Great Dixter – A Revelation

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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26 Comments Add yours

  1. Ogee says:

    It’s stunning! Yes…post the other pictures when you can. Would love to see. And could you send us some of that cold and wet, too?! 🙂

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Ogee

      Yes you can have some of the cold and wet, you am very welcome

  2. Brian Skeys says:

    It is an amazing inspiring place Helen, as is Fergus. I was sure you would be impressed. I wish we lived nearer.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Me too Brian. I met a lady who only lives 5 mins down the road! I wasn’t jealous honest!

  3. Anna says:

    Sounds like a fabulous and inspirational day Helen. I’m so glad that Great Dixter not only lived up to but exceeded your expectations. It was the same for me when I visited. I will be interested to hear how your visit to Sissinghurst goes.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    I’ve already done the scattering a handful of poppies thing – we’ll see how mine turns out.
    I NEED flowers, we keep having to rescue tired hungry bees with a teaspoon of sugar water.

  5. Julieanne says:

    It’s interesting to read your impressions of Great Dixter. I visited it several years ago and like you had concerns that it might not live up to expectations. I loved it too, my favourite part being the Sunken Garden. What a great idea to combine a study day with your visit.

    I love your photos of the garden, very atmospheric. I look forward to seeing more. And to hearing your thoughts on Sissinghurst. I went expecting it had been way over talked, so…

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Julieanne
      I’m really not sure what to expect from Sissinghurst, I suspect I will like it but maybe not love it. The impression I had from others on course yesterday was it was one of those garden you felt you should see but…

  6. It was fun to read your objective view of visiting Great Dixter for the first time. I have also wondered if I would enjoy this garden which is so familiar from photos as much in person. Thanks also for sharing the excellent advice on combining and extending the blooms in our own borders. I have wondered how they keep the closely-spaced border plants looking so good without overcrowding or cutting back.

  7. Yvone Ryan says:

    Thank you for your tour of Great Dixter. Probably as close as I will ever get so nice that you can do it for me! I saw Sissinghurst early spring about 21 years ago! Montana ruben clematis and wisteria time! Looking forward to your visit! Enjoy! Snow in South Island, flooding Wanganui, cold overnight 4 degrees cent here – a record – lovely sun pouring into my home – need to close door as sneaky wind coming in. They said 11 degrees max today so that’s very low for Auckland!

  8. Elvis says:

    Looks gorgeous, Helen. What color in all those beds! Despite the cold, I think that that wet look is perfect, and complements the garden beautifully.

  9. Great Dixter has been on my bucket list for years -If I ever have the opportunity to make a journey across the pond GD will be near the top of the list. How splendid to take a class with Fergus !

  10. Loree says:

    I am jealous of your visit and hope to do it myself someday. Sounds like your having quite the adventure!

  11. Great post. I would love to go there. I have Lloyd’s book on clematis which is good. I have recently reviewed Wakehurst Place and Bodiam Castle.

  12. Pauline says:

    It is a long time since we visited Gt Dixter, it was just after Fergus was taken on and he was following Christopher Lloyds ideas. We have also heard him talk at our gardening club and he was so inspirational. The long border is amazing, but very labour intensive, ok for a garden open to the public every day, but not practical for a border at home! Hope you enjoy Sissinghurst!

  13. homeslip says:

    I have visited Great Dixter once, late August 2003 (that phenomenally hot year do you remember when temperatures were in the mid-30s for days) and they were cutting the meadow so it was noisy and dusty and to be honest the place was a bit of a mess – of people and of plants. I remember my overriding impression was of claustrophobia. But, I adore the history of Great Dixter, Daisy’s wild flower planting and Christo, especially his love of trees and water and of course his writing, he is undoubtedly my favourite garden writer. I think his greatest legacy is that he wasn’t afraid to experiment and his successional or layered planting is just that an experiment to see what happens when you combine certain plants. I’m sure if I revisited late August this year I would see a completely different garden although no doubt the beautiful Lutyens curved steps would still be stained with Mulberry juice! Sissinghurst on the other hand I’ve got to know very well over the last couple of years so I’m looking forward to your review. Fergus is wonderful too. Funnily enough I saw him once at Sissinghurst making notes and years ago I went to a talk he gave at a local NGS garden in aid of charity. I think the weather is perking up in the south east for the rest of your week, but my goodness we needed the rain!

  14. It sounds like a really fascinating and inspiring visit!

  15. Chloris says:

    What a wonderful day. The garden is stunning, Fergus is keeping it up just as Christopher Lloyd would have wanted. I always particularly love the pots by the front door.

  16. Helen – do you think you preferred the stock beds because the planting is more informal, whereas in the Long Border, the plants are in blocks?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi AP
      I think you are right as I felt the same the next day at Sissinghurst. I am really attracted to more informal planting rather than the blocky neat planting you get in borders and I really dont like seeing lots of bare soil which there was a lot of at Sissinghurst

  17. I would love a study day there. There is such interesting plant combinations and use of color and texture. Love those borders but I do like the informal plantings also. I could spend weeks exploring I think. Thanks for this tour. One day I hope to get to the UK and see gardens.

  18. rusty duck says:

    The one and only time I got anywhere near Dixter it was closed! It’s been on my list ever since and your pictures show just what I imagined it would be. To go to a Study Day, even better.

  19. Linda from Each Little world says:

    Lucky you and lucky us to get the benefit of your day at Dixter. One can never see too many pictures of Dixter, so I hope you will share more esp. the shade garden. I heard Fergus speak many years ago here in the Midwest and still remember his warmth and charm.

  20. Jean says:

    This garden is on my “must visit” list, which means it’s time for me to start planning another trip to England. It’s been 15 years since I was last there! Thanks for sharing not only the garden, but also some very useful tips from your study day.

  21. Of Gardens says:

    So glad you got to visit! It is a truly inspirational garden. I have been twice, but never for a study day. I will look into doing that.

  22. The annuals tip is a really good one. Thank you for sharing it.

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