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.

Book Review: British Gardens in Time

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There is nothing I enjoy more than a bit of history and when it’s coupled with horticulture I am a very happy person.  So I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of British Gardens in Time; the book which accompanies the new BBC series.

The book, and television series, showcase four well-known British gardens with each representing a key stage in the progression of British horticultural design.  As a bonus the book, written by Katie Campbell, starts with a short history of British Gardens.  We are taken on a gallop through history from the Roman influences, through the lack of any real garden interest in the medieval times to the gardens Elizabeth I’s courtiers built to try to woo her.  I particularly appreciated the approach taken by Campbell throughout the book which embraces all aspects of the horticultural world not just the design.  I spent some time a year or two ago learning about garden design history and it was quite clear that the development of garden design not only occurred due to a need for lords to impress and show off their wealth but also due to the plant introductions that were coming in from new colonies overseas.  You have to understand the whole context of the environment the garden was created in, as well as the background of its creator, to fully appreciate the garden.

The four gardens: Stowe, Biddulph Grange, Nymans, and Great Dixter are presented mainly from a historical perspective.  However, the history of the development of each garden is given set within the context of other garden design and influences.  In the case of Stowe we learn how the development of the garden reflects its owner’s Lord Cobham’s changing political views and criticism of Walpole, the then Prime Minister.  At this time many large gardens including allegorical statues and buildings which would have conveyed a hidden message to visitors; something we now find hard to understand.

Biddulph was built on the profits of the industrial revolution by James Bateman a keen botanist and sponsor of many plant hunters.  Therefore this section of the book explores the ‘cult’ of the Victorian plant hunters but also, interestingly to me, the work of female botanical artists many who remain anonymous.  I have found this period of horticultural  history fascinating for some time far more than the development of the landscape garden under Capability Brown’s artistic hand such as at Stowe.  I suspect that it appeals to the romantic in me, all those exciting stories of exploration, as well as to my fascination with plants and where they come from.  Bateman was into orchids, they were his first love, and it is interesting to learn how obsessive and single-minded these collectors and plant hunters could be. Campbell recounts how some plant hunters collected every single specimen of a plant they would carry and destroyed the remainder so only they had the plant.  It seems that in some cases their single-mindedness destroyed whole colonies although I suppose when you consider the Victorian approach to wild game hunting we shouldn’t be surprised that this arrogant approach pervaded other aspects of life.

I haven’t read the final two chapters on Nymans and Great Dixter but if they follow  the style of the first half of the book and the quality of the television series episode on Great Dixter that was shown last week they should be excellent.

I like the way the book uses the four very different gardens to explore the subject of garden/horticultural history including other developments such as the early plant nurseries, plant hunters, plant magazines, the  acceptability of lady gardeners, the foundation of the RHS and National Trust and the influence of other contemporary gardeners and designers.

I found Campbell’s writing style easy and accessible; although relaying a lot of information in a fairly compact style it has a good flowing narrative to it.  The photographs of the gardens by a range of photographers are needless to say wonderful but it is the photographs of the owners and occupiers, particularly for the latter gardens, and the botanical drawings that I really loved.

I would recommend this book for anyone who is in love with the world of horticulture, as I am.  It is like reading about your heroes and heroines with a touch of plant porn thrown in – what more could I ask for!

An insight into Christopher Lloyd

I received my copy of Dear Christo from Timberpress to review with mixed feelings.  I discovered Christopher Lloyd just 18 months to 2 years before he died and have accumulated a number of his books which I found a breath of fresh air.  I looked forward to the biography of Christopher Lloyd by Stephen Anderton but I was a little disappointed.  The book certainly gave you a good record of Christopher’s upbringing at Dixter at least half the book, it waltzed through his teaching career at Wye College and breezed through his later life at Dixter seemingly focussing more on hinting at his sexual preferences than really giving an insight into the man.  I put the book down feeling let down – I would have loved to have met Christopher Lloyd and I suppose I was hoping his biography would give  me more of an idea of the man.  I needn’t have worried since Dear Christo delivers this in buckets or should I say trugs!

The book is a compilation of thoughts, observations and anecdotes written by an alarmingly wide group of people not only from the gardeners but also from musicians, artists, writers and botanists.  As well as coming from a wide range of backgrounds they come from all over the world: America, Australia, South Africa, Europe. All knew Christopher Lloyd and I think all of them had visited Great Dixter at some time.  There are also contributions from people who work at the Great Dixter.  The book is the brain child of the Dixter Development Committee and all royalties from the sale of the book are paid to the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.

