A Stranger Spring

Sissinghurst Castle Garden - Wikipedia
Sissinghurst. Pic: Wikipedia

I’ve been greatly enjoying ‘Frostquake: The frozen winter of 1962 and how Britain emerged a different country,’ in recent days. Full review to come in due course – I’m only about a third of the way through – it’s written by Juliet Nicolson. When I read on the dustjacket she used to stay at Sissinghurst, it rang a faint bell that she was from one of those Families that one is meant to know about.

Vita Sackville-West in 1924
Vita Sackville-West in 1924 Pic: Wikipedia

Sure enough, Chapter 6 reveals all, as the then 8-year old Juliet (she’s the same age as my sister: I was born in autumn 1962, hence the initial interest in the book) spends Christmas with grandpop Harold at Sissinghurst. Ah. So that would be Harold Nicolson, as in the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson, who’s grieving the loss of his wife, Juliet’s granny, Vita. As in Sackville-West. As in the inspiration for Orlando? Still no? As in the Vita Sackville-West who had a torrid affair with Virginia Woolf? As in who’s afraid of?

Yep, we’re deep in Bloomsbury lore here. I keep meaning to getting around to reading the actual work of these types – Woolf in particular – but meantime, if you can’t be bothered following up the Wikipedia link, the Bloomsbury set is a group of interrelated writers, poets, and artists, who wrote, painted, shagged, sniped, and scribbled interminable letters to each other (when they weren’t putting it all down in a diary) in the first half of the twentieth century. As Dorothy Parker had it, ‘they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.’

Casa Ardross. This and other pics from here on in: me

Anyway, Sissinghurst rang a bell for me for different reasons, because every couple of years, Gardeners’ World will send along an irredeemably posh presenter to speak to some other irredeemably posh type that’s the Guardian or Head Gardener or the charge-hand, I shouldn’t wonder, as they walk round the beautiful gardens that Vita in the main designed after she and Harold took the place over in 1930. By 1962, her vision had been fully realised. However, with her death came the other inevitable thing, taxes, and the family were to hand it over to the National Trust in 1967.

All of this stuff was in my mind when taking pictures of our own gardens yesterday. Now, of necessity, the green bit round a 1970s semi in Glenrothes is gunna be a bit less grand than Sissinghurst, and even if Daughter and Heiress does continue the Ferguson writing dynasty into the third generation – as seems possible – I’m guessing it’ll produce a bit less of a literary biography and letter-editing industry than the Bloomsbury set. Just guessing. No matter how good she gets. Sorry, Heather.

Similarly, although this has been a pretty harsh winter since the turn of the year, it’s been nothing like the record-breaking amount of snowfall that covered the UK from Boxing Day to March in the winter of ’62-3. It has, of course, been harsh in other ways, and if news of yet another wave of the virus spreading across Europe towards us, not to mention severe weather at Easter are not just media doom-mongering, then it might not be over yet.

In a strange way though I empathise with Harold Nicolson as he looked out, that Spring of 1963, at the garden he and Vita had worked on all those years, thinking of giving it up. Because that’s exactly what we’re planning to do with ours.

I think I may have mentioned in previous posts that we’re intending to sell up in Glenrothes this year, when the restrictions make that reasonably convenient, and Daughter and Heiress and The Boyfriend are settled elsewhere in Edinburgh. We’ll move initially to the flat in Blackford, which is significant in terms of this story because the garden is a north-facing postage stamp of grass that’s not really worth developing. We have our names down for a nearby allotment, but there’s a pretty lengthy waiting list.

You look at a garden – and a house – differently, when you know you’re moving. We moved here in 1995, so both house and garden have had the benefit of nearly 26 years of our attention. Now they’re going up for sale, certain things will have to be changed. In the house, that’s mainly been a case of toning down our more idiosyncratic tastes in decor – ain’t magnolia wonderful – and doing one or two minor bits of work to the exterior that were needing done anyway. And, of course clearing stuff out, as I mentioned in that previous post. All good project work which kept us looking forward during the cold dark days of January and February.

