June 15, 2014


I love books. I love to read, and I especially enjoy gardening books by serious plant people, and few come as serious as Vita Sackville-West, but I have to admit to you that I have yet to have discovered the joys of her writing - nor have I journeyed to Sissinhurst -- that is, until now. This weekend, I traveled, it seemed, through every path, border and bedroom of this well known rambling Elizabethen Castle, through the lyrical and easy words of Sarah Raven - an author whom up to now focused more on cookery books, but with this book, shares a most personal and delightful journey with us, as she is married to Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Vita Sackville-West enjoyed all plants - roses in particular, but also winter and summer blooming bulbs, such as the Scarborough Lily, or Cyrtanthus alatus. Strangely enough, mine was in bloom today in the greenhouse, although in the book, Sarah Raven tells us that at Sissinhurst, it is planted near a wall, and it blooms in the autumn.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press, I received a complimentary copy of this beautiful new book with text by both Sarah Raven and Vita Sackville-West ( she has access to all of her papers and notes). The result is a book that I can guarantee will sit by my bedside for some time (even though I read the entire 364 pages in two days -- rare is the book that can not only capture my attention for it's entire length, even rarer is one that I will whole heatedly recommend to you my readers ( it's true - I am often sent books to review, but I only will rave about ones that I truly enjoyed - this one, I think has been elevated to my top 5 of all time list).

I loved how Vita Sackville-West added humor and casual notes to her writing. For example, she wrote about how children like to pop the squeaky, rubbery flower buds on fuchsia's. Here are some of mine, still being trained.

I'm the sort of gardener who often makes notations in my favorite books, circling paragraphs, sketching large parenthesis around helpful tips, and scribing lists on blank pages of must-get plants. My copy of this book is already all marked up, so sorry, no giveaway this time! This was the perfect book for me, over-all, practically flawless, from it's fine paper quality to the typeface for the text. I believe it is a terrific book for both the book lover, and the plant person. St. Martin's Press clearly has taken a thoughtful approach with the design of this book, the rag paper pages, with tipped in color images and many black and white photos provide the perfect balance of inspiration, and information.

Vita enjoyed many flowers, including German Bearded Iris, but I enjoyed learning about how she was also drawn to teal and aqua colored flowers as I am, like Ixia viridiflora and Puya - I think I will need to add a Puya to my greenhouse collection, as she grew hers in the greenhouse too.

Fragrance was important to Vita Sackville-West, and a favorite cut flower for her was Night Stock - Mathiola bicornis. Ours was just blooming this week, as it only lasts until mid-June in our New England garden. An old fashioned annual, it must be seeded early for one to enjoy its night-scented blossoms before the summer heat arrives.

Sometimes I get distracted by errors with botanical Latin, but here, the book educates me using proper, RHS Latin, and although a few errors still exist, most are with common names, which may very well be regional differences than actual errors ( I would consider Miltonia sp. a 'pansy' orchid, and not a Paphiopedilum). By and large, this flawless book engages the reader, with Ms. Raven's easy-to-read text, which is both fluid and intimate - the fact that she has such a deep connection with Vita Sackville-West and access to her notes and files, makes the content in this book especially rich, with much of the tips and notes new.

Vita loved blue, and gold, which happens to be a favorite combination of me too. The osmanthus, in the rear, was also a favorite wall plant for her - it's fragrance so intense in the autumn both here in the greenhouse, and in her garden. Also a favorite plant for her - the blue Felicia daisy, shown here in one of my containers.

The book begins with a detailed history of Sissinghurst, which dates back to 1530, but it doesn't dwell on the factual history, rather it tells a story of how Vita and Harold found themselves as keepers of this Castle and its surrounding buildings in the 1930's - only about 1/3 of the book is dedicated to the history of Sissinghurst, with the balance of the pages exploring Vita's personal favorite plants - which makes this book so consumable - again, I read it on a gorgeous June day for about 6 hours outdoors when I should have been working in the garden - such indulgence! With all of glorious June right there in front of me - the peonies, the roses, the lilies - but no, I read.

