imageThere are some places that you dream of visiting. You study the photos in books or on-line and you create an impression, maybe a little gilded, in your mind’s eye. For me Great Dixter is such a place.  I have longed to visit for years but just as you hesitate to watch a film of your favourite book I was nervous that it would not live up to my imaginations.

As soon as I approached the house through the lawn/meadow area I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed but I was thrilled to discover the garden actually exceeded my expectations. I was completely bewitched by the area called the stock beds (above). The exuberance of the planting, the scale was fabulous.

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But back to the real purpose of the visit – to attend a study day. I figured that if I was going to trek across country to visit the garden I wanted to get the most out of it and so a study day was the answer.  I booked the Succession Planting day, as although I had heard Fergus talk about this subject before, it was the only one which fitted with work commitments and I knew I would pick up lots more tips and tricks. The talk was held in the Yeomans Hall with its wonderful exposed timbers, the atmosphere added to with the crackling of the log fire which had been lit to combat the unexpected cold of the day.

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I never tire of listening to Fergus Garrett, he has a quiet charisma and he is so knowledgeable, I just sat and soaked it all up. Whilst I had remembered somethings from before, either some of it was new or my gardening knowledge has improved so I can take on board more things. There is a mental list which I really need to write down of immediate changes I want to make but I think the real lesson was to look and consider. You need to assess plants, consider them from all aspects, what seasons of interest do they have and, most importantly, if they aren’t earning their keep ditch them for something better. In a small garden such as mine this is a really important lesson. But there is also the lesson that if you combine the plants better taking into account texture and shape and seasons of interest you might improve how a plant appears. Finally focus on one big moment of impact in an area, get that right, then think about how you can extend the season – maybe with bulbs earlier in the year, adding some annuals to create interest in the planting before (or after) the main plants have performed.

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After lunch we split up, my group went off to explore and the two ladies I had met and I had a lovely wander. We went to the stock beds first, pushing along narrow paths past sodden plants. Then on to the exotic garden which was a surprisingly small space waiting for the seasonal planting to be done – we later learnt that Fergus plans to plant out conifers here which caused some sharp intakes of breath but I think it will be interesting to see how they combine with the bananas etc.

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My reaction to the Long Border was interesting. It is the part of the garden that is always featured in magazines etc and you feel a familiarity with it. The border is beautiful and a real lesson in the art of mixed planting with shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals, bulbs and climbers but it didn’t make my heart sing as the stock beds did. I wonder why? Aside from the stock beds the plantings that I also really enjoyed, although you understand all of the garden was wonderful,  were in the sunken garden area where there was narrow small borders with shade lovers which showed you how to bring the best out of them by combining the plants well; here I could really relate ideas to my own garden and the plants I love to grow.

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We finished with a tour with Fergus so he could demonstrate the points he had previously made. The tour ended with the stock beds where we learnt some of the tall umbellifers were actually parsnips gone to seed – I am wondering if I could get away with anything so dramatic and big. The other tip I picked up was that you only need to add a handful of annuals in a large area, kind of running them through the plants, to make an impact and the poppies in this area were a good demonstration of this – so I only need to grow 10 of an annual at the most for a space such as my Big Border.

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So that was my magical day at Great Dixter, which I will visit again, if not later this year definitely next year. I love the way the garden pushes the boundaries, it challenges the rule books and creates its own rules but they aren’t really rules – Fergus calls his approach a system which can be adapted. I think that is a fair description but I think ethos is a better word to system which sounds so hard and manufactured. And yes I did buy plants but I can’t remember what as they are hiding in the car. Tomorrow I am off to Sissinghurst which no doubt will provide an interesting contrast.

I also took masses of photos but am writing this post from my B&B and I have only downloaded a few from the camera so there may be another post soon covering things I have forgotten, such as the pots – I need more pots.

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