Walking through the arched brick gate into the first garden “room,” we stopped to catch our breath. It felt familiar, but also different. Years of dedicated care had given the garden a new polish. The garden had seemed much more of a work in progress when we were there before. Of course, we reminded ourselves, all gardens are always a work in progress. As I’ve often been told, it’s foolish to expect a garden to be perfect, frozen in time. Plants and flowers come and go like the seasons. Tastes in plants and flowers change. Nothing alive can be static.
Novelist, poet, gardener, tempestuous personality: Vita Sackville-West, with her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson, created a unique world within a world when they transformed the ruins of a once-fortified manor house into their very personal garden and retreat. Maybe when we were here before, the gardens were less well maintained or maybe our memories were faulty, but the overall layout seemed much the same, with the famous “white garden” and the other “rooms” with their walls, hedges, and borders still spread out on all sides.
Climbing to the top of the sixteenth century tower, I could look out at much of the estate and see how precisely those rooms were laid out. Below, in the study in which Vita once did her writing and in the big library in what once was the farm stables, we still could get a sense of the two unique people who created this world for themselves. A large portrait of the formidable woman that was Vita Sackville-West still presides over the library. It’s hard to believe that she was only a girl of eighteen when those confident features were painted.
As we returned to the gardens, that downpour hit us with cold drops that turned into a splattering of hail before stopping as suddenly as it began. The dark gray clouds blew away, leaving blue sky blotched with mottled gray and white clouds. Only lightly dampened, we wandered on through the gardens, admiring tulips, bluebells, wisteria, and other spring blossoms, even some early roses. Our garden doesn’t have a moat to cope with, as Vita famously wrote in one of her gardening books, but we did pick up a few ideas from the various gardens and their planting arrangements and color combinations. Maybe the most important gardening lesson we got from this trip is to be fearless: if something doesn’t work out, you can change it. After all, gardens are a work in progress.
If you enjoy gardens, you'll also enjoy
Simone Martel's collection of garden-themed
stories, EXILE'S GARDEN, Edwin E. Smith Publishing.