The border walk at Great Dixter

Vita Sackville-West on gardening: “…For the last forty years of my life, I have broken my back, my finger nails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation.”

I was delighted to revisit Sissinghurst Castle garden in Kent.

This sublime English garden, divided into “rooms” and dominated by a tall, red-brick tower, was created by Sackville-West and her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson, almost a century ago. He did the planning while she was in charge of planting. Their combined genius has influenced garden design ever since.

May is really too early to see the garden at its best, especially because there had been a long, wet spell in spring. However, there were still many rare and interesting plants to admire, all carefully labelled.

In the famed White Garden, for instance, splendid White Triumphator tulips lorded it over silvery, velvety Artemisia ludoviciana and a small, creamy clematis named Moonbeam.

Great Dixter, another world-famous garden not far away, in Sussex, the brainchild of the late Christopher Lloyd, was more colourful and less formal. Frustratingly, nothing was labelled, but gardeners on the estate, some from distant lands, were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and helped me identify the little beauty with vivid blue flowers nestling among rocks as Omphalodes cappadocica. They also named a splendid lime-green Smyrium, contrasting with brilliant Red Shine tulips, which I admired in the sunken garden, and a dainty white lilac called Syringa persica alba.

My son and his family now live in the small Kentish village of Weald, where Vita and Harold began their married life and gardening partnership in a fascinating, double-storey timbered barn with a red roof called “Long Barn”. The house is, in fact, two barns. They make a fine backdrop to the garden.

The property is now privately owned, unlike Sissinghurst, which is managed by the National Trust, so we were fortunate to be allowed to meander around the garden freely. We realised that it was here that the Nicolsons practised the skills they were to perfect at Sissinghurst, for there is still a small White Garden, a walled Dutch Garden devised by Harold and Edwin Lutyens and tall clipped box hedges leading to a Secret Garden.

After this feast of foreign gardens (and rain), it was uplifting to return to Cape Town on a cloudless day with the hillsides of Simon's Town aglitter with yellow Bietou (Chrysanthemoides monilifera), which is such a useful binder of soil and a good seaside hedging plant that provides juicy berries for birds. - Cape Argus