The garden, though, needs work of its own, and the relatively warmer temperatures of recent weeks have allowed us to get out there and get on with it. One of the reasons we went for the house was that it had a big south-facing back, which at the time was a blank canvas. Actually, so was the front: the previous owner loved his lawns, so apart from one or two shrubs and a couple of massive Leylandii at the bottom of the back, it was grass all the way. He’d even recently laid it with very expensive turf: which gave me just the slightest twinge of guilt as we dug it up, bit by bit, over the years.

The north-facing front was gradually planted up with Scottish themed things: cotoneaster, a rowan, heathers and azaleas (ok, so I know they’re not native, but they’re a long time Scottish favourite in gardens). You can see the result: a dense, heathery jungle that’s low-maintenance and survives the harshest of winters.

In the back, however, we were more expansive. Tired patio paving disappeared under gravel; a big central path led the visitor to an oriental section at the top; and one either side, the previous owner’s precious lawn was shrunk, year on year, by borders – shrubs on the right, and herbaceous and vegetable plots on the left. Oh, and a rockery. I forgot the rockery.

For those of you not that cognisant with Gardeners’ World, herbaceous perennials are – generally flowering – plants that die back each year, but you expect to come back the next. Places like Sissinghurst and, a special point of inspiration for us, the Edinburgh Botanics, have herbaceous borders stretching for miles, full of what are often some of the most spectacular flowering plants you can think of. Which is great but…

The problem with herbaceous is that they’re so… well, damn herbaceous. It would be all fine and dandy if they died back in the winter and everything else stayed the same. In reality though by the time they start to poke their heads back up in the spring, the couch grass has got the jump on them and they’re quickly choked in a death grip by it and every other perennial weed known to man, and unless you’re Sissinghurst and you have a dedicated team of gardeners doing it for you, every spare minute of your hard-won leisure time is spent fighting to stop your precious herbaceous border turning into a railway embankment-ful of weeds.

And, even if I was happy to continue fighting this rearguard action every year, we’re selling up, and there’s virtually no chance that the incoming owner is going to be the Vita Sackville-West de nos jours. It’s much more likely that it’ll be a hard working couple with kids who want not much more from the garden than a place to lie out and soak up the brief Scottish summer (generally about three days in May, two in June and a couple if you’re lucky in September) and host the occasional barbecue.

Shrubs, ready to be planted out next month

Which is why, last year, we dug up the herbaceous border, covered it in weed-suppressing fabric, and left it over winter. In its place now, finally, is a border of hebes and Euonymous, tough, dependable little shrubs that’ll cope on their own, especially with the fabric and a layer of bark chippings around them.

Similarly, we’ll resist the temptation to grow interesting vegetables this year. Instead, the patch will be given over to courgettes, the vegetable equivalent of magnolia paint on the walls indoors.

That’s why I’ve titled this post ‘Strange Spring,’ really. At this time of year, we’d normally be making plans to plant new stuff, going round the garden centres and being tempted by things we’ve never grown before (or we’d tried before and decided to try again, ‘just one more time’). But this year, by autumn, if things go according to plan, this will be someone else’s garden, and we want it to be easy to maintain and, if Vita does take it over, easy to develop, too. Whichever way, we won’t be looking back.

Our last garden – which was also our first – was our pride and joy. We planted it up wildly ambitiously, and bought a greenhouse to grow the more tender specimens. After we sold it, we learned the next owner but one – a family of red-headed Rangers fans, as it happens – ripped up our plantings, tore down the greenhouse, and paved the whole thing.

If someone does that to this one, we don’t want to know. Alternatively, if the National Trust is in the market for a classic Seventies semi with appropriately extensive gardens, we’re listening.

Hell, I’ll even replant the herbaceous for them.






  1. I had an aunt and uncle who lived not far from my family in the Big Apple burbs on Long Island. They had a modest house with modest amounts of grounds. My uncle, though, got sick of lawn/grounds maintenance. So, he had most of it cemented over!

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