A day in the life of... Gardens, Weeds & Words

A week's getaway in a tiny cottage on the very doorstep of my favourite garden. Could hardly be better!

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Details at Great Dixter, and
Planty Fare

Would you mind terribly if I were to bore you with a load of photographs of Great Dixter? I thought you probably wouldn’t. It’s just that I can never walk around the gardens there without snapping away hundreds of exposures, torn between attempting to record the perfect, wistfully romantic garden image, recording new (to me) plants and planting combinations, and a desire to put the camera away and just be still. There is so much to learn from every visit here, but while some teaching gardens (Wisley, for example) manage to do this with an engaging but ultimately didactic approach, here it’s a totally immersive experience.

I visited yesterday ostensibly for the autumn Plant Fair, another fantastic event which sees the gathering together of some fine specialist nurseries from the UK and beyond, with a programme of regular talks from the nursery-folk throughout the weekend and, of course, rather good food. On arriving I was pleased to see a friendly face, although Rosemary on the Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants stand was in mid flow, drawing the attention of a crowd to the benefits of some of her stock. First up was what I would until recently have called Aster turbinellus, my parents would still call a Michaelmas daisy, and Rosy was at pains to point out has been reclassified as Symphyotrichum turbinellum (why use two syllables when you can use five?). Growing to four feet tall, it has a lovely open habit, is fairly mildew resistant, and, as I can testify having planted several in a garden besieged by the rotten creatures, will hold its own against rabbits (although they will have a good go at it).

Rosy Hardy explaining the joys of botanical reclassification
Symphotrichum turbinellum from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Next up from Rosy was the beautiful red foliage shrub Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red'. Bearing sprays of white to pink flowers like the better known P. 'Diablo', it has a more compact habit than typical for a ninebark, which can get a little unruly when established.

Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red' from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Other familiar names were in evidence. As ever, the selection from Binny's Plants was looking very tempting.

The Binny’s Plants stand at Great Dixter
By the time I’d finished nosing through the selection from Derry Watkins at Special Plants, I was beginning to regret my cunning plan of leaving my wallet at home to prevent me from yet another spending spree.

Derry Watkins of Special Plants, chatting to a fine beard
The Great Dixter Nursery stand, about 50 yards from the actual nursery
I lingered quite some while, effectively window shopping, but inevitably found it was useless to resist the call of the garden, trudging back up the hill and entering through the meadow, full now of autumn crocuses. As ever, the first thing that strikes you on walking down this path is the porch of the house, with containers arranged around the doorway.

The porch displays are always changing. Worth the visit alone.
Plenty for me to analyse here from my photographs over the next few days, but this time of year provides a perfect time to admire the blue-grey Eastern thorn tree on the right hand side, Crataegus orientalis, with its large, round amber haws. A perfect colour combination.

A different kind of hawthorn. Crataegus orientalis
I spied pelargoniums in the grouping of pots to the right of the porch, including one of my favourite species, Pelargonium sidoides with its glaucous kidney-shaped leaves and deep maroon flowers (bottom right). These tender plants will be protected for a while from the cooler temperatures, nestled into the display and out of the immediate chill, although they'll have to be brought into the greenhouse in a week or so. I was also pleased to see the glamorous Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' that I’d first noticed on the Binny's stand at Wisley last month.

Pelargonium sidoides on the far right, Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' two points to the left
A visit to Dixter’s gardens can be tricky for me to pace, not least because my favourite sections are right at the start – the meadow, the porch, and the peacock garden, with all their wealth of detail, so that before I'm half way through, I'm both delighted and mentally overstimulated. On my next visit, I might make my way through the garden in the opposite direction. Yesterday, however, I turned left at the house, and headed for the peacock garden.

Entering the Peacock Garden
I do like a detail. The more intricate, and the least fussy – if that's not a contradiction in terms – the better. It could be a small section of wall, with ferns and mosses clinging to the stones, crowned with the vibrant red berries of a self-sown cotoneaster which has been given leave to remain. It might be the pleasing combination of textures framed in my viewfinder – the planes of tightly clipped yew, the russet coloured house, and the feathered silver-gold plumes of miscanthus. In each little vignette, I look for the essence of the garden – that delicately balanced counterpoint between irrepressible force of nature, allowing itself for a while to subdued by the hand of the gardener. You don’t need to be in possession of a peculiar sensitivity to see that at work here.

