A Gardener's Start

I can describe to you the moment that the idea of gardening altered fundamentally for me. It was when I walked into the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst. Maybe it was because it was the first of the gardens there I saw that made it so profound. More so than the white garden, which surprisingly didn't move me at all, maybe it was the time of year - and it wasn't at its best. I loved the cottage garden, it was the perfect time of day to see it - towards the end of the day but let me save a fuller description for another post and get back to those first few moments in the Rose garden.

First, I took in the walls, how extravagantly high they were, this was almost an interior space. And then - the fragrance, the air was perfumed, not thick but richly so, a perfume I now know as that of old roses and of an intensity that I've not really experienced again. My next thought - that there was a kind of creative madness here, a wild organic abandon but tempered with some kind of craft or control, I couldn't quite figure out what it was, perhaps the high walls. It wasn't till later, reading up on the subject, I learnt that it was Vita Sackville West's husband Harold Nicholson, who architected the garden and was responsible for the strict box hedging that controlled her exuberant planting, framing its chaotic beauty. It's this combination that creates the visual potency I experienced.

After the inital rush of the first few minutes, I started to look a little closer at what was in the beds. What I can still visualize now can only be described as bold - in both color, shape and combinations. It was cottage gardening unlike the pretty impressionistic renditions I was accustomed to seeing. This was bolder with a more modern expressionistic take. The dark geometric hedges framed splashes and clumps of unruly color. One technical reason for this - she introduced shrubs into the planting- different from the traditional herbaceous only border. She said they were "more interesting and more saving of labor"

By the time I exited the garden I had decided that I was no longer simply looking for ideas on what plants to put into my thin long strip of garden in the east end of London - I was going to dig it all up and start over. Two weeks later, I had indeed dug the entire thing up, removed all the turf and unlike every other garden on that street with a stripe of lawn, narrow path and narrow flower border, I decided it was to have two gigantic borders. A sculptor friend who moonlighted as a handy man laid an old brick path down the middle of the garden, which would be flanked by these two beds, which then led to the end of the garden which he also paved to become a large patio area under the Chestnut tree. Gardening, as an obsessive pastime had officially begun.

I don't remember what I paid to visit the garden, but it wasn't a shilling which is what it used to be when it first opened. Vita nicknamed her visitors 'shillingses' and wrote of them:

"These mild gentlemen and women who invade one's garden after putting their silver token into the bowl ... are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things"

Indeed the world has become a rougher place and I owe many more shillings as I keep visiting her gardens over and over in my thoughts.

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