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Tips and Inspiration from England’s Great Dixter Gardens

Fergus Garrett, head of England's Great Dixter Gardens and one of the world’s preeminent gardening experts, talks about the art of making fine gardens, and fine gardeners.

By THOMAS C. COOPER

Issues: Spring 2020

Authors: Thomas C. Cooper

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Great Dixter House sits nestled in a network of gardens that comprises all manner of plants, from trees and shrubs to annuals and climbers—“all growing together and contributing to the overall tapestry,” wrote their chief architect, Christopher Lloyd. photo courtesy of Claire Takacs Photography.

Great Dixter, a 110-year-old, six-acre garden located 60 miles southeast of London, has been called England’s most dynamic, exciting, and beautiful garden. Its CEO and head gardener, Fergus Garrett, is widely considered one of the finest garden-makers in the world. In 2019, Garrett received the Victoria Medal of Honour, gardening’s highest accolade, given by the Royal Horticultural Society (there can be only 63 medalists at any one time, honoring the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign).

Great Dixter was the home of Daisy and Nathaniel Lloyd, who bought the 15th-century manor house in 1910 and expanded it with the assistance of famed Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens also helped lay out the bones of the garden, which comprises several “rooms” framed by yew hedges and brick walls, all   linked by a network of stone paths. The plantings were established by Daisy Lloyd, a passionate gardener, and carried on by Christopher Lloyd, her youngest (of six children), who was born in the house in 1921. Christo, as he was known to his friends, brought the garden its renown with his imaginative, rule-bending approach, which he chronicled in numerous articles (he wrote a weekly column in Country Life without interruption for 46 years). His books (see sidebar below) are considered essential tools for any serious gardener.

These brown seed heads, being examined by Fergus Garrett, head of Great Dixter gardens, belong to a teasel plant (the spiny cobs were once used to card, or  “tease,” wool). A self-sower that’s prized at Dixter for its bold shape and long season, its many seedlings require ruthless weeding. photo courtesy of Carol Casselden.

Since Lloyd’s death in 2006, his great friend and gardening ally, Fergus Garrett, who joined Dixter in 1993, has taken the garden forward, maintaining the labor-intensive traditional practices that are increasingly rare in gardening, while constantly challenging himself, the staff, and his students to think creatively and make the garden more stimulating, more colorful, and more sustainable. (The students, funded by scholarships from Dixter and elsewhere, come from around the world to stay and work at Dixter for anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years. They are there to learn to garden the Dixter way.) “In terms of pure horticultural fireworks — and seasonal surprises — there is nowhere like Great Dixter,” said Christopher Woodward, director of London’s Garden Museum.

Dixter is currently closed to the public due to Covid-19, but Garrett and a skeletal crew are still hard at work tending the gardens, readying them for an as yet unknown opening. As people forced to stay home look for beauty, comfort, and food in their backyards, interest in gardening is rising dramatically. This led me to speak with Garrett recently by phone about the principles and practices he employs in making a world-class garden, and how they can be adopted to anyone’s backyard.

Formal yew hedges divide Dixter’s High Garden into a series of intimate vignettes where lavish plantings spill onto pathways, forcing visitors to wade through them. The hedges also buffer wind from the ocean, 10 miles to the east. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     What’s the most enjoyable part of being a gardener?

A:      I’ll start with something primitive. The physical exercise is very rewarding — having your hands in the soil and aching when you come in after having accomplished something. I also enjoy how a packet of seeds can transport you to the meadows in Transylvania or the rocky outcrops around Constantinople, because you’re dealing with a plant that has a habitat and a community associated with it. By planting certain things, you could create a jungle that feels like Costa Rica, or it could feel like the Himalayas or something quite Jurassic, simply by changing one or two plants.

I love that creative element of it as well. There’s something really wonderful about creating a picture that flows and sways and creaks in the wind, that smells. It’s like putting paint on a canvas, but you’re dealing with living things, so it’s more three-dimensional than just putting paint on a canvas. The work can be monotonous. It is hard work. You can be out in hard weather. Things can go wrong. But you’re very privileged to be amongst nature.

Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd’s six children. Christopher, far right, clutching a daffodil flower, was born in the Great Dixter house and lived there until his death, in 2006. Some of the home’s oak timbers date to the 15th century. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

I love seeing plants that I know from the garden in their natural habitat; that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I think of trips to Anatolia with Christo and seeing giant fennels or thousands and thousands of tulips growing wild. In many respects I find gardens less interesting, but I love the ones that are clearly original, and an extension of a person’s creativity. I went to see a friend of Christo’s not long ago. He’s a retired surgeon, in his 80s. He was wearing these ragged old clothes with torn sleeves. He’d been gardening away, it was freezing cold; he took me all around his garden. He’d broken his hip a few months earlier, and he was jumping among the stepping stones, admiring the chino-doxa that were coming up. I loved his passion.

