Monday, June 16, 2014

Inspiring Women

Vita Sackville-West
Photo by Ciano Gia' Fatta via Beinecke Library at Yale University

Have you ever thought about the inspiring and visionary women who created some of the world's most beautiful gardens? They were trailblazers in their field and often started gardening trends that continue to this very day. To me, the most endearing are the ones who could look at a ruin and see paradise. They had the imagination and fortitude to transform a wilderness into an Eden and the homes and gardens they created exist today for all of us to enjoy. I have been thinking about one in particular: Vita Sackville-West. 

She grew up at Knole, one of the great country houses in Britain. I have visited Knole and it is truly something to see. This house is steeped in history. It had been in Vita's family since the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I had given it to her cousin Thomas Sackville, who was Vita's ancestor. The house was one of the so-called "calendar" houses with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and 7 courtyards. Even though Vita was the only child of Baron Sackville, she couldn't inherit the property because she was a woman. When her father died in 1928, it went to her uncle. She always felt the loss.

That is until she bought Sissinghurst Castle which was all but a ruin when she found it except for its  Elizabethan brick tower. She loved the romance of a ruin and felt it was something out of a fairytale. And she knew the tower would become her study. She was up to the task and set about restoring the house and gardens. It took three years to clear away the rubbish on the property. This is where she created her famous garden. The garden "rooms" are Sissinghurst's most famous feature, especially the one filled with all white flowers. Today Sissinghurst is one of the most visited sights in all of England.

Sissinghurst Garden seen from Vita's tower 
June, 2010

And one more thing...she was an immensely talented writer of poetry, essays and fiction. Twice she won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Her novel All Passion Spent is one of my favorite books about a woman in the latter years of life and her determination to stay independent after the death of her husband. It is a beautiful piece of writing and an inspiring story about personal freedom, the love of a house, and getting older (read more here).

And, not surprisingly, Vita wrote a gardening column for a London newspaper, the Observer, from 1946-1961. The articles were written in her tower at Sissinghurst. The columns were later collected into a set of books organized by months and published in the 1950's. The first one is called In Your Garden. I have the four volume set and sometimes open it to the date I am on to see what was going on in her garden.

But why am I thinking about her today? Well, there are three reasons;

1. She has been in the news. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University has just acquired her papers. This is very exciting news for scholars of English literature, society, and gardens. Vita's papers include drafts of lectures, broadcasts, and articles; letters from her parents, letters to close friends and lovers, and diaries and garden journals ranging from 1930 to 1962.  It is exciting to think that this treasure trove of scholarship on English arts and gardening during the years of Vita's life will be available here in the states.

2. There is a new book on Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Saran Raven. After reading the excellent reviews, I have just ordered it. Filled with beautiful photographs, some never before seen, it focuses on Vita's wonderful advice to gardeners based on her experiences at Sissinghurst. Ever the poet, she wrote about plants with a romantic sensibility. But her advice was always practical. This book quotes from the Observer gardening columns, interspersed with Sarah Raven's narrative and anecdotes about Sissinghurst. Can't wait to get this one!

3. It's June and we are in garden season. Who better to advise us than Vita Sackville-West? I have been collecting articles and books filled with her gardening advice for years. For anyone who loves a garden, her voice is as comforting and helpful as any gardening friend could be. Here she is talking about peonies in June, 1952:

"Often one is asked for plants which will flourish in semi-shade, and in the month of June the noble peony comes to mind. It always seems to me that the herbaceous peony is the very epitome of June. Larger than any rose, it has something of the cabbage rose's voluminous quality; and when it finally drops from the vase, it sheds its vast petticoats with a bump on the table, all in an intact heap, much as a rose will suddenly fall, making us look up from our book or conversation, to notice for one  moment the death of what had still appeared to be a living beauty...

The secret of growing herbaceous peonies is to plant them very shallow and give them a deep, rich root-run of manure for their roots to find as they go down in search of nourishment. Then they will go ahead, and probably outlive the person who planted them, so that his or her grandchild will be picking finer flowers fifty years hence."

Enjoying the last gasp of this peony ready to shed "its vast petticoats" in my study

If you are a gardener or simply a garden admirer, you will enjoy reading the gardening stories and advice written by Vita Sackville-West. Her words are inspiring and hopeful. She is one of those garden dreamers whose passion will make you want to get out in the garden. Here she is on the creation of Sissinghurst and specifically on planting the yew hedges:

"This may sounds sentimental, but it is very true: One needs years of patience to make a garden; one needs deeply to love it, in order to keep that patience. One needs optimism and foresight. One has to work hard oneself, sometimes as I worked hard, cutting all those hedges. I hated those hedges when I looked at my blistered hands, but t the same time I still felt that is had been worthwhile planting them. They were the whole pattern and design and anatomy of the garden, and, as such, were worth any trouble I was willing to take."

 You can order Sarah Raven's new book on Sissinghurst here


  1. Sarah Raven is married to Vita's grandson.

  2. I love peonies! I actually had no idea they worked well in partial shade (sunlight is a problem in my garden--too many lovely old trees). I'm starting to daydream about what a nice addition they'd make. Our neighbors next door have a rosebush that puts out gorgeous delicately pink blooms and they just let them die out there on the bush. I don't even think they looked at them once! I was sorely tempted to go out there and steal some for a vase, but the neighbors are always home...

  3. Ordering THE BOOKS now!!!!!!!!!Tell me SUNDAY at what time of year did you visit?Would late September be good do you think?

  4. I went in June and the garden was lush and full. But I also think September would be a wonderful time to go. In fact I am planning a trip to England in September and will be visiting gardens. Last year I went to Monk's House in October and the garden was beautiful! You would love Sissinghurst!

  5. What a wonderful post to read, your own love of gardens and gardening shines through in the way you write about Sissinghurst. I would love to visit one day. What Vita Sackville-West wrote about the patience you need when creating a garden is so true, especially for somehow like me, who sort of craves instant gratification aesthetically. But I am learning to have more patience and to enjoy watching more growth in our garden, and love adding new small things and tweaking it now.

    1. Thank you, Kathy. Writing about Sissinghurst has made me want to go back. It is such an inspiring place. Your garden is lovely.

  6. I do love reading about gardens because we really can't have lush, beautiful gardens here in Phoenix. It's so hard to keep things alive, especially at this time of the year. I think Vita was a fascinating person and so talented, it seems. I have a copy of her novel The Edwardians and am now inspired to read it.

    1. Anbolyn, I also have a copy of The Edwardians and now want to read it after thinking about All Passion Spent. I remember learning that Vita made a lot of money from The Edwardians and was able to put it into her garden at Sissinghurst.

  7. I am not a gardener, but a garden admirer. Such an amazing garden. I think Peonies are one of my favorite flowers. Your last bloom is stunning.

    1. Peonies are one of my favorites also. And that peony I pictured lasted for a few more days.

  8. Love Vita's poetic gardening tips! Another beautiful post, Sunday.

  9. On the off chance you might not be familiar with it, I recently discovered "The White Garden" by Stephanie Barron (2009), a novel about Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and the famous "White Garden" at Sissinghurst. Filled with "much historical detail" and "somewhat of a literary suspense,"
    I loved it. The story revolves around an American landscape designer who travels to Sissinghurst to learn more about the White Garden and her deceased grandfather who was a gardener at Sissinghurst at the time Virginia Woolf made the plunge into the Ouse River, and while there, it seems a question arises as to the actual time of VW's demise considering that her body was not discovered until some time later. Includes a lot of informative gardening information along with a great story.