Raven has organized all of this information in a very useful way - clearly, she is a plant person herself, so the book feels natural to someone like me, who naturally clusters plants into these same categories. Fragrant plants and scented plants ( Vita's fav's are not just listed, but each has a story, so you understand why she loved the plant, and how she liked to grow it). Many of the chapters are divided not only by Vita's favorite plants, but also by season, within each chapter - imagine, her best favorite plants for spring, for summer, for autumn or winter - I scribbled down 'Get more Emuris, plant more Lilium regale - my 24 bulbs vs her 600 bulbs!  Plant a trough with Cyclamen coup and Galanthis for the cold greenhouse - white wash terra cotta pots for lilies in the greenhouse. This book is not weak with inspiration, at least for someone like me.

Some of these chapters are also segmented by indoor plants, and outdoor plants, providing insight into what Vita loved on her window ledges in the dark, days of winter, and what she loved to grow during the hottest months of August ( no much, actually). To someone like me, having such information such as what her favorite and must-have plants for winter containers in the cold glass-house, or what she loved to grow in troughs and sinks, or what bulbs she could not live without, I found truly inspirational ( I wonder if it is too late for me to plant Tigridia in large pots?).

Stone and tufa troughs were a favorite of Vita Sackville-West, especially when planted with saxifrages and blue gentians, which makes me want even more gentian species for our troughs. Here are how they looked this morning.

My lists now, for plants to sow or grow are longer, but there are many of the same plants growing my my garden, the same shrubs, the same trees, the same tender tropicals in the greenhouse that Vita grew, but Sarah Raven has edited and added so much more to this book, she just seems to know what gardeners are craving right now. I do want to try more Salpiglossis in the greenhouse or in containers this summer and autumn and winter - as Vita Sackville-West grew hers best as a potted plant for the cool greenhouse ( as I discovered for myself, last winter).  I already have a few Scarborough Lily's in bloom, just this week, but I never, ever thought that I could grow 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories in the winter greenhouse for color in January. Although I grow many of the same plants she had, there are many still to try. I overlook Sparaxis as a summer potted bulb, but could not live with hers, and with so many small South African bulbs in pots doing well here already, I really must add that to my list along with gladiolus species for the summer containers.

Vita loved cut flowers, especially little bouquets that she could place around the home. A favorite of hers for both the border, and the vase, were German Bearded Iris - today, our vintage collections, generally dating from the era when Vita gardened, between 1880 and 1936, may even be some of the same varieties.

If you love cut flowers, a good portion of this book is dedicated to the culture of Vita Sackville-West's cut flower favorites, be they shrubs, vines, roses or perennials. Sarah Raven has created a masterpiece, worthy of praise and space, on any gardener's bookshelf or night stand. Not only is this book accurate and delightful, it has a comprehensive index, which clearly shows how much care and accuracy has gone into this book.


  1. Darn. I think you've put this book on my "must have" list. An excellent review.

  2. What a truly inspiring book to have! It is going on my list of books to buy now! Oh, and I am still waiting on my Ruth Kasten book that I won a while back.....

    1. Oh Amy, I know! It's safe and sound in the bookcase, where it was when you were last over the house! Now that we have more time, this might be the perfect excuse for a trip up to Vermont some weekend!

    2. Yes....you two really should come up to visit! Kris & I are also getting a NEPS meeting figured out at The Fells for the fall so you'll def. have to come up then!!

  3. Can't wait to get my hands on this book! Have you read Virginia Woolf's Garden by Caroline Zoob? Vita is mentioned several times.

  4. Two of my favorites - S. Raven has a gorgeous sense of color too. Can't wait to see this book for myself! Thanks for the intro!

  5. oh p.s. just saw your note about rabbit hill. glad to hear! i'll have to go find a copy for myself too. all best.

  6. I'll have to put that book on my list as well. I first heard of Sarah Raven when she did a program on Garden's World about vegetables. And I first learned about Sissinghurst while watching Alan Titchmarsh's Garden Secrets. Seems like a magical place. The Brits have all of the best gardening shows. Thank god for Youtube!!!

  7. hopflower9:19 PM

    Yes, indeed. Sarah Raven is a great author and gardener. Sissinghurst is memorable, for sure. I take a bit of issue (and you are not the only one lately to do this) with the term botanical Latin, however: some botanical names are, in fact, Greek; or a fusion of the two.

  8. Thank you Matt for this post! I love how you connected it with your own gardening experience.
    This book will be very interesting for me since I visited Sissinghurst this May (and published 8 posts with the Sissinghurst Garden pictures (http://tanyasgarden.blogspot.com/2014/05/rainy-sissinghurst-part-1.html ). I am sure I'll want to return there even more after reading the book. Thanks again!


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