A Tour of Three Gardens with Sarah Raven

Everyone who is into gardening has their own “must-see list” of beautiful gardens to visit. For more years than I can remember three fantastic gardens, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Perch Hill have been right at the top of my list. Imagine finding a tour which included all three! Last autumn we booked on one of Sarah Raven’s garden tours, which Sarah hosted together with her husband Adam Nicolson. It was much more than just a tour it was a great and memorable event.

Sissinghurst White GardenThe tour began with an evening visit to Sissinghurst which is a huge advantage as anyone who has tried to photograph the garden when it is full of day visitors will testify. Adam was certainly on home ground here as he lived at Sissinghurst as a child, the castle having been purchased by his grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in 1930. They created the garden together over many years with Harold mainly designing the lay-out and Vita totally immersed in creating the incredible planting. The White Garden is usually the focus for visitors, the planting combinations here are soft, luxuriant and were luminous in the dusk.

Sarah gave us a short talk on the creation of the garden and then we had time to take our photographs and wander to the more distant areas. Later we climbed the tower which gave us a stunning view of the total estate and Adam amused us with tales from his family history.

The Herb Garden at Sissinghurst is, surprisingly, one of the more distant areas of the formal gardens. The yew hedges which now surround the herb garden were planted in 1934 and Vita started planting herbs in 1938. Development was slowed by ww2 but, after the war, work on the garden was resumed with twenty beds being created. Probably the most photographed feature of the garden is the stone chamomile seat built by Jack Copper, the Sissinghurst chauffeur, and christened Edward the Confessor’s chair by Harold and Vita.

The “Persian Carpet” of creeping thymes was originally planted by an inspired Vita in 1948 and is still retained today. The herb beds contain over a hundred varieties of herbs and are replenished as necessary to ensure the garden is full of interest for visitors throughout the season. Certainly in October they were full of interest and colour. Our first evening completed with a delicious herb-inspired dinner in the Barn Restaurant.

Day two began with a visit to the wonderful garden of the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Tours of the garden were given by Sarah and Rachel, a full time gardener at Dixter. The garden is truly inspiring in that it throws many garden design conventions to the wind with the jungle-planting of the tropical garden and widespread use of vibrant (some may describe as clashing) colour combinations. Christo was a friend of Sarah’s father and his off-beat view of what a garden should be was a key inspiration to Sarah. Fergus Garret and the team at Great Dixter work hard to keep his vision alive.

The last visit of our tour was to Perch Hill, the home of Sarah and Adam. The Cutting Garden is probably the feature most readers will be familiar with, Sarah published a beautiful book of the same title. The garden was a breathtaking mass of cut flowers for use in the Flower School. It was alive with colour in October with gorgeous dahlias and late perennials. My favourite combination was ammi majus, molucella and deep purple clary sage.

We had a short talk from Sarah and Adam describing their search for their dream home and how hard they have worked over the years to create the stunning garden we see today.
The Herb Garden at Perch Hill has been recently designed and planted on a south-facing sun-trap alongside the large barn. The garden is slightly sunken and this together with heat radiating from the red brick paths ensures it becomes truly sun-baked during the summer months. A beautiful old olive tree provides the centrepiece for the garden, contrasting beautifully with a generous swathe of deep burgundy shiso.

Herb Garden- Perch Hill

The Herb Garden-Perch Hill

The herb garden is bordered by English roses companion-planted with varieties of flowering sages. Pots of lemongrass and huge domes of the scented geranium, Attar of Roses, were placed around the edge of the herb garden. These are used to make teas for workshop delegates.

We enjoyed a second delicious dinner served in the barn at Perch Hill, a really convivial atmosphere presided as all agreed how wonderful the two day event had been. During dinner Sarah asked us to partake in a little market research to help her select varieties for her plant catalogue (which is a complete inspiration). A glorious group of labelled dahlia specimens was laid out for us to judge our three favourites in order of preference.

We left Perch Hill under a blanket of stars and the complete silence and stillness of its enviable location.

Visit Sarah’s website at sarahraven.com for details of upcoming events but don’t think about it for too long, they sell out very quickly.

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