Ever since I first read about Vita Sackville-West’s white garden at Sissinghurst, I had to create one of my own. She was my definition of a real gardener—writing in the morning and gardening the rest of the day. I like the fact that she worked with her husband, Harold Nicolson, in the garden. He created the bones of the garden, laying out straight paths lined with hornbeam and yews. Then Vita came along and planted the perennials in the beds. If a plant reseeded, Vita felt it should be allowed to grow where it landed. I like her philosophy and the fact that they worked so well together, even though their design approaches seemed so different.
The idea of a white garden especially appealed to me. No need to make color decisions—everything was white! I pored over garden catalogs, ordering every white-flowering perennial I could find. I laid them out, taking care to think about bloom times and height, and was rather pleased with the eventual result.
But I really wanted to see the original, so on my first visit to England, I asked the other people on my tour if they’d like to go to Sissinghurst Castle with me. The idea of visiting a garden for a whole day filled them with boredom. Most hadn’t even heard of Sissinghurst.
I went by myself, dismissing my companions with the thought that they weren’t real gardeners.
I’d looked up the directions. It didn’t sound difficult. Take a train south from London, then a bus to a small village, then walk to Sissinghurst from there.
While waiting for the bus, though, I realized I wasn’t sure which bus to take. I asked a woman who was waiting at the stop.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It’ll be the next bus. In fact, I used to volunteer at Sissinghurst.”
Although the British are known for their reserve, I’ve found that if you ask about their gardens or their dogs, or ask for directions, they are incredibly helpful and friendly.
She gave me some tips on visiting the famous garden. Then she said, a warning tone in her voice, “You know, when you get off the bus, it’s over a mile walk to Sissinghurst.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied, showing her my written directions. She agreed they were accurate, but still looked doubtful. I was beginning to realize that the British think Americans drive everywhere and never walk. I assured her my daily walk with my dog was longer than that.
The bus arrived, and we took seats next to each other so we could continue to chat.
The issue of walking still bothered her.
“Here’s a thought,” she said, brightening. “When you’ve finished touring Sissinghurst, go out to the parking lot, and ask somebody who’s leaving if they’ll drive you back to the bus stop. Then at least you won’t have to walk back.”
I was a woman, traveling alone in a foreign country, and she wanted me to accept a ride from a stranger?
I tried not to show my shock. I merely said, mildly, “Oh, do you think that would be safe?”
She rolled her eyes. “These are all going to be gardeners, not serial killers.”
Ah, yes, that’s probably true, I thought, smiling. Gardeners aren’t serial killers. Of course, there was that Rose Man of Sing Sing, but he wasn’t a serial killer: he only killed one person. And there were those men in the film Greenfingers—prisoners who started a garden and ended up entering the Chelsea Flower Show. I was pretty sure that was a low-security prison, though, so they probably weren’t serial killers, either.
The bus arrived at my stop and I got off, bid my new friend farewell, and headed up the road. Yes, it was a trek, partly along a busy highway, partly cross-country through a hops field, and finally, down a narrow country road.
As I approached Sissinghurst, I began to see what the woman meant. The country road ended in the parking lot. Anyone going there was either working or visiting the garden. And most of the visitors seemed to be older British people, enjoying a day out. The women wore tweed skirts and cardigans (it was a chilly September day), and many of the men had on coats and ties. They stood aside politely when you passed them in the garden, and chatted over cups of tea in the café.
I headed straight to the white garden. As I walked through the doorway in the brick wall, I was stunned—how magnificently beautiful! I had to laugh at my own puny efforts at creating a white garden. Mine wasn’t a garden. This was a garden. Nicolson’s structure of low boxwoods overflowed with an exuberance not only of white flowers, but also silver-leafed plants. That’s what my white garden’s missing, I realized. I’d focused on the flowers and not on the other attributes of plants. Of course, this garden also had antique pots set in strategic places, tightly clipped boxwoods, a lovely arbor covered with roses, and …
Dejected, I found a bench and slumped on it. How could I call myself a real gardener when my white garden was nothing like this?
I remembered my bus companion’s words. At least I’m a gardener, not a serial killer, I teased myself. No, you won’t find a less likely place for a serial killer than in a garden.
Nevertheless, when I left Sissinghurst at the end of the day, I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone for a ride. I dreaded asking a stranger for help.
As I trudged—a bit wearily—down the road towards the bus stop, I admitted I was silly to feel that way. Not only are gardeners not serial killers, but most I’ve met are kind and generous people, willing to share their knowledge, plants, and time. They’re also passionate about their gardens, much like Vita must have been. They—and I—would be happy to give a fellow gardener a ride.
When I returned home, I created structure in my white garden with boxwoods and added silver- and gray leaved plants. It will never be as spectacular as Vita’s garden, but I learned a lot from my visit to Sissinghurst. I feel like I am, indeed, on my way to becoming a real gardener.
I’ve also made many more trips to England—and I have asked strangers for rides. With discretion, of course. ❖
This article was published originally in 2022, in GreenPrints Issue #132.