The Roses of Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst gardeners team , Helen Champion Sissinghurst gardeners team Helen Champion
A view of the rose garden in May

When Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson bought Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, there was not much to recommend it. What had once been a grand Elizabethan Palace was now just a ruin, slowly sinking into the surrounding Kent countryside.

None of the buildings were inhabitable and the grounds were full of rubbish; old sardine tins, cabbage stalks and rusty bed steads littered the ground. None of this mattered to Vita. She only saw what could be made of it, writing later:

" I fell in love; love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it. It was Sleeping Beauty’s Castle..."
- Vita Sackville-West

What most excited her were the rosy Elizabethan walls that still stood like silent watchmen around the garden.

It was the romance of the place that appealed to her. No matter that there was nowhere to live; the walls and space were all that mattered for they gave Vita the opportunity to create a garden where she could grow all her favourite plants in abundance.

Roses climbing the walls at Sissinghurst
Roses climbing the walls at Sissinghurst
Roses climbing the walls at Sissinghurst

Vita loved old roses and at Sissinghurst she finally had the space to indulge in her passion. Her vision was for ‘a tumble of Roses and Honeysuckle, Figs and Vines’. She and Harold made the rose garden in what had once been a kitchen garden and this she filled lavishly with all her favourite old roses. Gallicas, Albas, Damasks and Centifolias. Bourbons, species roses, climbers, ramblers and more. For Vita it was the romance of old roses that appealed to her; their colours, their scent and their history. She wrote about how they were like pieces of embroidery and like a tapestry they wove their way into every space at Sissinghurst until there were about 200 different ones growing in the garden.

When Vita died in 1962, the roses grew on through the years. But the collection did not remain static and inevitably evolution took place. Some died, some were replaced and some such as ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ defied all expectations and lived on.

It wasn’t until 2013 that, with the arrival of a new Head Gardener who wanted to plant more roses, we realised just how far the collection had moved from Vita’s original 200. Out of those original 200 roses only 100 were still growing in the garden. Other roses had been introduced by subsequent Head Gardeners but these did not appear to be ones that Vita had grown.

Through careful research we were able to find out which of Vita’s roses were missing and since 2014 we have been planting them back into the garden. We now have over 200 cultivars and Vita’s original collection is nearing its former glory. The rose garden is once more bursting with colour, fragrance and romance.

 A rose garden in June is a glorious thing and one of the highlights of an English summer. Vita declared herself to be ‘drunk on roses’ and we hope that when you visit you might feel just a little drunk too.