Learn From the Experts: Vita Sackville-West

Ilona Erwin

Garden Expert

About Vita Sackville-West

the strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting

English Garden Maven -Rooms and White Gardens

If you grow a ‘White Garden, ‘Moon Garden’, or plan on it, you have Sackville-West to thank. Her garden at Sissinghurst is famous, and arguably the White Garden is the most famed portion of it. She and her husband created connecting outdoor rooms of flowers in a way that influenced gardening ever after.

“A good start in life is as important to plants as it is to children: they must develop strong roots in a congenial soil, otherwise they will never make the growth that will serve them richly according to their needs in their adult life.”

She wasn’t only beloved because of her beautiful flower garden plans and ideas, but because of her memorable prose.

Quotations from Vita

Planting Design

“Big groups, big masses; I am sure that it is more effective to plant 12 tulips together than to split them into two groups of six”

…the spotty effect can be avoided by massing instead of dotting plants here and there.”

Specific Plants

“Climbers are among the most useful plants. They take up little ground space, and can be employed for many purposes: to clothe a fence, to scramble over a dead tree, to frame an archway, to drape a wall, to disguise a shed, or to climb lightly into a pergola. They demand relatively little attention, once they have taken hold of their support, maybe a yearly pruning or a rescue if they have come adrift in a gale.”

Her Flower Observations:

Magnolia grandiflora

‘great white pigeons settling among dark leaves’

Corsican hellebore

Before the flower buds open they look not unlike a bunch of Muscat grapes, but presently they open out flat, when they look like a miniature pale green water-lily, if you can imagine a water-lily about the size of a penny.


“We have kept the purple roses more or less in a bed to themselves… Let us admit that the purple rose may be an acquired taste, and by purple rose I do not mean a red rose which “dies” badly, anathema to all rosarians…

I mean the truly intentional purple, whether it be the slaty-lilac of Cardinal Richelieu, or the Parmaviolet Tour de Malakov, or Charles de Mills, or Belle de Crécy, or Reine des Violettes, or Hippolyte which by the way does much better in semi-shade, and the moss William Lobb. These, and others, we have assembled in a corner, with an under planting of dark-mauve pansies, Cheiranthus mutabilis, and Allium cyaneum, and the old R. Veilchenblau climbing the wall behind them. If people don’t like them, they can turn their backs and look at some-thing else, but I think the loss is theirs.”

Plant Suggestions

Summer Annuals

I am very fond of Leptosiphon; only three inches in height, but very varied in colour, it is charming as an edging, or among stones, or in paving. It likes full sun. Linaria associates well with it, being several inches taller, but of the same delicate character, as the name Fairy Bouquet will suggest. Phacelia campanularia, nine inches, sown in large patches, will quickly make a mat of gentian-blue.

On Gardening

Gardening is a luxury occupation; an ornament, not a necessity, of life. The farmer is not at all concerned with the eventual beauty of his corn as a feature in the landscape, though, indeed, he gets a certain satisfaction out of it, as he leans against his gate on a summer evening, and sees his acres gently curving to the breeze. Still, beauty is not his primary aim; the gardener’s is. Fortunate gardener, who may preoccupy herself solely with beauty in these difficult and ugly days! She is one of the few people left in this distressful world to carry on the tradition of elegance and charm. A useless member of society, considered in terms of economics, she must not be denied her rightful place. She deserves to share it, however humbly, with the painter and the poet.

-Vita Sackville-West, from Country Notes

Of Her Efforts at Sissinghurst

“For the last 40 years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation.”

Country Notes


A woman who lived a colorful life, to gardeners she is known a a taste-making writer and plantswoman; to others as a personality associated with the writer Virginia Woolf.


Vita’s Favored Plants

Rosa ‘Tuscany Superb’

Fritillaria imperialis

Mathiola bicornis

Lilium regale

Galanthis nivalis

German Bearded Iris

Transvaal Daisy

Lady’s Mantle

Eglantine rose

Tulipa clusiana


Witch Hazel

All White


I am trying to make a grey, green, and white garden. This is an experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it. . . . All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight — the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.”
— written as she planned her, now famous, White Garden

Vita Sackville-West

English author and creator of Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Cottage Gardening

Learn From the Experts: Vita Sackville-West

” … a collection of old roses gives a great and increasing pleasure.”
“There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people.”

“…a cottage garden on the most glorified scale”

“Cristina, being something of a gardener, knew well enough that certain plants may appear to remain stationary for years while they are really making roots underground, only to break into surprising vigour overhead at a given moment.”

~ The Dark Island 1934


Now Plant Your Own Masterpiece!

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.