In the High Garden, I had a moment of affirmation. I've been mildly berating myself for undertaking a slightly bonkers brief early in the new year, to transform an old vegetable garden into a prairie-style planting, but incorporating the fruit trees and soft-fruit. Standing here, however, I felt justified and, knowing this space so well, I’m fairly certain that it must have been there all along, deep in my subconscious, preventing me from trying to talk my clients out of the idea.

Fruit trees, grasses and prairie style perennials
Mine has a little way to go in comparison. But at least I can be confident in my reference point.

Climbing down the steps through the hedge into the orchard garden. What a treat.

Descending again to the long border, and another lesson for me with this openly pruned golden lonicera, echoing the form of the miscanthus in the background. Where I might feel pressure to clip this tight, how much more charming to allow it the space to breathe and assume an open shape. Artfully done, though, L. nitida being notoriously unruly when allowed free reign.

More lessons. I will use a golden spiraea as a blob in a border, but I hadn't thought to allow the form to flow and merge with an erysimum, let alone drape it around with nasturtiums.

Finally, for this trip, an encounter with a rather revolting variegated phlox, which nonetheless proved to be just the thing needed. Now, I can’t say with any certitude that the variegated phlox is a thing which should by law be allowed at all – I have my suspicions that quite the contrary should be the case. But on the long border, it somehow managed to ease a transition from predominantly warm colours to a patch of much cooler, greys, blues and pinks, which might otherwise have seemed to jar. Food for thought – I'm still not entirely sure what I think about the plant, or even about this patch in the border from which the colour appears to have bled, but that is one of the wonderful things about the way Fergus and his team are continually experimenting here, reviewing every element and assessing the role it plays within the whole.

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I didn’t get round the whole garden, for reasons already mentioned. But I think I have time to visit over the next few weeks, before it closes on the 25th of the month.

The Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair

A wet and very windy weekend for the Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair. In all honesty I arrived far too late on Sunday afternoon – by the time I’d had a quick peak around the garden to see what had grown since my last visit only three weeks ago, people were starting to think about packing up. I spent all my cash on The Walled Nursery’s stall (Emma had brought scented pelargoniums, amongst other things – any attempt at resistance was clearly going to be an exercise in futility), where I had the pleasure of making the real life acquaintance of a Twitter friend, Philippa Burrough of Ulting Wick near Maldon in Essex, who had come to lend a hand for the day. Philippa and her husband, incidentally supporters of the Great Dixter Trust, open the gardens at Ulting Wick under the National Gardens Scheme several times a year (the next open day being Friday 17 April – more details on the NGS website here). Emma seemed to be doing brisk trade even as the stalls were packing up around her, which was just as well. Back at the nursery, Monty had found it necessary to close due to the high winds, which always carries with it the danger of falling glass (for the latest on the progress of the renovations to the Victorian glasshouses at The Walled Nursery, click here to visit the website).

Emma from The Walled Nursery (left) and Philippa from Ulting Wick
It was also great to catch up briefly with Jill Anderson of growingnicely.co.uk (do pop across to her blog for some cracking garden writing and for details of her book, Planting Design Essentials) – Jill, her husband and I converged upon the wonderful pot display by the porch as I arrived. There’s always such a fabulous splash of colour here, with the different forms and textures of the plants and the play of light and shadow around the various containers; never the same on any two visits, I sometimes think it would be great to have time-lapse footage of this single view of the house and garden, especially for those who aren’t so fortunate to live close enough to make the pilgrimage on a regular basis.

A brief visit then, with lots of weather, but what with meeting friends, buying plants and soaking up a fabulous garden – who could ask for more?

The structure here is always impressive, whatever the weather

The phlox here is much further on than mine – I did divide it quite late

Things to plant with Arum mac. #1 – oriental hellebores

Things to plant with Arum mac. #2 – scilla


A good day at Great Dixter

If you’re a keen gardener, it’s not unreasonable for you to expect the plants in your care to flourish and thrive. After all the attention and effort you lavish upon them, it would be a bit galling if they were to turn up their toes and die. It does happen though, and even those of use who earn our living from gardening are not immune – no matter how sanguine I try to be in such situations, the walk to the bonfire with my latest vegetative cadaver is rarely undertaken with the jauntiest of steps. And so I was immensely encouraged to hear Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter’s head gardener, confess that much of his considerable wealth of knowledge regarding plant combinations has been acquired not, as you might imagine, from years of study and painstaking observation, but rather “the bitter experience of killing things”.

