It is many years since I visited Great Dixter and a return visit with three other gardening friends during a 3 day visit to West Sussex was anticipated keenly by us all.
We arrived in good time to have a browse around the plant centre before going into the main garden. The plants include some unusual varieties, are a good size, well labelled and potted in a wonderfully gritty soil that defines the phrase ‘free-draining moist soil’! I filled a basket with Penstemon hidalgensis (a tall, mauve variety) and Cirsium tuberosum (pinker and later than rivulare) and, to my delight, the seeds of Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’ before we headed into the garden.
When I first visited Dixter, some 25 years ago, I was unprepared for its wild exuberance and its unmanaged appearance compared with the great Arts & Crafts gardens that I was used to - like Hidcote, Sissinghurst and Goddards - but over the years I have learned more about it and how to appreciate it. The stewardship of Fergus Garrett; his continuing development of the Christopher Lloyd gardening philosophy and the hundreds of international students who have learned and spread knowledge of the garden and his methods has led to an audience that, I am sure, was much more prepared than I originally was for the experience that is Great Dixter.
An old mulberry tree offers a shady nook
Looking back at the house from the pond garden
Wonderful combinations of colour and texture characterise Great Dixter
Walking down the pathway towards the house, the eye is immediately grabbed (there is no other word for it) by the two displays outside the front door. Forget about container planting: this is staged planting on a grand scale from the Pinus Montezuma and Quercus dentata that made up the rear of the two displays to the heucherella and Carex oshimemsis at the front, the displays are highlighted by contrasting shapes, colours, foliage and points of interest with spots of colour bursting through.
Massed displays of plants frame the front door of the house
The pathways narrow under the mass of planting that, by late July, looms over them and among which a host of butterflies dances. It is an immersive experience and there is a new plant to examine at every turn.
There are plenty of videos available on Fergus Garret’s gardening philosophy (I remember watching a fascinating 4-part series on Great Dixter during lockdown) but two things I brought away from my recent visit were layered planting and mulch, mulch, mulch. It is obvious as you walk round the garden that it is planted for successive flowering so that as one bulb or plant goes over the next is already pushing it aside to have its moment of glory.
The same goes for mulching. The borders are a decent width so there’s plenty of room for adding organic material to improve and enrich the soil but at Great Dixter it has been done with such a generous hand that the borders now rise at least 10cm above the level of the path. I shall be much more liberal with my mulch this autumn.
I haven’t even mentioned the house. Great Dixter is a fifteenth century house adapted and extended in the early 1900’s by Sir Edward Lutyens who combined the early house with a barn brought across from Benenden. The main house gives an intimate view into Christopher Lloyd’s family while providing accommodation for residential students in the other part.
I am always keen to show what can be done with containers. Here on a visit to Merriments is a large terracotta pot placed in a hot border and guaranteed to make your eyes pop.
A combination to catch the eye!
Back in Gloucestershire, it’s high summer and the crop on my Czar plum tree is ripening fast. It’s still quite a young tree and the boughs strain under the weight of fruit so I’ve popped a fruit bough stake underneath the heaviest laden branches to keep them from snapping.
Czar plums held up by a fruit bough stake
Finally, we have introduced the new 4-ball stakes that we have been talking about for some time and which I am now trialing in the garden. It is intended to provide a solution for clumps that might not have had sufficient support early in the season – and with the wind and rain we have had, who doesn’t have a flopping phlox or unruly thalictrum? The stakes are intended to be used in threes or fives around the clump, well hammered in and up to three layers of string would round the balls giving sufficient support for almost any plant.