Virginia Woolf was a hopeless gardener – but Monk’s House remains a floral wonderland

'All bright, cut from coloured papers': Flowers at Monk's House
'All bright, cut from coloured papers': Flowers at Monk's House - Alamy

No one could describe Virginia Woolf as a keen gardener. She often regarded the garden at Monk’s House, so lovingly tended by her husband Leonard, as a kind of rapacious rival, a threat that could eat up time, money and attention. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t susceptible to its charms. She wrote book after book in her work room in the garden (the first a converted potting shed, the second a lodge in the apple orchard), and often used its bounty as raw material for her writing. “Our garden is a perfect variegated chintz,” she wrote in her diary on September 14 1921, “zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, cut from coloured papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.” That chintz is still visible to visitors today.

She’d gone to look at the cottage two years earlier, and was seduced by the “size & shape & fertility & wildness of the garden”. The Woolfs purchased it at a nail-biting auction for £700. As Virginia predicted, Leonard became obsessed with his new domain: a three-quarters of an acre plot, tucked beneath the Downs in the Sussex village of Rodmell. His enthusiasm was so fierce that she compared him that first summer to a child begging to be allowed to get down from the table and dart outside.

A forthcoming exhibition at London’s Garden Museum, Gardening Bohemia, draws a horticultural thread through the biographies of Virginia Woolf and three other women of the Bloomsbury group: Vanessa Bell, Ottoline Morrell and Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. Told through exhibits that range from paintings to garden tools, the show argues that their gardens were sites of inspiration and sanctuary.

But while Vita was a celebrated gardener, Virginia was more of an appreciator than an adept. Vita once refused to entrust her with a tray of plants for Leonard because she thought Virginia would kill them by neglect. This uncertainty resurfaces in her novels. In Night and Day (1919), Mary Datchet gathers an unlikely bouquet of roses in December, while To the Lighthouse (1927) is so filled with inaccuracies that Virginia received a scathing letter from a reader, pointing out that “my horticulture and natural history is in every instance wrong: there are no rooks, elms or dahlias in the Hebrides; my sparrows are wrong; so are my carnations.”

The problem was that she’d transposed memories of Talland House in Cornwall, where she’d spent idyllic childhood summers before her mother’s death, to Scotland without considering the change in climate. But if her botany was shaky, To the Lighthouse does show how Woolf used gardens in her work to convey a deep register of atmosphere and emotion.

'A perfect variegated chintz': Garden at Monk's House, Sussex (1947) by Vanessa Bell
'A perfect variegated chintz': Garden at Monk's House, Sussex (1947) by Vanessa Bell - Estate of Vanessa Bell

Think of the extraordinary “Time Passes” section, structured around the death of Mrs Ramsay, the fictive stand-in for Woolf’s own lost mother. Here the garden, that signifier of homely enchantment and security, becomes overgrown and wild. There’s a certain fecund, if horticulturally improbable, pleasure to the disorder, as the cabbage mates with the carnation. But the overriding sense is of horror, chaos and devastating loss. It’s the same metaphor Hamlet reaches for when he compares the world to an “unweeded garden” in the desolate wake of his father’s death.

Elsewhere, books and garden informed one another more happily. The success of Woolf’s gender-switching fantasy Orlando (1928) allowed her to make schemes for “terraces, gazebos, ponds, water lilies, fountains”, while the profits from Flush (1933) paid for a tiny Italian terrace, complete with a statue of a shepherdess, found rather bathetically in the grocer’s shop in nearby Barcombe. It was this garden that seems to have prompted the aristocratic Vita to exclaim: “You cannot recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex. It just cannot be done.”

You could, however, create Eden on six Kentish acres. When Virginia first met Vita in 1922, she was living with her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson in the eminently comfortable Long Barn. It wasn’t until 1930 that Vita came upon a ruined Elizabethan house with a romantic tower. “I fell in love at first sight,” she wrote of that first heart-stopping glimpse of Sissinghurst. “It was Sleeping Beauty’s garden: but a garden crying out for rescue.”

