BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Troy Scott Smith, Head Gardener at Sissinghurst in Kent, recently took the sold-out Royal Oak Foundation’s audience through Vita Sackville-West’s breathtaking white garden, down paths exploding with the dark magenta old roses she loved, and through carpets of small plants that Vita and her husband, Harold Nicholson, planted in abundance. Leave it to Royal Oak Chair, Diana Senior, to transport her guests from a Chicago club to one of the world’s lushest gardens through Troy’s photos of its revitalization.
The Royal Oak Foundation supports the preservation efforts of the National Trust of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, including magnificent gardens at its numerous properties including what is now Sissinghurst, which began as a medieval manor house—complete with moat and a tower added when Queen Elizabeth I came for a visit. And during the Seven Years’ War, it became a prison for 300 Frenchmen.
Brought back into the spotlight in 1930 by Vita and Harold in 1930, Sissinghurst is now known for its quintessential, romantic English country garden.
“Vita wrote that her planting philosophy was ‘cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny. I like generosity wherever I find it.’ She loved old roses from the mid-1800s and had over 330 varieties.”
While there are only 100 varieties remaining, Troy and his team are tracking down the missing 200, some of which have recently been discovered in an East German garden.
He told the Royal Oak audience that he and his seven gardeners—and 300 volunteers—want to soften changes that have occurred over the years. A gardener with the National Trust since 1990, he has cared for The Courts in Wiltshire and Bodnant Garden in Wales. Troy declares that his mission for Sissinghurst is to “understand what we’ve got and reassess what we do, gardening in a way that seeks to recapture the distinctive qualities of Vita’s and Harold’s Sissinghurst: a more reflective, romantic, slower and deeper place than much of what the modern garden has become.”
Troy and his team try to examine each of the 50,000 plants at Sissinghurst weekly, year round. They keep elaborate spreadsheets indicating when each blooms that year. He recommends that all gardeners keep records, no matter the size of their grounds.
Troy offered advice for those with smaller city gardens:
“Do what you want without creating a fruit salad. Focus on the mood you want. Within a permanent framework you can create little pockets of delight: tulips in Maytime, replaced by lilies later on.
“Vita believed in generosity with plants and people. Instead of just a few pansies, put in 10-12 plants. That becomes something rich. Think about all the senses. Even the touch of a scented leaf can be remarkable. One plant, when you watch it through its cycle—seedpods to blooming flowers to autumn leaves—is a delight.
“We also grow vegetables at Sissinghurst, about five tons in all, which go to our restaurant. If you are growing vegetables, try things that are not in all the stores. I love growing and eating green garlic.”
His own garden, occupied often by his children and dogs, is a place to try out new plants that might go into Vita’s garden.
For reading during his Chicago visit, Troy brought along Natural Selection by Dan Pearson, a garden designer who has consulted with Troy.
Pamela Hull, who established the Royal Oak programs in Chicago 20 years ago, and her husband, Roger, sponsored this lecture.