Day 113: old brick and yew

I want to take one last look at some of the details and textures that help to create the underlying structure in our gardens, before they disappear under a froth of exuberant flowers and foliage from now till November…

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Day 65: yew pollen

I happened to glance at my yew hedge the other day, only to see it surrounded by a golden haze, shifting in the breeze…

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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.


Hedging your bets

There are several wise things said concerning he who plants a tree. (Never, you’ll notice, ‘she’ who plants a tree. One can only assume that ‘she’ is off mowing the lawn, weeding the borders, digging the potatoes and pruning the wisteria while ‘he’ has spent the last three hours just digging a big hole, sticking a tree in it and standing back to admire his handy work.) All things considered – excepting the suspect gender bias – the sayings are justified, for a tree is about as wonderful and awe-inspiring a thing as you can get, and to plant one is an act of generosity and hope for the future. But I have to confess to feeling slightly put out that posterity doesn’t seem to have bothered itself with preserving any choice epithets on the subject of they who plant hedges. Because, when all is said and done, what is a hedge apart from rather a lot of trees planted closely together? Of course, an individual plant within a hedge will never grow to the same stature as one of the same species grown as a standard tree – you’d never be able to sit in its shade, build a treehouse in its canopy or hang a swing from its limbs – but that's not the point. A hedge is a living illustration of the thing which is greater than the sum of its parts – it has to be more than a lineup of stunted trees, which sounds horrid, or we wouldn’t bother with the hedge at all.

For centuries hedges have been planted to declare boundaries, control livestock and to mark rights of way, providing wood for fuel, shelter for animals and birds that scurry among their roots or nest in their branches, as well as food for the forager, whether animal or human in form. Their history is inextricably bound to the narrative of our rural past and now, through our gardens, they also have the potential to form a green web that criss-crosses mile upon mile of our urban and suburban landscape, providing the potential for wildlife corridors across entire towns and cities.

But beyond the history and the environmental credentials, what exactly is it about hedges that I like so much? That begs me to defend them over and above all other forms of garden enclosure or boundary material, and plant them wherever I can? Perhaps its the sheer variety available. There are deciduous hedges and evergreen hedges, or mixtures of both, hedges with blossom and hedges with berries, spiky, spiney hedges for security and soft, billowing cloud-pruned hedges for fun. Tight, clipped formal hedges and blousy unruly country hedges which, whether plashed by skillful craftsmen or brutishly mangled with a mechanical flail, never seem to mind and continue growing just as robustly all the same.

Contrasted with the uniformity of a fence there is so much more to delight the eye. Even when the hedge in question consists of multiples of one species, there’s a pleasing variety in tone that makes an experience out of simply gazing along its flank. But why plant just one species, when a hedge can consist of a glorious patchwork of different colours, leaf shapes and textures? While fast-growing hawthorn forms the backbone of many hedgerows, this is often augmented with complementary blackthorn and dog rose, beech and hornbeam, wayfaring tree and spindle to name only a handful. These are readily available online from hedging nurseries within their ‘native hegding’ mixes from as little as a pound per metre. Slightly more formal piebald effects can be achieved with a mixture of evergreen yew and deciduous hornbeam, creating a fresh contrast between the deep green of the yew and the vivid, almost lime-colours of the young hornbeam leaves in spring, turning copper orange to brown over winter.

Hedging costs vary depending on the species chosen and the initial size of the plants, but can be comparable and often cheaper than erecting a fence of cheap panels, and significantly less expensive than a well-constructed closeboard fence. But while the cost of ongoing maintenance needs to be factored in when planning for a fence – which will need periodic weather-proofing to delay the inevitable damage from rot and strong winds – this also needs to be considered with a hedge. At the moment it’s not uncommon to see a hedge in dire need of a short-back-and-sides, although more often than not this will consist of vigorously growing species such as the infamous Leyland cypress. Regular trimming, twice a year, is key to maintaining this kind of hedge. Far better to chose something which exists at a more sedate pace in the first place – the western red cedar Thuja plicata looks nicer, smells better, and grows more slowly than the leylandii which it superficially resembles. Planting a broadleaved hedge, whether deciduous (such as beech) or evergreen (holly or privet) allows greater margin for error when trimming, without the danger of creating unsightly brown patches should you cut back too far beyond the growing points (yew is the only conifer suitable for hedging which can successfully reshoot from old wood).

So given the choice, would I chose a fence or a hedge? Something that’s fit for purpose, good for the soul, and affordable too? I’d opt for the hedge every time.