A Lush Life

The gardens at Sissinghurst in Kent, England, are some of the most important—and magical—in the world, and twilight was owner Vita Sackville-West's favorite time to dig in the moonlit dirt.

By Harry Cory Wright
Photos by Violet Hudson
From the 1930s until 1962, author Vita Sackville-West wrote her novels, poems, short stories, and gardening columns in this Elizabethan tower. Around sundown—"between tea and supper"—she would head out to tend to her bountiful flower beds.
Sissinghurst's famous White Garden seemingly glows at dusk.
The White Garden is one of many well-defined "rooms" at Sissinghurst.

When the reknowned English writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West first visited Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, in 1930, she fell head over heels for the fabled estate. A once-sprawling Elizabethan manor that had played host to Queen Elizabeth I, Sissinghurst had fallen into disrepair. But she and her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson, could see beyond the overgrown gardens, silted moat, and sagging ceilings. They bought the castle, with its three houses, barn, and 450-acre estate, and set to work on its restoration at once.

The garden is one of their most enduring legacies. Sackville-West imagined plots with "the strictest formality of design [and] the maximum informality in planting." Nicolson imposed a grid system of "rooms"—square spaces enclosed by box hedges and connected by brick pathways. Sackville-West planted by theme: There was a rose garden, another devoted to herbs, and a cottagey space with wildflowers and grasses. But perhaps her most influential—and photogenic—design was the White Garden, dedicated to ivory blooms and now much copied the world over.

For the young Sarah Raven, Sissinghurst made a powerful impression. Now a celebrated garden designer in her own right with a BBC series under her belt and a column in The Daily Telegraph (she's been called the Nigella Lawson of the green-thumb set), she was in her 20s when she was invited to a party at Sissinghurst and was in complete awe. "The mix of the gardens and buildings was incredibly moving." Something must have been written in the stars. In 1992 she married Adam Nicolson, Vita and Harold's grandson, and for nearly a decade in the early aughts, the couple lived at Sissinghurst. Raven's book Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (St. Martin's) is part history and part practical advice, with Sackville-West's elegant prose scattered throughout.

Unsurprisingly, Raven is a fan of Sackville-West's writing. "It's very understated," she says. "A clematis seed head looks like a Yorkshire terrier—fantastic!" Elsewhere Sackville-West—who had a longtime love affair with novelist Virginia Woolf—describes bluebells as "smoke-blue as an autumn bonfire, heavy in scent as a summer rose, yet young as the spring which is its season." A fritillary "seems to put a damask shadow over the grass as though dusk were falling under a thundercloud that veiled the setting sun." Many of the most evocative passages occur at twilight—Sackville-West gardened in the evenings after a day of writing. She relates pruning "during that stolen hour of half-dusk between tea and supper." Indeed, the blue hour seems the ideal time to capture Sissinghurst's romance; as darkness falls, the garden casts a spell with its nocturnal magic. Despite the gray sky, low mist, and mud underfoot, the White Garden glows with late roses, beacons in the gloaming.

Garden writer Sarah Raven lived at Sissinghurst for eight years and is the author of a book about the garden's creation.
The bower in the White Garden.
The entrance to the garden.
A Lutyens bench nestled against a boxwood hedge.


At dawn, the Elizabethan tower emerges from the morning mist. For more details, see Sourcebook.

In 1954, when Vita Sackville-West's husband proposed the idea of turning over Sissinghurst to the national trust as a way to address the estate's rising costs, she objected strenuously. But by the time of her death in 1962, she had softened somewhat. After years of negotiation, the house and gardens were handed over to the trust, with the family allowed to live in the house in perpetuity. For a period the garden was reduced to a neat, pared-back version of the lush original, but now, with a new gardening team installed, the exuberance of Sackville-West's plantings is being restored. Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden is available at stmartins.com.