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Get Growing: Alexis Datta, Sissinghurst Castle Garden of England’s former head gardener, on gardening

The view from the top of the Sissinghurst Castle Garden tower of the garden rooms in 2010.

The view from the top of the Sissinghurst Castle Garden tower of the garden rooms in 2010. Purchase photo reprints »

The magic of England’s Sissinghurst Castle Garden was evoked last Saturday in a wonderful slide lecture at Berkshire Botanical Garden by the former head gardener, Alexis Datta. Sissinghurst, owned by the National Trust, draws more than 100,000 visitors each year.

For the past 22 years Alexis Datta worked in the gardens there, the last 10 as head gardener. She retired in April to be succeeded by Troy Smith previously head gardener at Bodnant, another National Trust property with a famous garden.

Datta is touring North America speaking at botanical gardens about Sissinghurst. More than 100 avid gardeners gathered for the sold-out lecture. Her appearance in New York City this week, sponsored by the Garden Conservancy, was also a sell-out.

Sissinghurst Garden was created from 1930 to 1960 by Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat and historian, and his wife the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West.

“Harold had an amazing eye for design of the garden,” Datta said.

It is a combination of formal design and informal planting. Rigid lines of hedges — boxwood, yew, hornbeam — define the garden beds while exuberant plants spill over the edges. Datta showed pictures of trimming these enormous hedges with string and a carpenter’s level to assure their symmetry. The trimming has to be done in winter to avoid interfering with the hordes of visitors in the growing season.

The property is divided into garden rooms. Datta commented that Vita was obviously not a cook because the Herb Garden is far from the kitchen. The Cottage Garden with bright colors and big leaves giving an exotic look, Datta said is her favorite area. The Lime Walk (limes are what the English call linden trees) was Harold’s favorite section. Throughout the gardens he strategically placed classical statues to be vistas seen from afar. Datta reported that the statue of Pomona at the end of the Lime Walk was stolen last winter.

“The White Garden, you might have heard of that,” Datta said to laughter from the audience because that is the most famous of the garden rooms. She noted, “It is surprising how many shades of white there are.”

Gray foliage underscores the serenity of this garden. The Nuttery with rows of hazel nuts was once underplanted with thousands of polyanthus primroses but Datta reported that the area developed a fatal soil-borne primrose disease and now they have to plant other species.

The most fascinating part of her beautiful slide lecture was about growing roses at Sissinghurst. Most of the roses there are “old” roses, the kind that bloom just once a year and grow into enormous shrubs. At Sissinghurst the plants are carefully pruned in the winter and then trained on “benders,” bent poles of witch hazel to which the canes are tied. She demonstrated how staff stomp on the six-foot long witch hazel branches to make them flexible before carefully bending them into crescent shapes. Anchored in the ground, the benders support the rose canes.

A staff member stands in the center and meticulously “ties in” the canes to the supports. Done in the winter, Datta said of the work, “It’s cold and it’s painful” with the thorny canes. When finished, the gardener has to get down on her knees and crawl out. The reason for this laborious technique is that bending the canes and tying them puts the plants under stress and they flower more abundantly.

The climbing roses on the old brick walls are also carefully pruned and trained. In some places they have to erect scaffolding to reach the tops of the roses because there is no foothold for a regular ladder. My friend asked her after the lecture how they fix the climbing plants to the wall. She reported that there are bolts in the bricks to which lines are strung for support. Datta said that she tries to be organic in the garden, but fungal diseases are rampant on old roses and she alternates chemical and biological controls.

I have been fortunate to visit Sissinghurst twice and will be returning in May. On my last visit, three years ago in September, I was fascinated by the new huge vegetable garden which was the pet project of Adam Nicolson, grandson of the original owners. I asked Datta to what extent she was involved in that garden area and whether the project is thriving. She was quick to divorce herself from any involvement and said that it was an ambitious undertaking, designed to provide produce for the castle’s restaurant, but that the soil has been problematic and it will never be possible to provide enough vegetables and fruits to feed 100,000 people each year. I recall having “leaves” from the garden in my salad to my great delight.

I can’t wait to see Sissinghurst in the spring and the wonderful lecture by Datta certainly whetted my appetite for a return visit. If you are planning a garden trip to England at any time of year, be sure to include Sissinghurst in your itinerary.

FALL FOOD ON THE FARM: Come to a Halloween Party at Land of Providence in Holyoke tomorrow morning and harvest carrots before making Halloween treats of carrot witch fingers, skillet apples and sweet potato jack o’lanterns. The program starts at 9:30 a.m. and the fee is $5 for adults, free for children. For directions go to thetrustees.org.

AN EDEN OF SORTS: John Hanson Mitchell of the Massachusetts Audubon Society will speak about his new book, “An Eden of Sorts: The Natural History of My Feral Garden,” Sunday at 2 p.m. at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. He will describe creating a garden over 25 years, creating an Eden of more than 1,000 species by selectively cutting down a stand of old white pines. Admission to the lecture is included in admission to the botanic garden. For more information go to towerhillbg.org or call 508-869-6111.

FORT RIVER GARDEN PROJECT: The Town of Amherst proposes to purchase, with the help of the Kestrel Trust, a 19-acre parcel of land off Route 9 near the Fort River for conservation, recreation and agricultural development. A shared community garden and incubator commercial gardens are among the potential uses. There is a hearing Tuesday, 6-8 p.m., in the Town Room of Amherst Town Hall.

REGENERATIVE FARMING: Eric Toensmeier, co-author of “Edible Forest Gardens,” will give a lecture Tuesday, 6:30-8 p.m., at Greenfield Community College on Earth-friendly methods of farming that improve soil fertility, sequester carbon and contribute to equitable economies. There is an optional tour at 5:30 p.m. of the new GCC permaculture garden and greenhouse. The event is a fundraiser for Heifer International with a suggested donation of $10 to $20.

ROOT HOG OR DIE: The Trustees of Reservations is sponsoring a screening of “Root Hog or Die,” a 1973 film on local agriculture, Nov. 3 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. There will be a panel discussion after the screening with David Fisher of Natural Roots in Conway, Chip Hager of Hager’s Farm in Shelburne, Sarah Voilland of Red Fire Farm in Granby, and Margaret Christie of CISA. Admission is $15, plus ticketing fee. Tickets are available at the academy box office or at academyofmusic.com.

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