Recreating Delos at Sissinghurst

The afternoon sun setting above North Wing as Delos captures the final day’s rays

The gardening team at Sissinghurst embarked on a conservation project to re-imagine an area of the garden that was never quite completed by Vita and Harold.

Vita Sackville-West, the poet and writer, began transforming Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the 1930s with her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicolson. Harold's architectural planning of the garden rooms accompanies Vita’s colourful and abundant planting in the gardens.

An area of their garden known as ‘Delos’, was inspired by Vita and Harold's visit to the Greek isle in 1935. The island provided such a source of inspiration that on their return they aimed to emulate the feel of Delos at Sissinghurst.

Taking inspiration from the ancient ruins of Greece, Vita scattered stones around the garden from the demolished medieval mansion which once stood at Sissinghurst and planted Mediterranean plants such as Quercus coccifera and Arbutus unedo.

However, the Kent climate and north-facing position of the garden, combined with their limited knowledge of Mediterranean planting, meant that the garden never really became all they hoped for and instead resulted in a woodland feel. 

The spirit of experimentation and inspiration that guided Vita and Harold is evident throughout the gardens. Visiting a ruined island in Greece, returning to rural Kent to set about putting in broken columns and false ruins, ‘smothered there by mats of the wild flowers of Greece’, is a wonderful example of Vita’s response to what she found beautiful.

Over time, Delos gradually lost its character and atmosphere and ended up having little or no reference to Vita and Harold’s original ambition. The planting, too, had significantly changed from Mediterranean inspired plants to woodland planting.

Working with garden designer Dan Pearson, who has helped to redesign the space, the team hopes that Delos matches Vita and Harold’s original vision. Using current design practices, clever landscaping and a broader spectrum of planting, a more robust garden has been created while still maintaining the spirit of Vita’s ambition in consultation with the property team which drew upon archival research. 

" 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. "
- Dan Pearson

Dan goes on to say, 'I’m honoured to have been asked to revisit and bring to life their 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.'

 

The finishing touches

During 2020 the remaining work was all but completed in Delos. This included Dan Pearson returning in March to complete the scented path, an area of Delos brimming with Mediterranean plants such as the annual herb, Nigella damascena. Other plants such as Orlaya grandiflora and Papaver rhoeas were also introduced into the garden to add colour and diversity to this newly formed spaced. 

Work began in the early part of 2019 and by spring 2021 the garden had been completed for visitors to enjoy.

Create your own Mediterranean garden

As Vita and Harold discovered, re-creating the essence of a Mediterranean garden in the heart of Kent is no mean feat. Saffron Prentis, Delos Lead Gardener, shares her top tips on how to bring the feel of the Mediterranean to your own back yard.

  1. Cistus, lavender, rosemary, thyme and euphorbia are just some of the plants you can use. Try to use a mix of perennials, annuals (such as poppies, nigella, orlaya), shrubs and trees to create maximum interest. Annual grasses are great and allowing them to self-seed will give a relaxed, natural feel.
  2. Spring is the best time to plant a Mediterranean style garden, as this will allow the roots to establish before warmer weather arrives.
  3. Select the right plant for the situation you have. If your garden is a shady spot, select plants happy out of the sun, for example. Likewise, create a pot display with your favourite Mediterranean plants if you don't have a free-draining area.  
  4. Try to note down plants and features you see in other gardens and when on holiday. You can also keep photos and magazine clippings to create a ‘mood board’ to help guide your decisions. Vita and Harold’s Delos garden was inspired by a Greek holiday – drawing on your experiences will make for a more personal and meaningful space.
  5. In terms of maintenance, try a thick gravel mulch to discourage the usual garden weeds and encourage pioneer plants to seed about. ‘Edit’ self-seeders if they become too dominant, or cut shrubs into mound shapes to mimic the effect of animals grazing the foliage for a natural feel.