The white garden

The temperature here in Wisconsin hovered at about 10 degrees this week, and so it was the perfect time to dig into a good garden book.  I am deep into some old favorites, and having so much fun with Vita Sackville-West’s In Your Garden that I wanted to share it. 

In Your Garden is an anthology of articles that Vita Sackville-West first published as a weekly column in Britain’s Observer from 1946-1950, when Europe was rebuilding from the devastation of World War II and headlines in Britain were about the nationalization of the mines and railways.  Vita was a poet and member of the Bloomsbury group of artists, intellectuals, and writers.  Along with her husband, Harold Nicolson, she designed the world-famous arts and crafts garden at their home Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. 

Her garden writing is practical and accessible, and at the same time entertaining and witty.  She encourages her readers to try things out and to play in the garden, reassuring us that it is ok to fail.

One of my favorite pieces was published in January 1950.  In it, Vita shares her thoughts about a new garden she is planning. “It is amusing to make one-colour gardens,” she begins.  “For my own part, I am trying to make a grey, green, and white garden.  This is an experiment that I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it.  One’s best ideas seldom play up in practice to one’s expectations, especially in gardening, where everything looks so well on paper and in the catalogues...”

She goes on to describe her vision for this white garden: “I hope you will see a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers.  I visualize the white trumpets of dozens of Regale lilies…coming up through the grey of southernwood and Artemisia and cotton-lavender, with grey-and-white edging plants… There will be white pansies, and white peonies, and white irises…”

In closing, she writes, “I don’t want to boast in advance about my grey, green, and white garden. It may be a terrible failure. I only wanted to suggest that such experiments are worth trying.”

Sackville-West created her “grey, green, and white garden” and it turned out to be a huge success, one of the most famous, and perhaps most copied gardens in the world.  I share a few of my photos above.  When I visited, I expected to be disappointed by Sissinghurst’s white garden because my expectations had been set so high, but I was wrong.

No pictures can convey the magic of this space: a tall dark hedge frames the garden, gives shelter inside the garden and creates mystery outside; openings and pathways provide invitations; a central urn serves as a destination; and clipped boxwood contrasts beautifully with grey and white plants of various heights, shapes, and textures. I found a bench tucked into one corner, beneath a pergola of white clematis, and sat for a while taking it all in, so much to learn from this magical space.

Learn more about the arts and crafts garden movement and see other examples here.  For more inspiration to create your own white garden check out The Guardian’s pictorial guide to creating a white garden.