Whilst there is a little repetition in the book especially where many describe the approach to the house porch through the meadow, the apparent lack of light switches and in fact light in the house each contribution brings something new to the whole.  I knew that Christopher Lloyd was a well regarded gardener and wrote a weekly article for Country Life as well as regular contributions to other papers.  Reading this book I learnt that Christopher was a collector of people, as well as plants.  He liked people who were genuinely interested in the things he was  and he liked to bring them together in often what seemed like random groups at his legendary Dixter weekends.  Many talk about  how when you first stayed at Dixter there was a definite pecking order indicated by the allocation of bedrooms and jobs.  But what fascinated me was how Christopher Lloyd is seen by so many as having hugely  influenced their life.  There are some whose decision to pursue a career in horticulture was confirmed by a visit to Dixter, others who had a complete change of direction to follow a career in horticulture – some even go so far as to say that Christo and Great Dixter changed their life.  What an achievement! To have such an impact on one person is pretty special but on many is something quite outstanding!

Christo is portrayed as an eccentric, hardly a surprise, with a keen sense of humour, who loved people but did not suffer fools gladly.  Many write about how they went to Great Dixter clutching a notebook for fear of not being taken seriously by the great man and yet he himself always had a notebook when visiting gardens.  As Tom Fischer the Editor in Chief at Timberpress comments, Christopher Lloyd was a man of contradictions. Lloyd was able “to treat gardening with high seriousness as well  as a sense of fun; to have strong opinions and yet be willing to entertain dissenting views; to be a world authority on plants and yet insist on taking notes when visiting other (far lesser) gardens.

The book is split into 6 sections: Arrivals, Gardens and Gardening, The Plants, The House, Family, Visits and Christopher. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more made of his cooking as so many contributors mention the meals and in the Preface Rosemary Alexander says “the book includes his favourite recipes”.  There are no recipes but I will now be buying his cookbook Gardener Cook.  There is a lovely hard drawn map of Great Dixter in the book which is the first I have seen and really helps to put all the areas of garden you read about in this and in Christopher’s own books into context.  However, the thing I really liked, aside from the writing, was the inclusion of photos of Great Dixter including the inside of the house that I haven’t seen before.  I have a number of Christopher’s recent books and I found that the same or very similar photos came up time and again.

If I was pushed to find something to criticise about the book they would be little things.  There is meant to be a photo of a Magnolia ‘Galaxy’ instead it is a photo of a latticed window and it would be nice for all of the contributors to have some indication of their link to Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd not just the ones who have written long pieces.  But these are niggles.  The book is a joy – I laughed out loud at places and was close to tears at others.  I know feel that I know a little more of the character of the man who has inspired me to trust my instincts in the garden and rely less of the text books.  I wished I had met him but Dear Christo will have to suffice and one day I may get to visit Great Dixter.

I think Fergus Garrett’s Preface to the book says it all: “His words in print remain his legacy and his influence burns bright in all of us be breathed life into.  He changed out lives and long may his memory last.”

 

 

Inspiration, Great Dixter and fab plants

 

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In my one before last  post I moaned about this time of year and not getting a gardening fix and how I was feeling depressed.  Well I have taken quite a leap forward from that position thanks to Fergus Garrett, of Great Dixter fame. 

On Monday of this week I went, with some other gardening friends, to a local horticultural society where Fergus was going to be speaking.  I hadn’t realised that it was their AGM so we had to sit through a review of their finances and justification of buying new tables etc, election of officers and information about their programme for next year (Bob Brown & Ursula Buchan were mentioned so may be going back!).  All abit tideous but amusing when its not your club!

However, the evening improved once Fergus took over.  He speaks so well conveying his passion and enthusiasm for the planting style that has been developed at Great Dixter.  His talk started with a bit of history on Great Dixter and some wonderful black and white photos of the house when it was first bought and how it was developed.  We then moved onto the actual planting looking how different communities of plants worked together in different locations and more importantly, and what I was waiting for, how to use different plants together to create successional planting but also structural interest. 

Whilst I have quite a few of Christopher Lloyd’s books listening to Fergus talk about the subject with photos to demonstrate what he meant, and there were alot of photos, was truely inspirational.  I came home with lots of ideas buzzing around in my head so much so that unusually for me I had to sit down and write them out before they were forgotten.  To give you some hints  there was a magical sweep of Ammi majus which I have grown in the past but not planted in such a big clump; a lovely little area where snowdrops were planted under ferns so the snowdrops flowered first and then the ferns grew up and disquised the dying foilage of the snowdrops; fantastic use of pots in displays which are refreshed every 2 weeks; and a lovely combination of planting growing out of a dry stone wall.  All of these I can immediately see that I can incorporate, albeit on a very small scale, into my garden.  But more importantly it was the attitude to how plants could be used and how to look to see what would work with what that really triggered something in my brain, quite an achievement given how slow it has been recently. 

So I am feeling very inspired and positive.  So this Sunday, the first opportunity I will have had, I will be looking round the garden to see how I can put some of the lessons I learnt into practice, even if it means staring out of the window through the rain.   If you get a chance to hear Fergus talk I would really recommend it.

The photo is of Dahlia Blaisdon Red taken at The Tynings, Stoulton, Worcestershire – an NGS garden