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