Flowering among the emerging foliage of later-blooming perennials are maroon, lily-flowered tulip ‘Merlot’; pale yellow ‘Antoinette’; and forget-me-nots. The goal is no bare soil. The espaliered fruit trees harken back to the area’s Edwardian role as a kitchen garden. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.
Garrett and his team use displays like this one to compare the performance of tempting new bulbs with long-standing, Dixter favorites. The arch tilework is an early 1900s design touch by Edwin Lutyens, England’s famed Edwardian architect. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q: Recent studies have shown Dixter supports a great diversity of wildlife. How does that happen in an intensively managed garden?

A:      We always knew Dixter was rich with wildlife. But ecologists often dismissed us because we were gardeners, as if we’re doing something completely artificial that was against nature.

Just by accident, we managed to get some arachnologists to visit Dixter, and they found the most extraordinary spiders. They found one spider that hadn’t been recorded in the UK since early in the 20th century. They found lots of things that are found in only two or three sites in the whole of the United Kingdom.

That led to a biodiversity audit of the whole site. We broke the property up into house, ornamental garden, meadows — inside and outside the garden — and the woodlands. Because we’ve probably got one of the richest meadows in the country, you’d expect the meadows and our ancient woodlands, which are dripping with vegetation, to be extraordinarily rich, and they were. But the garden itself was richer.

An ever-changing potted display greets visitors at the front entrance to the Great Dixter house. Often arranged by students, these pop-up gardens are a way to hone and expand design skills, playing with textures, shapes, and colors as they would in a border. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

We don’t garden for biodiversity. We don’t think, let’s put this plant here because it’s a pollinator. We think we’re going to choose this plant because we like the look of it. But our mixed borders have layer on layer of vegetation — so a food crop over a long season — and we don’t do any spraying; we only put on organic fertilizer when and where it’s necessary. We tickle our own organic compost into the soil once a year. And we’ve got a variety of habitats. We’ve got water in our old horse pond. We’ve got cracks in stone walls. We’ve got old buildings. We’ve got old trees. We’ve got nooks and crannies left, right, and center. That variety in the garden attracts all this diversity — beetles, dragonflies, lichen, hoverflies. We’ve got over half the UK species count of bees, 140 different ones.

You don’t need to create a “mess” in order to get wildlife. Here is a highly ornamental garden that has lots of formality and is intensively managed, yet supports an abundance of wildlife. We’re as rich as any nature reserve around us. 

All plants are welcome at Dixter. Here, an assortment of cactus and succulents ornament what were once grass patches in Lutyens’s circular steps. The York sandstone pavers throughout Dixter surfaced London’s streets in pre-tarmac days. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     Dixter is perhaps best known for its mixed-border style of gardening. What is a mixed border, and what is its appeal?

A:        A mixed-border brings together all types of plants and bulbs — trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, biennials, climbers — giving you the greatest range of colors, shapes, and textures, to produce a garden with four seasons of interest. Instead of segregating plants by type — an herbaceous border, an annual bed, a rose garden — all those elements are woven together in a fabric that imitates nature. In the wild, plants grow in communities, not in isolation surrounded by a sea of bark mulch. A mixed border has a very free, cottagey feel and offers interest from the earliest spring bulbs to the berries and bark of deep winter.

This sketch by Garrett, a cross-section of one garden, shows how plants can be staged to provide a long succession of attractions in a limited space. Drawings like these are signature illustrations of how Garrett thinks through a garden’s myriad possibilities. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     Is this style applicable to a home garden?

A:      It absolutely can be scaled down or scaled up, and you can play with how labor-intensive you want it to be. The shrub and tree layers require less labor (though gardening is not a labor-free activity), and the bedding plants — the annuals and tender perennials like cannas and dahlias — and the self-sowers tend to require more labor. You can add in quantities of annuals and self-sowing plants, or you can cut down the amount of attention you need to give a border by having a greater proportion of shrubs and other permanent plantings.

A tapestry of wild plants, including the blue-flowered native North American Quamash. This lawn is left un-mown until the last plant—a native orchid—has shed its seed (often prompting visitors to ask if Dixter’s mower is broken). The area is then cut and cleared. “The poorer the soil,” wrote Lloyd, “ the richer the tapestry.” photo courtesy of Jonathan Buckley.

These principles will apply perfectly well in a very different climate, too, such as they have in Southern California. The spacing between plants may be greater because there’s more competition underground for the limited water supply, and the plants must suit those conditions. But in addition to native trees and shrubs and perennials, there are plants and bulbs from South Africa or Chile or the Middle East. That said, you must be careful not to plant something that might become invasive.