The context of this comforting revelation was a consideration of the thuggish nature of allium leaves, and the detrimental effect their luxuriant and haphazard canopies can have on perennials which take longer to muster their strength – specifically in this case the notoriously competition-shy phlox, but also other plants with basal leaves, such as asters and heleniums. Not all alliums are guilty – the narrow leaves of Allium sphaerocephalon, for example, are quite well mannered, but ‘Christophii’, ‘Globemaster’ and A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ are all guilty as charged. And it’s not just alliums we should be careful with – how many of us consider the foliage of tulips when making a selection, rather than simply the flowers and stems? Big, lax leaves are less useful in a garden situation, whereas a tulip like ‘Ballerina’ has a tidier habit, and can be planted at greater densities.

Fergus had taken an hour so out of his morning working on the Long Border to talk to a room full of garden writers and photographers, an event kindly hosted by the team at Great Dixter for the members of the Garden Media Guild. A perfect spring morning began with tea and lemon drizzle cake (two of the gardener’s basic food groups) and a chance to chat with friends in the education suite, part of the complex of farm buildings recently converted by the Great Dixter Charitable Trust in order to provide a learning environment and accommodation for students. Education lies at the heart of Dixter, and it’s no more than a couple of minutes into his talk before Fergus illustrates this.

“Teaching is what Dixter is about. With Christo, it used to take me three and half days to do the exotic garden. But teaching with students, it takes seven to eight days. Things take longer now, but they’re the future, these kids."

It’s hard to think of a better environment in which this next generation of gardener will hone not just their horticultural skills, but also their understanding of how a complex and multilayered garden works from day to day. With a small team of five full-time gardeners, plus volunteers and students, Fergus relies on a succession of complicated-looking flowcharts (he refers to these as ‘maps’), so that every member of the team knows how their current task fits within the context of the estate, which includes the borders, meadows and vegetable beds within the garden itslef, and the 52 acres of pasture and woodland beyond. Even a brief acquaintance with one of these maps serves to illustrate the intricacies involved in managing a garden on the scale of Dixter’s six acres, the sheer number and variety of the tasks seeming overwhelming at first. But one of the advantages of setting the work out in this fashion is that it allows you to see where the ‘crunch times’ will occur in the gardening year – the end of October and November being one, with another in January to March., and so Fergus is continually on the look out for any jobs which can be brought forward to relieve these busier times. (Any of those unfortunate, ill-advised folk who dare to suggest that gardeners have nothing to do over winter should be made to memorise one of these charts.) To this end, cuttings will be taken in September when light levels are high and rooting is better, and the team will start thinking about clearing and cleaning greenhouses in August in order to move in tender plants the moment the frost warnings suggest, so avoiding the chaotic bottleneck which might otherwise occur.

The wildflower meadows are now key to the look of the gardens at Great Dixter. While for the most part the public has got used to them, there are still some who complain later on in the summer months.  “Why have you left the grass like that?!” The staff seem to take this in their stride, treating this kind of encounter as another opportunity to educate the wider community about the
biodiversity work which has become an increasingly important facet of their role here. The meadows are cut when the latest flowering plant – usually the common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii – has had the opporunity to drop its ripened seed, around the last week of August. Fergus is experimenting with a mozaic system of management, which involves creating diverse areas of habitat within the meadow area, leaving some areas uncut, and allowing sheep to graze others. The hay is raked off by hand, a slow process, but one which avoids the detrimental impact on habitat management often involved with mechanised raking.

Ursula Cholmley, taking a day off from Easton Walled Gardens to make notes on the meadows at Great Dixter

Gardening at Great Dixter is clearly a cerebral activity, and the gardeners are encouraged to adopt a mindset of continually analysing successes and failures. Having in the past had indifferent success in getting the seeds of Tetranapax papyrifer to germinate, 15 pots were sown, each placed in a different location. The one which was treated to a combination of both misting and bottom heat was the only one to show signs of life, but when all 15 pots were placed in these conditions, germination was 100 per cent. “Don’t believe what’s on the seed packet,” Fergus tells us. “They say you should sow zinnias in March.” At Dixter, they sow the seeds in the first week of June, get germination within two days, and have plants ready to plant out by the end of the month. It’s important to know what works in your location, and this only knowledge comes through experimentation.

