SISSINGHURST ``can probably fairly be called the most-loved garden in the world.''
This assessment by Jane Brown, writer on gardens and gardenmakers, in her 1990 book about this garden 50 miles southeast of London is unlikely to be challenged by anyone who has ever visited here. Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, dreamed, planned, and worked this garden into existence in the 1930s.
Even after nearly 30 years in the hands of Britain's National Trust, this 5-1/2-acre garden remains the most lovable of places. I have watched, intrigued, as the most outwardly reluctant horticultural non-cognoscenti has been inveigled through the rosy-bricked west entrance, still muttering about the 5 ($8.15) ticket, to be immediately won over by the heart and vision of it, its color, secrecy, and opulence of flower and plant. Sissinghurst's extraordinary magic still works.
Today, not a few people visit Sissinghurst - last year 176,000 did during its April to mid-October season. Its popularity has necessitated certain protective measures by the Trust, which hands out a leaflet with the ticket explaining pointedly that Sissinghurst ``is a series of small romantic areas enclosed by the surviving parts of the Elizabethan mansion. It is intimate in scale...; the paths are narrow and there are many steps; it is a fragile treasure.''
The spiel continues by explaining that the garden can only contain about 400 people at a time - thus the need for a system of timed entry tickets. The irony is that the very institution charged with preserving this treasure is also inevitably responsible for helping to attract increasing numbers of visitors. It has become a skillful balancing act.
The entrancement that underlies Sissinghurst might also be described as deriving from another fascinating balancing act. In a way, the garden is an outward portrayal of the two people who created it. Their son Nigel Nicolson has summed it up succinctly: ``Harold planning, Vita planting,'' which is broadly true - though of course they always employed excellent gardeners and advisers, except during the war.
Much of the National Trust's success in keeping Sissinghurst alive and true to its originators' concept can be attributed to two gardeners who, until retirement at the end of 1990, carried forward with sensitive dedication Vita and Harold's concept: Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger.
Harold and Vita, something of a union of opposites, made the garden (more or less from scratch) out of a scene of dereliction. It was Sleeping Beauty for real. Vita described her husband as the one with ``square-ruled drawing paper, India-rubber, control of temper, stakes, and string'' - the planner, in fact. Faced with a ruined skeleton of a site without a right angle in it, he ingeniously imposed upon it lines and circles of hedge and wall.
It was within this discipline, large-scale and small, that the exuberance of Vita's rampant interplay of plant growth and flowering abundance found a stimulating setting.
In the ``White Garden'' (whose fame has spread far and wide over the years) on a recent autumn visit, my eye was caught by a telling detail. One rectangle, defined by deep box hedging, was filled to the brim with a floating wave of silver-gray-green foliage, a small ocean of artemisia about to crash over the strict boundaries that just managed to contain it. Harold was the hedge, Vita the surging plant. Without one another there would have been (horticulturally speaking) either a cold rigidity or an absurd chaos. It is together, in counterpoint, that their differences work like a dream.
It is impossible to write dispassionately about Sissinghurst. Objectivity is confounded by the experience of it. It touches on some of our least definable feelings about the peculiar art of making, walking through, or dreaming inside gardens. It has all the elements that fascinate a child in the idea of a secret garden.
I have never forgotten my own first visit more than 20 years ago. A friend had insisted I see it (I knew nothing about it), but we arrived after closing time at the end of a summer afternoon. There was, however, a woman present - an official of the National Trust - who had a heart. After very little pleading, she let in the two of us.
So we had Sissinghurst, on a glowing, bee-murmuring, perfume-laden, warm summer evening entirely to ourselves: my first encounter, never to be upstaged. What I remember above all was not the famed ``White Garden,'' but the burgeoning coppers, oranges, deep chrome yellows, and rich reds of the little ``Cottage Garden.'' It was like being inside a private sunset. I have experienced nothing like it in any other garden.