Sissinghurst, in southeast England, is one of the gardens I hope to visit before I am too decrepit. For the moment, reading Adam Nicolson’s SISSINGHURST: AN UNFINISHED HISTORY is as close as I can get  to the the cluster of Elizabethan buildings the author’s paternal grandmother, poet and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West bought in 1936. The garden she made there is  series of green rooms–spaces defined by green hedges–filled with monochromatic collections of flowering plants. Its white garden has  inspired  many American gardeners, including  Barbara Damrosch whose plan for a moon garden  THEME GARDENS is clearly influence by the the one in Sissinghurst.
There is among my s gardening books a gorgeously illustrated compilation of gardening columns  Vita Sack-West wrote for The Observer.  Few of her recommendations apply to my  humid, bug and deer infested West Virginia garden. I read them with pleasure nevertheless and I dream of buying the available land around my house until I realize that it would take and a huge staff to tidy up the jungly grounds. As it is, mowing,, watering–I use gray water–and perfunctory weeding are all I can manage.   I would not know what to do with an English castle and a formal garden except what Adam Nicolson’s father did–he donated it to the National Trust.
Nicolson’s book, for which I wrote am uttterly unsatisfactory review–see— is  about his effort to return  the Sissinghurst farm to organic gardening. He loves the land, he knows its history and  geology and he obviously cares about it deeply. He tells the story of the place  with grace with which his grandparents gardened. The result is a richly entertaining book in which the author imparts information about history, economics and social change in an eminently readable style.
In my garden, such as it is, it is lily season. The few bulbs the voles  missed during their endless bacchanialia, are in bloom. None of the two collections of daylilies from White Flower farm survived. None of the collections of Oriental bulbs–dozens of them–made it. The dozens of Csablanca lilies planted in flowers beds, perished. But a few daylilies, a  pink trumpet I dislike intensely  and potted Casablanca lilies persist. The deer nibble the blossoms of pink trumpet, but they  avoid a few of the specialty daylilies planted near a clump of lavender.   Perhaps a huge lavender hedge would keep them away from flowers and veggies. I think I will apply to the National Trust. I wonder if they would consider taking over a log house built twenty five years ago.




Those indifferent to blossoms, Bloomsbury, Balliol  and the fate of the hedgehog might find Adam Nicolson’s SISSINGHURST: AN UNFINISHED HISTORY hard going. Anglofiles, gardeners greenies and history buffs will love it.   Nicolson writes with great tenderness and lyricism about the Kentian Weald, an  area, in southeast England where Sissinghurst Castle is located. His scholarly  forays into the rich past of this  quintessentially English are a joy to read. He has a deft touch with geology, language, architecture,  and economics and his knowledge of the local fauna and flora is as deep as it is loving.

Sissinghurst once belonged to the Nicolson’s family. His paternal grandparents poet and gardening  writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, author and diplomat Sir Harold bought the dilapidated Elizabethan buildings and adjacent land in the 1930s. There they created a celebrated garden where hedges enclose spaces planted with flowers of a single color. Its  white garden became  one of the most famous in the world. Their son, writer and publisher Nigel Nicolson, whose best known work is PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE, a biography that details Vita’s passionate affair with Virginia Woolf, inherited the property. He, in turn, donated it it to The national Trust in 1960.

Under the Trust’s stewardship Sissinghurst became a commercial success, attracting nearly 200, 00 visitors a year. Changes Nicolson came to deplore went hand in hand with success. He regretted the  transition of the  working farm that produced fruit, vegetables and meat into a monocultural, chemically dependant entity. That was a change he decided to reverse.His book is an account of how he worked in partnership with the Trust to restore the farm through traditional agriculture. It is a moving story filled with unforgettable vignettes and nostalgic illustrations. Besides the informative chapters on archaeology and place names, it is a story that also documents social change. Nicolson is the 5t Earl of Carnock. His  democratic efforts to reach a consensus with the workers who maintain the Sissinghurst gardens, gift shop and restaurant are heart warming.

There are two kinds of Oriental poppies in my garden. One earlier variety resembles a   flamenco dancer’s skirts with row upon row of ruffled petals; the later is plain enough to please a minimalist. Both are a vibrant orange with dark accents meant, I suppose, to attract bees and other pollinators. I have tried Icelandic and California poppies more than once without little success. The older Oriental varieties do better in my insect infested garden. They bloom briefly, they take up lots of room and they have no scent. all this should make them unwelcome in my flower beds, but such as their extraordinary beauty in their brief season that i plan to add other colors this fall–pink to go with the fairy roses, white next to Sombreuil, red under  the Dublin bay climber.
This has been too busy of time to tend flower beds. I was rather late sowing annuals and transplanting tomatoes and basil. I still hope to get around to fencing the veggie garden. If so, I will seed dill, zucchini and a late crop of snow peas. For now, I need to seed a second crop of basil in the only place the deer avoid–right next to my front door.
While I plot and plan I will be sampling Jane Green’s Hot Chocolate Banana Cake. Her novel, Promises to Keep has a number of tempting recipes. I made her version  of the Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies to share with the neighbors. My guy liked them so much I probably will bake a double batch very soon. Green’s banana cake is a chocolate lover’s dream–so rich it dispenses with frosting. I could  post the recipe here but I would rather encourage readers to buy Green’s book.