A slice of Greece comes to rural Kent as Sissinghurst Castle Garden unveils stunning Delos garden, designed in partnership with Dan Pearson
The National Trust’s Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent has officially unveiled a Greece-inspired garden, ‘Delos’, completing a planting scheme first envisioned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson more than 85 years ago.
The 0.25 acre garden, created by National Trust staff in partnership with landscape designer Dan Pearson, was the culmination of a seven-year renewal project at the world renowned, Grade I-listed garden.
In 1935, Vita and Harold were so inspired by a visit to the Greek island of Delos that on their return they set about capturing its essence in a corner of their now world-famous garden.
Taking her cue from the ancient ruins of Greece, Vita scattered stones around a former kitchen garden, using remnants from the demolished medieval mansion which once stood at Sissinghurst, and planted Mediterranean species such as Quercus coccifera (Kermes oak) and Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree).
However, the Kent climate and north-facing position of the garden, combined with the couple’s limited knowledge of Mediterranean planting, meant that the garden never really became all they hoped for. In 1953, Vita wrote, ‘This has not been a success so far, but perhaps someday it will come right.’
Former Sissinghurst Head Gardener Troy Scott Smith, who instigated the Delos project, says: “Over time, Delos gradually lost its character and atmosphere until it had no reference to Vita and Harold’s original ambition. The planting, too, significantly changed from Mediterranean inspired plants to woodland planting.”
Although the reimagined Delos garden looks very different to the rest of Sissinghurst, best known for colourful and abundant planting in ‘rooms’ including the rose garden and white garden, it is entirely in keeping with Vita and Harold’s spirit of experimentation.
Troy continues: “Returning to Sissinghurst from the island of Delos in the Aegean, Vita and Harold set about putting in remnants of ruined buildings, stones and wildflowers of Greece in their interpretation of the natural landscape they were so enthralled by on their trip.”
Working with Dan Pearson, and drawing on archives and a research visit to Delos, the Sissinghurst team used current design practices, clever landscaping techniques and a broader spectrum of planting to create a more robust garden, while still maintaining the spirit of Vita’s ambition.
Dan says: “Since 2014 I have been working in an advisory role at Sissinghurst. During this time I have got to know the gardens more deeply and to understand the need for regeneration and change that respects and recaptures the magic of Vita and Harold’s romantic vision.”
Innovative landscaping techniques have been used to overcome the challenges of the site, such as north-facing shade, heavy clay soil and poor drainage. These solutions include angling beds to harvest maximum sunlight, creating drainage systems and using some 300 tonnes of crushed local ragstone to avoid excess winter wet.
Tilted, low stone terraces were built to alter the topography of the site so that the beds follow the passage of the sun, maximising light. These evoke the terraces that Vita saw and admired on Delos, and also create more varied planting opportunities.
At the heart of the design is a central ‘street’ and agora (square), dotted with antiquities including marble altars and troughs, whose formal style reflects the urban areas of Delos island. The garden also features Tuscan pillars originally from a curved loggia at High Wall in Oxford, built by British architect, landscape architect and garden designer Harold Peto (1854–933). Moving away from this street, the atmosphere becomes more natural and informal.
The planting, too, is innovative. With predictions of hotter, drier summers and wetter, warmer winters, the new Delos garden sets an example of how we might be gardening in future by using plants which are naturally adapted to extreme conditions. More than 6,000 perennials typical of Greece and the wider Mediterranean basin have been introduced, while pomegranate, cork oak and cypress trees punctuate the garden and provide shade.
Delos Lead Gardener Saffron Prentis says: “Since the introduction of these plants in these conditions is experimental, we don’t yet know exactly how they will be affected. The team will wait with interest to see how the plants – which in their natural habitats would normally go through a summer dormancy, to cope with drought and heat – will respond to the UK’s lower temperatures.”
Visitors can look forward to seeing the garden change and develop as plants spread, seeding themselves into crevices between rocks and creating a natural feel as they colonise their environment.
Saffron continues: “It’s enchanting seeing the plants nestling into their rocky environment and making their own communities and combinations. I’m constantly making observations and expanding my knowledge so we can make the garden even better.”
Dan concludes: “I’m honoured to have been asked to revisit and bring to life the plans for Delos, an area of the garden which, over the years, has lost its original intent. It is fascinating to discover and understand the historic reasons for the design of this Mediterranean landscape, and I am thrilled to have been entrusted with the responsibility of bringing an exciting new chapter to the gardens.”