Long Barn: Vita and Harold’s garden before Sissinghurst
Most people, when they move to a new property, make some changes, perhaps a new kitchen or bathroom, or even an extension. When in 1913 Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, home from a diplomatic posting in Constantinople, bought two farm labourers’ cottages and adjoining land in the village of Sevenoaks Weald in Kent, they went a step further and moved a mediaeval barn from the bottom of the hill joining it to the cottages to create a large house. Their radical approach to property renovation extended to garden-making, culminating years later in the creation of the unique gardens at Sissinghurst.
I visited Long Barn on a blistering hot day in early June. Organised by the WGFA, the visit consisted of an introduction to the property by the owner Rebecca Lemonius, followed by a tutorial in plant sketching by head gardener Anna Ribo. It was a very memorable and rewarding day in a fascinating garden. The link with one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated gardeners and garden writers made it all the more special. As for the art element, Anna’s non-judgmental approach gave this non-artist the space and freedom to have a go at drawing the bold planting combinations without feeling daunted.
Having grown up only 1.5 miles away, in her ancestral home Knole (nicknamed ‘the calendar house’ because of its reputed 365 rooms), it was important for Vita to live somewhere with an intriguing history. Long Barn was reputed to have been occupied at one time by the founder of the printing press, William Caxton. The house went on to develop more history when in the 1930s, after Vita and Harold had decamped to Sissinghurst, it was let to aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife when they sought solitude and privacy from the press intrusion following the kidnapping of their infant son in 1932. During the 2WW the house was used as a nursery by the NSPCC to accommodate children affected by air raids. Rebecca told a touching story of her correspondence with a gentleman who had lived at Long Barn during this period. Following his recent death, his ashes are to be scattered in the garden.
In developing a new garden at Long Barn, Vita and Harold addressed the property’s sloping site by installing a terrace. Architect Edwin Lutyens, a lover of Vita’s mother Victoria, the spirited Baroness Sackville, advised on the construction of a series of raised beds at the foot of the garden (now the Dutch Garden) and the planting of a long row of clipped yew columns across the middle of the main lawn, but is not known to have been involved elsewhere in either the remodelling of the house or development of the garden.
Vita and Harold made a good team when it came to making gardens. His strength was in the vision to create the structure and hard landscaping, whilst Vita’s talent was in choosing the planting, informed by her admiration for the writings of William Robinson, pioneer of the wild gardening style, a reaction to the rigidly formal bedding fashion of the Victoria era. The garden was said to be the glue which held their marriage together. When it was rumoured that a chicken farm was to be built on adjoining land, the Nicolsons looked for another property, a blank canvas on which to create a garden. And so they arrived at Sissinghurst which has of course come to be known as one of the great gardens of the world. They moved there in 1932 but didn’t sell Long Barn until 1945.
In terms of gardening partnerships, it’s clear that Rebecca and her head gardener Anna share a similar vision for the atmosphere they want the garden to evoke, their philosophy being that the design is led by their choice of plants. Anna explained that her approach to gardening at Long Barn (she has been there five years) is to be sympathetic to what is already there. A gardener has to approach a garden with a degree of humility, get a feel for the soil and condtions and get to know the client. The soil here is Weald Clay which is rock hard in summer and sticky and claggy in winter: they improve it as far as possible by mulching it with organic matter such as composted bark and spent mushroom compost which help to break up the clay. The only place they use grit is in the Cretean Bed, a narrow south-facing border running parallel to the Box Parterre where the plants are reminiscent of the Mediterranean style planting at Delos at Sissinghurst, with a limited colour palette accented by handsome multi-headed Aeoniums.
This large site consisting of several different areas or ‘rooms’ is maintained by what amounts to seven man days a week, and Rebecca and Anna recognise that ‘everywhere doesn’t have to be perfect all the time’. After an area has gone over, it is allowed to be quiet. With such a small team, there has to be a realistic view of what can be achieved in terms of maintenance. There is an irrigation system in place in the Dutch Garden, but everywhere else is watered by hand. A further challenge is posed by the rest of the village’s surface water draining down towards Long Barn. On the site of an old tennis court, they are developing the ‘Rose Meadow’ where roses are encouraged to be as tall as possible, interplanted with grasses and wild flowers such as cow parsley and buttercups.
Head gardener Anna is also a garden designer with a fine art background, and prefers to hand draw her designs rather than using a computer programme. When sketching a plant she told us you should look at the character of the plant and ask yourself is it, for example, upright, frothy, strong, structural? If you spent ten minutes a day on sketching the plants in your garden you would soon see progress. After these words of encouragement we were free to draw plants in the Dutch Garden which was a joyful experience. We hunkered down in the shade on the cool grass between the raised beds and drew the plants at close range, considering how one plant relates to its neighbours and trying to capture something of the sheer exuberance of the planting here. Since the day at Long Barn I have sketched in my garden for a few minutes but haven’t devoted enough time to it to see such progress. I certainly find it a mindful experience regardless of the results my concentration produces.
Anna shared some useful design tips for planning planting schemes. When assembling a choice of plants for a border you should introduce lots of different flower shapes. Umbels, the flattish umbrella-like flowerheads of plants such as Valerian officinalis, will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which eat aphids. Heavily edit self-seeders when they have finished flowering, but don’t remove them altogether. For example bright cerise Gladiolus byzantina, itself a self-seeder, was lighting up the beds in the lower part of the garden with vibrant spires of flowers. In a large herbaceous border like those in the Dutch Garden, maintain planting pockets which carry a quiet period, during which you can introduce annual plants such as Ammi majus (more umbels!) Anna’s plant descriptions were wonderfully lively: she pointed out zesty euphorias and described small flowered, low growing plants as ditsy.
There was something of Great Dixter about the garden at Long Barn. I think it’s the handsome and weathered old house rearing up amidst a sea of bold colours and diverse flower shapes and leaf textures. The team at Long Barn have certainly honoured Vita and Harold’s horticultural legacy by maintaining the unique structure of a historic garden but within that framework experimenting and playing with scale and colour.
Here are some more of my images of the three acre site.