Evidence of this rigorous process of experimentation and review is also seen in the approach to plant combinations, which Fergus tries not to repeat, but rather to vary. We were treated to slides of different tulips through a variety of floral ‘carpets’ – aquilegias, arabis, foxgloves, anthriscus – the general idea remains consistent with each iteration, but the look differs dramatically as the principles are varied. On occasion, a combination will get an encore, due to a palpably manifest irritation that the first time round it hadn’t quite gone right. So, after an absence of several years, the pairing of Papaver commutatum 'Ladybird' with Orlaya grandiflora with receive an encore, with the relative ratio of one plant to another adjusted to achieve a more balanced effect. There’s no point in making rules if you can’t break them now and again.

Orlaya grandiflora with Ladybird poppies (detail from Cleve West’s Brewin Dolphin garden at Chelsea, 2012)
Later in the afternoon we were treated to a tour of the gardens by Rachael Dodd, one of the full time staff, a likeable and ebullient guide whose horticultural knowledge is evidently equalled by an enthusiasm for communicating her passion for the plants and for Dixter itself. Standing in the peacock garden, she became almost apologetic about the level of detail into which she had descended while telling us about trimming the topiary. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I was fascinated to learn that  the gardeners use lightweight, electric consumer-level hedge trimmers made by Stihl for this job, largely due to issues of balance, finding (as I often do when attempting something slightly intricate) that the heavier petrol machines are sometimes inclined to sink into the body of the piece, rather than skimming lightly over the surface. I’m not sure I could be doing with the trailing electric cables, but portability and versatility are probably of secondary consideration to the gardeners here.

Electric hedge cutters are used on the yew 'peacocks', light enough to skim across the top surface of the topiary in a smooth plane
How fascinating to learn, too, that the borders in the peaccock garden – normally chock full of plants billowing romantically between the tightly clipped yew forms – are actually the stock beds for the nursery. The plants used to be grown in rows, ostensibly for practical reasons, until Christopher Lloyd decided to lay them out with more of a concession to aesthetics, in layers, organised in sections according to season of interest. In early March, everything feels very calm and controlled, the beds marked out with long canes along the surface to indicate the various plant groupings, and short canes in the soil to flag the location of plant that has yet to emerge above ground. It’s an entirely necessary discipline with a team of gardeners working the same area, and will prove its worth over the months to come, particuarly once the plants start to bulk up.

This year, the far path is guarded by skeletal sentinals – an alarming sight, but a reminder of the resiliance of yew as a conifer that will rejuvinate from being cut back hard. These topiary pieces are old, and have reached a point where drastic measures are sometimes required. Fergus tells us that it will take a good ten years, perhaps more, for each piece to achieve its former stature, so it’s as well that they don’t all require this treatment at once.

We make our way through to the vegetable garden where, after a winter of mulching and soil amelioration, the compost heaps are still of a prodigious size. The use of this compost is restricted to certain areas, as they don’t get hot enough to kill all the weed seeds. In addition, Rachael tells us that they get through spent mushroom compost “by the truck load”; 25 tonnes of organic material is brought in each year. Fergus has phased out the use of inorganic fertilizers, relying on bonemeal and fish, blood and bone, and the nursery is now entirely peat free.

By the time we reach the end of the long border my brain has turned to jam from all the information, but it’s always a joy to walk this path, greeting like old friends the stalwart, ever-present characters – the towering golden ilex at the far end, the pinus mugo in the middle, and the pair of aucubas nearer the house – while peering with a mixture of curiosity and delight at the more ephemeral tennants of the various bedding pockets incorporated throughout for seasonal interest.

Male and female spotted laurels. Aucuba japonica 'Crontonifolia' and f. longifolia
Towards the end of the tour, by popular request we get to poke our noses into one of the cellars, where a new use for fish boxes is revealed – stuffed with dahlia tubers and cannas and stretching from the entrance through another doorway and beyond, no doubt shortly due to be potted up and making their way to the cold frames.

There was plenty more to the day. I’ve not found time to write about the tour of the house, nor the work done with by the guys in the barn using coppiced chestnut from the woodland – pieces which are used in the garden, or sold on to offset the cost of their employment. It’s all up here though *taps head*, and in here *taps notebook*, to be used at a later date, no doubt. I’m especially glad to these last two chaps, as they kindly helped to get me back on the road after I'd stupidly left my car headlights on and drained the battery flat. But that’s another story.