While Monk’s House was Leonard’s project, the garden created at Sissinghurst was a collaboration between Vita and Harold. He designed the structure, creating optical illusions to make the oddly askew plot appear formal and regular. It was laid out like a house, with long views as corridors, opening on to contained garden rooms. He described this hermetic, intimate and enfolding space as “a succession of privacies… all a series of escapes from the world, giving the impression of cumulative escape”.

'You cannot recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex': the garden at Monk's House
'You cannot recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex': the garden at Monk's House - Luise Berg-Ehlers/Alamy

Vita’s own contribution was the planting: a poetic, naturalistic revolt against the massed carpet bedding so cherished by her parents’ generation. Her sensibility had been sharpened by travels in Persia, Turkey and Greece, and she combined humble cottage garden flowers with sophisticated flourishes of then-rarities, including Algerian iris, Yucca gloriosa and foxtail lilies.

Between 1947 and 1961, she wrote a weekly column for the Observer, titled “In Your Garden”. Her advice was surprisingly democratic and un-grand, packed with practical ideas for turning the smallest bungalow or council house plot into a romantic plantsman’s haven. One January, she mooted the idea for what would become the famous white garden at Sissinghurst, imagining it at dusk on a summer’s evening, a barn owl ghosting above the white lilies and irises.

I often visited Sissinghurst as a child in the 1980s. Vita had died two decades earlier, but the garden retained its odd quality of being somehow suspended in time. It was the thing she most loved about it. In the poem “Sissinghurst”, dedicated to Woolf, she compares the experience of being in the garden to a swimmer who slips beneath the surface, to “sink down through centuries to another clime”. This time-slip sensation was also known to Woolf. Her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), is set in a country-house garden that seems almost like a portal through time, a place of deep continuity even as civilisation fractures and flies apart with the frightening onset of war.

'Flashing with colour': Garden Path in Spring (1944) by Duncan Grant
'Flashing with colour': Garden Path in Spring (1944) by Duncan Grant - The estate of Duncan Grant/ Tate

While Leonard rarely left the garden, Woolf often walked the six miles across the Downs to Charleston, where her painter sister Vanessa Bell lived with her extended family. Bell had moved there in 1916 with her companion and sometime lover Duncan Grant, and his lover David Garnett. Both men were conscientious objectors, spending the war working on a nearby farm. When peace came, they turned out the vegetables and chickens and transformed the farmhouse garden according to plans laid out by Roger Fry. Just as their paintings brought a modernist sensibility and Mediterranean palette to British art, so the garden at Charleston became, in Bell’s description, “a dithering blaze” of colour, an immodest riot of hollyhocks, red hot pokers and dahlias, barely contained by box parterres.

During the decades of its Bloomsbury occupation, the garden at Charleston had many roles. It was a queer refuge from war and a realm of joyful play for Bell’s three children (a photograph shows them larking around by the pond in togas, armed with wooden swords). It was a place for parties, a studio-cum-subject for paintings like Grant’s Garden Path in Spring (shown at the Garden Museum), and a consolation against loneliness and grief in the hard years after Bell’s son Julian was killed at the age of 29, while fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Each one of these gardens has long since lost its animating spirits. They’re not private sites of invention, but open to the public. They don’t change according to an individual’s whim. Instead, they attempt to memorialise the vision of the artists and writers who made them. Sissinghurst is the most managed, but even the tides of visitors and National Trust signage can’t quite break the spell that seems to gather between the yew hedges at dusk. The garden at Charleston, higgledy-piggledy and still flashing with colour, is the site of an annual literary festival, while Monk’s House remains a port of call for Woolf pilgrims.

A garden is a strange place, a hinterland between the domestic and the wild. Woolf might not have had green fingers, but she understood it best: as an ambiguous realm apart, where death and life entwine, where you can escape the world or awaken into it. The final sentence of her diary, her last observation before taking her own life four days later, was “Leonard is doing the rhododendrons.” The garden’s magic wasn’t fail-safe, but it had given her stability as well as transport and delight. That variegated chintz flower bed she’d once described: it was a kind of magic carpet, its limit the scope of the gardener’s imagination.

Olivia Laing’s latest book is The Garden Against Time (Picador, £20); Gardening Bohemia: Bloomsbury Women Outdoors is at the Garden Museum, London SE1 ( from May 15 until September 29