Great Dixter transmits the exuberance warmth and energy that comes from a deep love of plants. I was lucky enough to attend a study day run by its head gardener the superb plantsman Fergus Garrett, who of course worked alongside Christopher Lloyd until his death in 2006.
Fergus demonstrated through slides, a lecture and a wander through the gardens, the Great Dixter approach to good planting, using contrast of shape, tone, colour and texture to set off each plant to its best advantage. Good structure is important as the bones to any garden – at Great Dixter it is provided by Yew hedges, great pieces of yew topiary and the trees and shrubs, but some perennials also provide structure during their season, including Verbascums, teasels, grasses, hostas and ferns. Variety of form makes for interesting undulations and can create a tapestry of shape from rounds and spikes to feathers and spires. The importance of strong shapes to punctuate a planting scheme cannot be underestimated, but everything needs to be in balance. Too many small plants in a large space can look bitty and one strong shape needs to be balanced by another, rather than a large shape pushing out a smaller shape – this takes the fine tuning of scale and proportion and editing – don’t be frightened to cut your Clematis montana back or weed out some of your self sown poppies to achieve this balance. But equally, plant in big enough clumps for your perennials not to get hidden. The plants need to be given space to breathe, but the loose quality of some plantings and allowing some things to self sow, can act as a gelling agent which ties a border together, makes it sing and creates dynamism and movement rather than static blocks of planting that don’t relate well to each other. Plants need to be integrated, so don’t put a tall plant next to a low plant with nothing in between – use a mixture of heights so that plants connect, and avoid lines or blocks of plants that look artificial.It goes almost without saying, that you have to choose the right plants for the right place – according to the soil, aspect, level of shade or sun, hardiness zone and moisture levels in your garden.
Fergus is quite free and experimental with colour. He embraces all colours, but analyses what works well and what doesn’t work so well, and makes changes. The Great Dixter Gardens are always changing and evolving.
The gardens include wildflower meadow, which it is said contain 150 species of spider and 380 species of macro-moths; the exuberant stock beds, which are full of plants that are lifted and divided for sale at the nursery; the sunken garden with its hexagonal pond, the famous long borders; the topiary ‘lawn’ which has been allowed to grow into meadow, a large pond, a dried moat and of course, the dramatic exotic garden which was formerly a rose garden. The steps are sown with Erigeron karvinskianus and the paved areas have been allowed to self-seed with Centranthus ruber, Alchemilla mollis and other plants. All in all it was an inspirational day, well worth the journey down to Sussex. I would recommend anyone interested in plants or gardens to visit Great Dixter, which lives up to its reputation as one of the most exiting gardens in the country.
If you want some help creating your own little piece of heaven in your garden please contact me Jane Hamel for a garden design consultation.