It’s not unlike the experience of growing up in London, returning there after graduating to live and work until we moved in the late nineties to Kent, where we could afford a house with a garden. I’d walk past the national gallery every day, knowing I could hop on a bus to St Paul’s or the Tower of London, or spend lazy Sunday mornings mooching around Columbia Road flower market. It’s just that when things are so easily to hand, you begin to take them for granted, and rarely make the most of your good fortune. (Before you despair of me utterly, I will confess to having had a job at the London Coliseum, and regularly strolling through the inns of courts, the embankment gardens and every tiny garden and courtyard space I could find in the seven dials area. And free lunchtime concerts in Wren churches? Yes please – though I did drop off on more than one occasion, as tends to happen if I’m stationery for more than a few minutes. Only a partial philistine, then.)
To Great Dixter, then, returning home via Sissinghurst. I realise that for many visitors to the area – and perhaps even the majority of visitors to these gardens – taking in both on the same day is almost inevitable, although, being something of a novelty for me, I was keen to see what I’d make of the juxtaposition. Doubtless my brain will take some time to process any comparisons, fair or otherwise, so here are some fleeting impressions of the gardens as I encountered them today, together with some initial thoughts on the differences between them.
To kick off with, here are two things I love about each garden.
There are so many things you could choose at Great Dixter – the long meadow leading from the entrance to the house, the ever changing collection of pots in the front porch, the crazy topiary in the Peacock Garden.
I’d have to include the mix of plants – for any gardener who’s had doubts about what ‘belongs’ with what, there’s a hugely liberating air of not-really-caring here. That’s why you find a yukka with a hydrangea and tulips, in front of a knarled old apple espalier. Freedom.
There are crisp, straight, formal hedges, and lovely billowing cloud pruned affairs like you can find – the wonderful yews at Doddington Place here in Kent, for example – and there are Dixter’s hedges, which are a fabulous mix of straight and formal and frankly bonkers – without being too over-the-top. Like the diagrams in old school books about mountain ranges, rift valleys and continental plates.
The minute you enter Sissinghurst, you receive a note from the gardeners. I've always loved the blackboard under the arch, telling you exactly what you can expect to find in the gardens that day. Now you can also pick up a leaflet Gardeners’ Cuttings which gives you further details on the plants every month.
Labels in gardens are a divisive subject. Christopher Lloyd hated them. My knowledge is too incomplete to allow me to despise their presence, so I’m always glad to find a garden that helps me with plant identification. The labelling is a bit sporadic at Sissinghurst, but it’s better than nothing.
Moving onto more direct comparisons, it’s interesting to look at the planting in both gardens. In Dixter, there seems to be a greater sense of planting in communities, in a naturalistic fashion, even if those communities bear little resemblance to anything that would exist in the wild. In Sissinghurst, many of the borders feel more curated, more managed – with the obvious exception of the orchard and perhaps the beds in the lime walk.
Paths play a critical function in any garden, guiding the visitor around and directing their attention. In Dixter, even the most formal retains a little whimsy, in places disappearing over a precipitous edge. In Sissinghurst, they manage to be charming, yet purposeful, as they have to be given the number of people tramping over them.
It's now peak tulip time, and it's amazing how much difference a couple of weeks can make at this time of year. I was at Dixter at the beginning of the month for the spring plant fair, and you can see how the same view has changed in the next two photographs.
Forget-me-nots were a favourite infill at Dixter, and while in some areas of Sissinghurst the tulips seemed to be waiting about for the borders to fill out, it was good to see them jostling for space in the Lime Walk.
Spring also mixes the chartreuse of spurges with the bright hues of wallflowers and tulips. I made a point of peering back towards the house in both locations, at Dixter through Euphorbia characias subs. wulfenii, and at Sissinghurst through E. polychroma.
There’s a stunning red wallflower in the Barn Garden at Great Dixter, but nothing beats the sight and the scent of the mass plantings in Sissinghurst’s Cottage Garden.
Here’s a question of garden philosophy for you – the gardener’s central ontological question, if you like. How long does a garden remain a garden after the original gardener has died? And even this is complicated by the fact that the ‘original gardener’ might not be the person who we most readily associate with the garden – the original gardener at Dixter was Daisy Lloyd, but it’s her son Christopher whose influence is most tangibly felt. Fergus was Christo’s right hand, and continues to mould and shape the garden with a similar energy and pioneering spirit – there’s continuity, without any sense of the down-side of preservation. Since Vita and Harold, the gardens at Sissinghurst have passed through the hands of several head gardeners – Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger, Sarah Cook, to Alexis Datta and now Troy Scott Smith, not to mention the influence of being a National Trust property and the pressures that brings in terms of sheer visitor numbers. Another way to come at the same question is this: does the presence of gardeners, and the activity of gardening, make a garden? It’s surely too trite to suggest that the only real gardens we encounter are our own, and those we find in the National Gardening Scheme Yellow Book, while any historical gardens fall under some other category, such as park, or visitor attraction. But it’s a question I come back to repeatedly, and it’s likely one you’ve considered before.
For me, I think it has something to do with intention. As a friend of Great Dixter I’m fairly informed about the work and objectives of the trust which now owns the house and gardens, how central the desire both to inspire and to educate is to the work there, and how these play out in a counterpoint with the imperatives of protecting Christo's legacy whilst developing his work. It feels dynamic, and welcoming, while the existence of the education programme and the presence of the students lends a vibrancy to the place. I am less familiar with what drives Sissinghurst, largely due to my own ignorance, and the fact that I’m just not there as much. I do think that, with the pressures mentioned above, it’s a wonder that the Sissinghurst has retained the sense of place that it has, without deteriorating into a sterile theme park in order to accommodate the footfall. This visit has certainly got me to consider reactivating my National Trust membership, if only to be able to visit more often without crippling my bank account.
I have to bring the day’s experience back to my own gardening – what do these two gardens mean for me? It’s probably obvious that I feel more at home with Dixter’s masterly exuberance than the more tempered excellence of Sissinghurst, but time spent wandering in either garden is an utter treat, and I know I can learn from both. In summary, Dixter is how I want to garden at home, while Sissinghurst is the model for how I feel I need to garden at work. You’ve got to dream, haven’t you?
I’d love to know your thoughts on these two gardens, or what becomes of a garden when its creator is no longer able to shape it, through death or ill health. Let me know in the comments below or on twitter.