BEHIND THE SCENES – WITH THE GARDENERS AT SISSINGHURST

April showers?  Torrential downpours, broken by bright sunshine – we huddled under NT lost property umbrellas, oblivious to the weather just happy to have this opportunity of seeing some hidden corners of Sissinghurst not generally on view to the public!  We took refuge under the arch in the Tudor front range of buildings with Alexis Datta, Sissinghurst’s Head Gardener since 1995.  She came to Sissinghurst as Assistant Head Gardener in 1991, the year in which Sybille Kreutzberger (who, together with Pamela Schwerdt, was Head Gardener to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson) retired.  Alexis  gave us an excellent history of the garden and then out we went into the rain to take a look.

First,  the Spring Garden (or Lime Walk, as it is also known).  “My life’s work “as Harold Nicolson termed it, was at its glorious best this afternoon, the colours more vibrant in the low light: scillas, anenomes, Fritillaria meleagris and the Crown Imperial Fritillaria imperialis-  tulips, tulips and more glorious tulips, giant snowdrops, muscari (grape hyacinths) – it was ablaze with reds, yellows, purples, whites and blues set off beautifully by the bright yellow/green of Euphorbia polychroma– wonderful; we stopped caring about the rain!  A quick stop in the rose garden, the bareness of April giving us the opportunity to see at close quarters how the gardeners tie down the stems onto hazel hoops (from their own hazel coppice which we visited later) so that the plant feels under stress and therefore flowers prolifically.   This Sissinghurst technique is taught to gardeners everywhere who come to down to Kent and learn how to do it.  They do something similar with their fig trained against the wall behind the Rose Garden where they tie-in loops, causing it to produce more leaves and give a dense cover to the wall.

A door in the garden wall was opened and we trooped through to explore the potting shed (unbelievably small), the glasshouses with row upon row of seedlings, cuttings growing on and, outside, cold frames and stock beds from which to replenish any flagging specimens in the garden.  Sissinghurst produces almost all of its own plants (except roses, which come from David Austin) plus plenty to sell on to the public via the plant shop (they plan to increase the scale of growing for sale over the next few years).  Peat-free compost is used (they have been peat-free since 2000 in-line with National Trust policy).   Masses of lawn maintenance equipment and machinery!  The gardeners spend an enormous amount of time on lawn upkeep as it is the lawns that take the wear and tear of 2000 visitors a day at peak season.  They require regular sprinkling, oversowing and a  high mowing height all part of the maintenance programme (even more vital with the hosepipe ban just announced as this ban will affect the lawns most of all – no watering of the lawns will be allowed and if, as they anticipate, certain high-traffic areas start to dry out and brown-off, the Moat Walk for example, then they will simply have to close certain pathways to the public to “rest” the turf).

Anybody can sign up to attend one of these events led by Head Gardeners at National Trust properties – there is a charge (not cheap!) but the time spent in the garden, when it is closed to the public, is very special – it is extremely peaceful and full of birdsong, also a fantastic opportunity to ask questions, chat to the gardeners and take photo’s without people wandering into the frame – almost impossible at Sissinghurst on public days.

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