Alan Titchmarsh explains how the Sissinghurst gardens inspired him to update his own.
Once a garden is working satisfactorily – that is to say the overall design is complete and the structure of beds and borders is in good shape – there’s a tendency with all of us to rest on our laurels, at least for the time being. How long that time being lasts will vary, but it will often be shorter than we think.
This fact was brought home to me recently, in the case of the lead planters I’ve positioned around our old farmhouse. They fit in well with the mellow brick of the building and also its barn, made of a hard, chalk-like stone with the delightful name of Selborne clunch. Around the back of the barn, we had 15 camellias planted in these lead containers, each of which is 18in square.
Chalky soil precludes camellias being planted direct into our earth, but ericaceous compost and regular applications of rainwater had kept these ones happy for the best part of 15 years. They’d reached a height of about 8ft and were, unsurprisingly, starting to look a bit hungry.
It was, as Andrea Bocelli sang, time to say goodbye, although it did take a fair amount of thumping and an engine hoist to get them out.
Fresh compost now awaits the new plants that will be settled into the containers come late summer or early autumn, in the hope of another 15 years of pleasure. The old ones were chopped back and shipped to a friend who gardens on acid soil – it’s amazing how many rootballed shrubs you can get into the back of a small family car when they’re yours for the taking!
In another spot along the terrace sits a 5ft-square oak tub with sides that slope inwards towards the ground. Sturdy metal straps hold it together and, with nine box balls of varying sizes planted within it, the effect has been wonderfully sculptural all year round for a good seven or eight years, thanks to regular watering and occasional feeding.
However, even if they don’t succumb to box blight, box balls can also become tired and hungry after a time. They can be moved into larger pots, of course, and clipped less severely, but when they’ve filled the desired container and you’re happy with that effect, stagnation is just around the corner. This summer, I bit the bullet and said goodbye to them as well.
The impetus for this wholesale rethink was a visit to Sissinghurst, which has been a favourite garden of mine since I first went there exactly 45 years ago. We were lucky enough to stay for a weekend at the very end of June this year, by far the best time to see this wonderfully atmospheric garden, when the roses are in their prime and the generously proportioned borders seem to burst with rainbow colours – busy, yes, but with not a single jarring note.
Troy Scott Smith and his team seem to me to have struck the perfect balance with the garden at ‘Sissers’, as the late Peter Coats called it. The planting is generous and billowing, a state of affairs of which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the garden’s creators, would surely have approved, neither of them being a fan of the prissy and the prinked.
As well as the delight of being able to wander around on our own in the early morning and evening, soaking up the heady fragrances and the magical atmosphere of the place in perfect summer weather, I was struck by the imaginatively planted containers that dotted the pathways and paving.
Huge terracotta tubs played host to a mixture of summer flowers and will, no doubt, be replanted for a spring show with tulips, polyanthus and the like. Most of mine support box balls, hostas and other permanent residents.
When we came home, the rejuvenation of my own containers began and I’ve added to them with a clutch of extra-large terracotta pots. As well as a row of seven yew lollipops, which have been grown in waist-high pots along one side of the house for some time, I now have half a dozen others that will contain temporary residents to offer colour in summer and again in spring.
I’ve been surprised at the shot in the arm this has given both me and my garden. Why on earth haven’t I done this before? Now, there’s an extra spring in its step and the chance to alter the view for the better, with ever-changing seasonal colour.
Thank you Troy and thank you Sissers for reminding me that gardening isn’t merely about playing it safe.
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