Published: 00:01, 28 October 2017
It takes a brave man, or woman, to consider changing anything about the country’s most famous garden, Sissinghurst.
Troy Scott Smith could be the man to do it.
But in her book, Head Gardeners, author, Ambra Edwards poses the question of Troy, Sissinghurst’s head gardener: is a man up to the job?
The Weald garden, now part of the National Trust, was created by famous writer Vita Sackville-West, who died in 1962, with husband Harold Nicolson’s practical hand alongside her, and had been managed by a long line of female gardeners until Troy arrived.
Ambra writes: “There are those who say he shouldn’t be at Sissinghurst...He’s a man who says the unthinkable – or perhaps what everyone else is thinking but doesn’t dare speak. Sissinghurst, he says, has lost its way. In becoming a totem of horticultural perfectionism, it has forgotten what it really is.”
He did his research, reading every word Vita had written, and every book she had written about Sissinghurst. He also reads her words daily.
But what he suggests is that some of Vita’s beloved garden should be left to fade a little; have a rest, and be allowed to be rough in places. He worries that too many visitors may be “ticking a box.” He wants them to rediscover that romantic feel.
“They should feel warm and cosy and nourished – all those things you’d want to experience in a love affair. If all the gardens I know, Sissinghurst is the one that should be giving rise to those sorts of feelings,” says Troy.
He talks of how the garden has a huge volume of visitors. “If we put something which directs too many visitors to one spot, the spot gets worn out...You do notice how plants can look quite stressed on a Monday, after being prodded and poked all weekend.”
Troy, who likes his team and their work to be visible to visitors, has a major programme to reintroduce Vita’s beloved old roses, as of the 194 varieties growing before 1953, fewer than 100 remain.
He has also boldly hacked back the azalea walk and is hoping the orchard will take shape. And he has one project to tackle: Sissinghurst’s White Garden. Maybe, even, redoing the whole thing.
“The challenge is how to do that without alienating people who love it now, how to inject a true sense of beauty and romance, yet still be able to handle nearly two hundred thousands visitors.“
Head Gardeners by Ambra Edwards, with sumptuous photographs by Charlie Hopkinson, looks at the role head gardeners play in making gardens special to us.
The book explores the lives, visions and achievements of 14 head gardeners, and examines roles a head gardener might be today – project manager, conservationist, artist, historian, plantsman, educator, scientific investigator, social worker, public relations supremo, events planner and businessman.
Troy Scott Smith of Sissinghurst is one of those featured, alongside the likes of Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter in East Sussex; Lucille Savin of Merton College, Oxford and Martin Ogle of Lowther Castle, Cumbria.
Ambra is a journalist specializing in garden history, contemporary garden design and community gardening and has won the Garden Media Guild’s Garden Journalist of the Year award three times.