With especial thanks to the Garden Media Guild and the team at Great Dixter for a thoroughly interesting day.

Tight clipped

‘Various things poking up through the peacocks’ Rachael

Fluffy pruning

The Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair marks the opening of the gardens, on Saturday 28th & Sunday 29th March 2015. Admission £8.00 including entry to the gardens.

Great Dixter

On the way to Rye, less than an hour away from here, there lies hidden in a corner of the village of Northiam one of my favourite gardens. This is Great Dixter, the home of the late Christopher Lloyd – colourful, influential, and sometimes controversial gardener and writer who created a very unique garden at his family home. Looked after since his death in 2006 by a charitable trust, the gardens continue to inspire and evolve under the guidance of Christo’s head gardener, Fergus Garrett. From the moment you approach the medieval facade of the house along the path through the wild flower meadow at the front, you know that you’ve arrived somewhere special, and the rest of the garden doesn’t fail to deliver on the promise.

Arriving at the porch the visitor is greeted by a continually changing but always spectacular collection of pots and containers, overflowing with all manner of flowers and foliage and colour. It’s almost worth a trip for this alone –  rich food for thought for anyone with a small courtyard garden or a paved area without flower beds, for the sheer variety and unexpected exuberance of the effect that can be achieved from gardening in this way. It’s true that container gardening can present its own challenges – watering, feeding and weeding need to be approached with more discipline for plants in pots, which are often less forgiving than those in the ground – but the sight of this ensemble is enough to make anyone want to give it a go.

Turning to the left and walking along the front of the house you soon come to a garden with the most amazing clipped yew shapes – geometric forms in deepest green, with topiary peacocks on the top; a lovely mixture of formality and humour. That’s where the formality ends, however, as the spaces between the statuesque forms are packed with billowing perennials and the planting, whilst tightly concentrated in terms of the number of plants, has been allowed to indulge a pleasingly loose attitude as regards the boundaries provided by the landscaping. All this creates a pleasantly disorienting effect, and I realise that my recollection of exactly where the paths go is slightly confused as I grapple with my recent memories of this beautiful yet bonkers, Alice-in-Wonderland space. I remember at some point scaling some steps to the upper level in the peacock garden, which might cause access problems to those with limited mobility. But you have to remember that this was built as a family garden rather than a visitor attraction, something testified to by the narrowness of the paths in many places, especially where the plants spill out over them with apparently unruly abandon, as they often do, adding to the romance of the place.

This is not low maintenance gardening – it’s a plantsman’s paradise and a designer’s dream, but the lack of formality and apparent wanton attitude of so much of the planting belies meticulous planning and many hours continuous hard work by the gardening team. These borders never sleep – whatever time of year you visit, they will be full of interest, as you would expect in the garden of the author of Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. I have heard Fergus Garrett speak on how he will look at photographs of the same small section of the long border taken at different times of the year, planning precisely which plant should follow which as one season gives way to another, what’s working well, and what isn’t earning its place. The plantscape is always changing at Dixter, and a ruthless attitude can be employed by the head gardener if some combination is not working as hoped.

Ducking under the mulberry tree (we’d missed the fruit by a few weeks, more’s the pity), we made our way past the steps leading down to the orchard and the most fantastical bit of bedding I’ve ever seen on – a crazy tableau of sempervivums, echeverias and other succulents – into one of my favourite areas, the exotic garden. A one time cattle yard, and then rose garden, I’ve only known it as a home for dahlias and lush, exotic foliage plants. So verdant on this visit (by now pouring with rain), it was almost impossible to see the path, and we had to literally push aside the plants to make any progress. Giant leaved tetrapanax, bamboos and tree ferns, this is a true jungle, albeit in East Sussex. I almost felt a machete would be in order, although I hardly feel that such extreme pruning would have been popular.

Ed almost gets eaten by the giant tetrapanax leaves
There are many other areas to explore – the high garden, the orchard garden, the horse pond, the sunk garden and the topiary lawn – such that your head is quite reeling by the time you reach the exit. In reality, it’s beyond my capacity to process in a single visit, which is why I feel so fortunate to have Dixter on the doorstep, and I’m looking forward to my next visit when it opens again in April. (It’s a shame to have to wait so long, as I would love to see this garden after a heavy frost.)

An annual ticket continues to be absurdly reasonable, particularly since having seen the garden once, you will doubtless want to come back throughout the year.

More pictures can be seen here.