We’ve probably all been on holiday somewhere really lovely and just craved to bring a bit of it home, keeping the memory alive long after we’ve had to board the boat, train or plane back. And I don’t mean only a fridge magnet (although we have started a small collection!).
Vita Sackeville-West and Harold Nicholson, creators of the legendary gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, wanted to bring back a bit of the magic they felt on the Greek island of Delos, which they visited as part of a Mediterranean cruise in 1935. So let’s glimpse into this intriguing garden-within-a-garden.
Recreating a historic Greek idyll with Mediterranean planting didn’t work out very well for Vita and Harold. The reality of the British weather, the heavy clay of the Kentish Weald and north-facing site as well as their inexperience with Mediterranean plants meant that they didn’t achieve the vision and the garden became more like woodland.
What you see today is in fact a recreation of Vita’s original vision by English garden designer Dan Pearson, who was brought in by the National Trust to remake Delos. In spring 2021, after much reshaping of the landscape with raised beds, shifting of stone and even changing the soil to a free-draining one better suited to plants from dry climates, the ‘new’ garden opened.
On the hot summer’s day when we visited, it did feel very Mediterranean. The planting is low, scrubby almost, with lots of wafty, shimmery grasses and tough drought-tolerant perennials poking out among gravel and stone. The only discordant note was struck by the definitely Kentish cottages on the outskirts.
The predominant colour was yellow, contrasted with a few blues, as in this combination of achillea and lavender.
Euphoria created vibrant splashes, and looks natural growing among the rocks and stone terraces.
Around the edges, large shrubby bushes added more yellow – is this Spanish broom? My Mum is investigating closely!
There were some delightful combinations, especially these grasses contrasted with more architectural spikey plants.
Could this be the sort of garden that could cope with climate change? It doesn’t need watering and so would manage the sort of Mediterranean temperatures we have been experiencing recently with no problems. But these plants are only able to survive wet winters if they are in the right soil, which this garden didn’t have – bringing in a whole new soil structure might not be feasible for those of us who don’t have the right conditions, and so I wondered, is it really sustainable?
As a creative project I think it’s a great success, with its strong evocation of place and its peaceful, restful mood. I could easily while away an hour or two there, sitting on a sun-warmed rock, watching the grasses sway in the breeze.