeners spans the generations, because its creator Vita Sackville-West was — or at least started out as — a novice gardener herself.

She was born in 1892 a few miles north-west at Knole, another of Kent’s ancient High Weald estates, and had been dabbling in planting long before she and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson (1886–1968), purchased Sissinghurst in 1930. Early interest was sparked by a brief sojourn at a hillside property in Constantinople when accompanying Nicolson on his travels after their marriage in 1913. The exuberant colours and profusion of vegetation running wild in its abandoned garden made a deep impression.

Portrait of British author and gardener Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (born Victoria Sackville-West, 1892 – 1962), a cigarette in her hand, as she poses in her home at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, in 1939 Photo by Gisele Freund/Photo Researchers History/Getty Images

Two years later, the couple bought Long Barn, a house of medieval origin not far from Knole. As well as visiting the sage of informal gardening, Gertrude Jekyll — Sackville-West described her as ‘rather fat, and rather grumbly’ — planting schemes undertaken there between 1915 and 1930 were a trial run for the more fully realised vision at Sissinghurst.

The latter has been described as an attempt by Sackville-West to recreate Knole, a Jacobean pile awarded to her ancestor, Thomas Sackville, by Elizabeth I in 1566. She loved Knole deeply, but was bitterly aware that, as a female, she would never inherit, despite being an only child (the estate passed to her cousin on her father’s death in 1928).

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Sissinghurst, by contrast, was derelict, with only a turreted, pink-brick Tudor gatehouse, towering above the remnants of a moat, surviving from its 16th-century heyday. Repurposed at various times as a military prison and a poorhouse, it had most recently been used as farm buildings and occupied by farm labourers. ‘The slum-like effect, produced by both man and Nature, was squalid to a degree,’ Sackville-West recalled.

Yet, she observed, ‘it caught instantly at my heart and my imagination’. Perhaps, as Tim Richardson, author of Sissinghurst: The Dream Garden, has suggested, its plight as a partial ruin ‘reflected her own status as a rejected and stricken would-be chatelaine’ in her own mind. The series of outdoor rooms she created for herself could be seen as an attempt to recapture the architectural fabric of Knole in garden form: the hedges as the walls, the plants as furnishings and the lawns as carpets.

There was really no garden at all to begin with. The Tudor walls survived, but their value as structural guides was reduced by the way they ‘shot off most inconveniently in odd directions’, as Sackville-West put it. The site lacked sturdy hedges or any old trees, save one venerable quince and the occasional oak. Fortunately, Nicolson was adept at designing the architectural framework of the enclosures, which he described as a ‘succession of intimacies’.

“For the last 40 years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation” — Vita Sackville-West on gardening

Sackville-West took charge of the planting schemes, planned in her quarters at the top of the restored gatehouse, with its bird’s-eye view of the gardens and surrounding countryside. The yew and hornbeam hedges were among the first things to be planted, followed by an avenue of limes, the series of themed gardens being gradually built up in later years.

Special praise has been singled out for the White Garden, with plants of mainly white or grey foliage, divided by box hedges, and the Rose Garden, the heady fragrances of its old shrub roses at their best in June.

Although Sackville-West and Nicolson created it for their private pleasure, the overall effect of ramshackle informality, plants bursting free of borders and encroaching on paths, created a cottage-garden air that proved to be a public winner. Some 800 people came on the first day it was opened, in 1938. Sissinghurst was handed over to the National Trust in 1967, five years after Sackville-West’s death, and remains one of Kent’s most popular attractions.

Sissinghurst is open to visitors daily — see more details at