A moonlit masterpiece at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

The White Garden in summer at Sissinghurst Castle

In the winter of 1950, Vita Sackville-West sat down to write her weekly article for the Observer paper. She had been in the garden working on her latest project and naturally this is what she wrote about, expressing her hopes and dreams for the new garden room that she was creating at Sissinghurst. On that cold day in January she wrote;

" All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer in the twilight- the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow."
- Vita Sackville-West

Only the colours of white, green, grey and silver were to be allowed to grow in this new pale garden thus creating what we now call the White Garden, one of the most famous areas of Sissinghurst.

Creating one colour borders and gardens was something that appealed to Vita. She had already created the Cottage Garden with its narrow range of ‘hot’ colours and relished the idea of another opportunity to experiment with colour. She understood that when colour was restricted, the focus of the gardener had to be on creating interest and drama with different shapes, textures and form. As ever, Harold created the all-important structure with yew and box hedging, allowing the white flowers and silver foliage to shine out against the dark background. In her plans, Vita imagined ‘a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers’ and by 1953, she was able to report to her Observer readers how this vision was progressing.

The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent
The White Garden in July at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

She writes about various grey mounds; Artemisia, the silver Cineraria maritima, grey Santolina and Achillea ageratifolia. These are pierced with the upright white trumpets of Lilium regale and the white spires of Eremurus, Foxgloves and Delphiniums. There are shrubs to add volume and structure; Hydrangea grandiflora, a white cistus, Paeonia suffruticosa subsp. Rockii and Buddleia nivea as well as trees such as Hippophae rhamnoides, a Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ and almond trees lining the central path. The giant Arabian thistle Onopordon arabicum surges up 8 feet into the air whilst foamy Gypsophila softens the planting.

It was the contrast of all these plants together that created interest for the eye, despite the absence of colour. Vita seemed to relish the challenge writing;

" It is something more than merely interesting. It is great fun and endlessly amusing as an experiment, capable of perennial improvement, as you take away the things that don’t fit in, or that don’t satisfy you, and replace them by something you like better."
- Vita Sackville-West

Today, the garden team strive to maintain the White Garden in this way using a mixture of shrubs, roses, perennials and annuals to create interest and drama. Many of Vita’s planting ideas are still evident; the Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ still shades the statue of the Virgin and Rosa ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ clambers up the side of the Priest House. The low mounds of Stachys byzantina, Artemisia and Santolina mingle with the spires of Eremurus, Lilies, and Verbascum whilst clouds of Ammi majus billow up into the air.

Vita and Harold always planned for the White Garden to hit its floral peak in July and if you are lucky enough to be visiting the garden now, do make sure you see the White Garden. You are not likely to see a great ghostly barn-owl swooping across the garden but you will see one of Vita and Harold’s most beautiful and romantic garden visions and perhaps be able to imagine the garden, lit by moonlight, with an owl swooping down.