The Gardens of Sissinghurst, Great Dixter & Merriments

I’ve been yearning to visit the gardens at both Sissinghurst Castle and Great Dixter for years, but being too far from our home for a day out we haven’t been – until this September. Forward planning by way of researching on the net revealed another garden nearby, Merriments, indeed it’s an RHS partner garden and it has an additional appeal – dogs are permitted to all areas! We booked a short stay in a cottage for two (and a dog) in Rye and off we went. Word of warning  – these gardens are very popular and I would imagine that during late spring and early summer, crowds may spoil a visit – get there early before the coach tours arrive!

Sissinghurst

First visit was to Sissinghurst Castle and its garden. It really is an impressive garden in structure, designed by the architect Harold Nicholson – a restoration project he undertook with his wife Vita Sackville-West, a poet and writer, who planted its formal layout in a new to the time informal manner. Most of the garden can be viewed from the top of the Tower (probably all of it, but I’m not good at leaning over walls at such a height!)

What surprised me about the garden at Sissinghurst was how few roses were in flower – I know September probably isn’t the best month to visit for roses, but in a garden whose co-creator loved roses, I did expect to see more. The white garden had a profusion of Japanese Anemone ( I think Honorine Jobert), and many silver leaved plants such as artemesia and stachys, but I only spotted one rose in flower.

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On to the rose garden, and here again, very few in flower. At the risk of appearing seriously ignorant, I initially failed to  recognise I was in a rose garden. I have to say though, this lovely rose that I haven’t yet managed to identify (and I first thought was a clematis), struck a cord within me, the petals are as large as they seem!

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Also, in one of the courtyards, a lovely rose, reportedly the first plant to be planted in the garden by Vita, was enjoying a flush, rosa ‘Mermaid’

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I’m going to be just a bit controversial now as I do feel a little disappointed (I should hasten to add – I will be returning earlier in the year to see the gardens at their best), and  Vita Sackville-West, on all accounts, pushed boundaries and created a progressive and beautiful garden. And she  loved roses. I’m no expert, but I believe that at the time of her death in 1962, whilst not in limited choice, roses available did not  include the English Rose group, courtesy of David Austin from 1961. I can see from historical and contemporary writings about Vita Sackville-West that the garden has not been standing  still since she died – as her two head gardeners from 1959, Pam Schwartz and Sybille Kreutzberger (who continued at Sissinghurst until 1991) said,  she would always have been adding plants. Sarah Raven in her 2014 book ‘Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst – The Creation of a Garden’ agreed, saying that it would be dull if the garden was made into a mausoleum.

However, a blog post written by one of the gardeners in October 2015 is interesting in that it refers to the astonishing fact (astonishing given the views above) that only very few of the roses in their collection are David Austin, most are old roses that flower only once. The post is also surprisingly downbeat, referring to autumn and ‘dismal’ winter being an endurance before the next spring.  I shan’t say anything more about this!

Moving on from roses though, the garden wasn’t devoid of flowering plants, and there was colour, with a profusion of dahlias, asters, salvias, Japanese anemones and cosmos planted in most areas – stunning combinations were a feast for the eyes.

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Having read Sarah Raven’s book, I shall look forward to a late spring/early summer visit in the future!

Great Dixter 

On to Great Dixter and joy oh joy, just what I was hoping for! Frequently described as provocative and adventurous, I have to say I loved it, it was exactly as I had anticipated, a riot of colour and diverse planting choices. It also has a great sense of fun, defies all conventionality and there is a wonderful lack of over manicuring.

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Great Dixter was the family home of Christopher Lloyd, who was the mastermind behind the planting style in the garden of a wonderful Arts & Crafts Lutyens designed house and garden. He was a prolific garden writer and another boundary pushing individual who sadly died in 2006. 

However, the garden is alive and kicking and Christopher Lloyd’s legacy continues under the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.

This garden really is characterised by the enormous variety of plants, living together without colour segregation or restriction on type – shrubs, perennials, annuals, roses, trees and climbers all working together to appeal to all senses – Christopher Lloyd likened the resulting effect to a tapestry.

It is frequently a tight squeeze along many of the paths, with billowing plants and self seeding annuals freely spilling over the routes – you could truly lose yourself!

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I particularly enjoyed the Wall Garden – I found it peaceful and relaxing and could imagine sitting with a cup of tea and a book, whiling away a sunny afternoon.

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Chris’s favourite was the exotic garden (I loved it too), which was a jungle of foliage, greens of every hue imaginable:

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Wonderful, a fabulous way to spend an afternoon!

Merriments

This is a polished garden! Not a weed or plant out of place and it’s current beauty seems attributable to the dedication and skill of it’s head gardener, Sally Briggs, who although working away in one of the many borders when we visited,  was happy to talk to us about the garden.

Merriments, an RHS Partner garden covers 4 acres adjacent to a garden centre in Hurst Green in East Sussex.

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This feels like one garden, but in fact there are several distinctly different small gardens within it – I particularly liked the formal garden with it’s central rill – and it can be viewed through a ‘window’ in the hedge at its far end.

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Grasses are combined with box balls alongside the rill to great effect – this garden, with the grasses floating over the water in the breeze is so tranquil – the sounds of gently running water and blackbirds singing in the hedge prompted me to sit a while, quietly enjoying the peace. 

It is abundantly clear that the planting is planned to ensure colour and flower power extends over the seasons. The gardens flow harmoniously from one to another, characterised to a great extent by long curving borders, only broken as you pass though to the next area.

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There are some great planting combinations, I really like this swathe of rudbeckia interspersed with a rustling pennisetum:

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This bridge takes the visitor over a into a verdant jungle of plants along a winding stream:

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All in all our visit to Kent & East Sussex, albeit short, was extremely enjoyable and I’m sure we’ll return to see all three gardens in spring/summer.

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