Although Dixter is known for its brash color clashes (“I take it as a challenge to combine every sort of color effectively,” Christopher Lloyd wrote), many plantings, like this grouping of yellow columbine, purple allium, and blue Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, would please what Lloyd referred to as “the good taste club.” photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     Someone once said that any damn fool can have a garden that’s beautiful in spring. How does one go about creating a garden that has two or more seasons of interest?

A:      Making sure that you have plants that are going to perform over a longer period is key. If you have a number of conifers or evergreens such as hollies or mahonias or andromedas, they will give you a display over an extended season; perennials with interesting foliage—maybe a combination of hosta and a fernwill look fresh and eye-catching in the spring as they come up, but will also look good in the summer. That pairing will look good at the end of the summer as well. You could have a shrub like a viburnum or a sambucus that gives you lovely spring flowers, followed by handsome leaves, followed by berries, followed by autumn color, rather than choosing a lilac, which only gives you lovely spring flowers. This happens in nature throughout the world, where one lot of vegetation takes over from another. You just kind of imitate that succession.

Grasses and perennials are left to stand in Great Dixter’s Barn Garden, where their skeletal shapes and muted tones complement the quiet of winter. The sunken area was originally lawn, then a vegetable garden during World War I. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

I remember being in Baltimore one spring and being told they couldn’t really do this layered, succession planting, because the climate was different from ours at Dixter. But we went to a nearby woodland, and we saw that underneath the tulip poplar trees, which didn’t have any leaves on, there were hepaticas and erythroniums, mayapples, bloodroot, and other wonderful plants. They could be flowering underneath your perennials or your shrubs. Throughout the United States, in grassland flora and in woodland flora, this layering happens naturally. If you survey the woodlands in a cold area and find things like trout lilies doing their thing, you don’t have to grow that wild erythronium.

What you mustn’t do is look at the Dixter range of plants and the Dixter borders and say ‘I’m going to copy that.’ Just take that concept and the principles of what we’re doing and apply it to your conditions.

Selecting plants that are compatible, not competitive, is key to successful layering. Here, emerging fronds of cinnamon fern rise up among the strappy foliage of snowdrops, the blue flowers of forget-me nots, and a ground-hugging chartreuse maidenhair fern. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     What’s more important, foliage or flowers?

A:      I think all of it together is best, but if I have to lean heavily on something, I’d always lean on foliage. It just adds strength to the garden. The flowers of a perennial may last a couple of weeks, but the foliage will be there for months, so I always think about the foliage — its shape and texture and size; is it matte or glossy and reflective, sword-shaped or cascading. What will make a stimulating contrast with its neighbors. And there are umpteen shades of green and yellow and cream in foliage, plus reds and blues and variegations. Foliage is magic.

Throughout the gardens, annuals are tucked into pockets where bulbs have made an early display; or, as in this drift of Cosmos ‘Rubenza’, threaded through an area where perennials have finished their season’s show. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Q:     You’ve substantially expanded the number of pots in the gardens at Dixter. What’s their role?

A:      Obviously they’re a nice welcome for the public, and they give a special bit of pizzazz. On a more practical level, we’re very often given plants, or we buy plants or bulbs that we don’t know. We pot those up and evaluate them in a pot display, where a plant can easily be pulled out if we see it doesn’t clean itself, or it whimpers at the first sign of rain.

Along a path in the Barn Garden where tulips and early-season perennials earlier held sway, pink cactus flowered dahlias, burgundy Amaranth ‘Opopeo’, and a dwarf pampas grass provide some autumn fireworks. photo courtesy of Great Dixter House & Gardens.

Pots can be a valuable learning tool, and I use them in teaching our students. In arranging displays of potted plants, you employ the same principles you would use in planting a garden—you don’t want a flat display. You want to create negative spaces. You want your eye to move and be drawn. You want to contrast foliage and forms. I lay down a few rules, but actually I very much allow them to do what they want. I might take a kid who is quite comfortable with arranging things and say, I want you to do a pot display, but you’re just going to use variegated hostas. Or I might say, OK, you’ve taken an hour to do this display. Next time, do it in 10 minutes. So, I use pots as part of the process of developing their artistic sense.

Q:     Christo was obviously a huge influence on you; what are the most enduring lessons that you gained from him?

A:      To be observant. Be intelligent. Have fun, be free. I’ve learned to be much more patient in the way that I garden. As a youngster, you want to do it straightaway. Christo taught me this sort of slow approach. You take a cutting. You grow that cutting. You plant it. You watch it grow. And then, after three or four years, a planting combination starts to materialize. There’s nothing wrong with that, because you’ve got time.

Please tell us what kinds of creative projects you’re pursuing during the Covid-19 crisis. You can even share photos and videos of what you’re doing here. We’ll publish the best on our site and social media channels over the coming weeks.

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