Dazzling Dixter

Reading time 11 minutes

Having been utterly engrossed in our own garden for the last few weeks it was a relief to get out and about and start the summer holiday proper. Our destination was Great Dixter, the house and garden of the late, great Christopher Lloyd, nestled in the bucolic East Sussex countryside. The mellow Wealden house is a combination of an original 15th century dwelling with part of a 16th century yeoman’s house, transported here from neighbouring Kent. In 1912 the resulting building was sympathetically added to and updated by Edwin Lutyens, accentuating the property’s air of great antiquity.

Tall chimneys, typical of many Lutyens country houses, rise above the flowers in the Peacock Garden
Tall chimneys, typical of many of Lutyens’ country houses, rise above the flowers in the Peacock Garden

I have to confess to not having fully appreciated or enjoyed Great Dixter’s gardens on previous visits. I understand this statement might be considered tantamount to blasphemy in horticultural circles, but I put it down to poor timing and my own underdeveloped taste. On paper I ought to be in complete harmony with Christopher Lloyd’s philosophy of combining any and every colour effectively. I am happy to report that I am, not before time, converted.

A visitor admires the dazzling display of potted plants outside the front entrance to Great Dixter
A visitor admires the colourful display of potted plants surrounding the porch at Great Dixter

I chose Great Dixter to break my garden visiting fast for two reasons: first, to study the arrangement of pots outside the 15th century porch and second to seek inspiration in the exotic garden. You will already know from posts about our coastal garden at The Watch House that I am bound to grow many of my treasures in containers. The gardeners at Dixter have plenty of open ground to play with, but we each set out to welcome our guests with colourful displays of seasonal flowers in their prime. The terracotta pots at Dixter are handmade in England at Whichford Pottery. They are a little pricey, but a wonderful indulgence every once in a while. Having explained to many of our visitors at the weekend that I do not bother with pot feet, I was pleased to see that Dixter’s gardeners don’t either.

Coloourful rudbekia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea 'Silver Lace' grace Great Dixter's Porch
Colourful rudbeckia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ grace Great Dixter’s porch

As one expects of Great Dixter, the assemblage of plants is diverse and unconventional. Lilies, cannas, lobelias and variegated miscanthus tower over a tumble of dahlias, amaranthus, persicarias and shorter geraniums, fuchsias and succulents. As in my garden the subjects are swapped around constantly to ensure the display is always fresh, vibrant and pleasing to the eye. The joy of grouping pots in this way is that plants with very different growing requirements can come together in perfect harmony, if only temporarily. Dixter also illustrates that it’s not necessary to stick to the small range of plants typically cultivated in pots, bringing hope and inspiration to many a compromised gardener. The possibilities are endless and mistakes easily rectified if they occur. I took great heart from the joyous abandon with which the eclectic plants were amassed, and was spurred on to try new permutations myself. I was particularly excited by a form of Persicaria that was twinned with bronze leaved Canna purpurea – a combination I’d like to try at home next year.

An unnamed Persicaria . possibly a variation of P. virginiana var. filiformis 'Lance Corporal'
An unnamed persicaria, possibly a variation of P. virginiana var. filiformis ‘Lance Corporal’

It’s hard to imagine that the space occupied by the Exotic Garden was not so long ago filled with roses. With the help of trusted Head Gardener Fergus Garrett, Christopher Lloyd tore up the rule book and replaced Edwin Lutyen’s Edwardian formality with an exuberant display of plants designed for tropical effect. The bananas, hardy Japanese species Musa basjoo, stay in situ all year with protection through the winter. They are joined by the massive palmate leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifer, the rice paper plant, and coppiced Paulownia tomentosa which might both be candidates to replace one of our larger evergreen trees next year. Great Dixter was one of the first gardens I can recall to discover the virtues of Verbena bonariensis and its wispy outline continues to lighten the garden’s extravagant structure.

Luytens' formal rose garden has been replaced by exuberant exotics
Luytens’ formal rose garden has been replaced by exuberant exotics

At waist height there is lots of interest in the form of orange-flowered impatiens, dahlias, variegated cannas and more persicarias. Everywhere seedlings take advantage of any square inch of ground that receives light and water, just as you’d expect in a rainforest. I gained some mean pleasure from noting that Great Dixter’s Begonia luxurians were afflicted with at least as much capsid bug damage as my own. Garden pests are, if nothing else, democratic in their deliverance of misery. Less than gloomy was Him Indoors who, having been allowed to drive there and back with the car’s hood down, was the embodiment of happiness.

A rare sighting of Him Indoors standing on his own two feet!
A rare sighting of Him Indoors standing on his own two feet

No visit to Great Dixter is complete without witnessing the tumultuous tapestry of plants that is the Long Border. Christopher Lloyd believed that no bare earth should be visible from late May onwards, and Fergus Garrett continues to uphold that principle. Any empty spaces are quickly bedded out with ephemeral plants such as lupins and cannas which peak and fade at different times. Tall plants are also encouraged to the front of the border, joining others that tumble gaily over the mellow flagstones.

The Long Border is separated from the informality of the orchard meadow by a wide flagstone path
The Long Border is separated from the informality of the Orchard Meadow by a wide flagstone path

The Long Border is a constantly evolving beast. Regular visitors will rarely experience it (and it is an experience) looking the same way twice. Verbascums, fennels and exotic annuals such as Persicaria orientalis are positively encouraged to seed themselves around, contributing to the colourful exuberance of the scene. Experimentation is, and will always be, a guiding tenet for the gardeners at Great Dixter, which is why the garden is almost constantly in the spotlight and at the cutting edge of planting design.

Christopher's Lloyd's wish was to create a closely woven tapestry of foliage and flower
Christopher’s Lloyd’s wish was to create a closely woven tapestry of foliage and flowers

I never met Christopher Lloyd and visited Great Dixter just once whilst he was still alive (he passed away in 2006). Fortunately he was careful to leave his legacy in safe hands. In Fergus Garrett he has a natural successor, trained and confided in by the great man himself, but with a mind of his own. The estate is in the stewardship of a charitable trust which continues and extends the good work that Christopher Lloyd started. Everywhere one looks young people are gainfully employed, whether it’s looking after the shop, planting up pots or turning the compost heaps. From a visitor’s perspective Great Dixter remains as its creator must have wanted it, a beautiful, refreshing, evolving, irreverent and ultimately happy place where his unique style of plantmanship endures.

Even in hazy sunlight, Great Dixter's heleniums were dazzling
Even in hazy sunlight, Great Dixter’s heleniums are dazzling


Categories: Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Large Gardens, Other People's Gardens, Planting Design, Plants, Tropical Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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14 comments On "Dazzling Dixter"

    1. They are crackers aren’t they? Sadly don’t know the variety as the garden’s policy is not to label things. Christopher Lloyd thought plant labels looked like tombstones – he had a point 😉

  1. A great post about a wonderful garden. Whenever you go there is so much to inspire. But I particularly like it at this time of the year when the exotic garden is looking marvellous. And those pots! Fabulous.

    1. Thanks Chloris. It really was marvellous this time. Although the sunlight was much too harsh for photography it was just nice to be there. Lots of crowds though, and Great Dixter makes very few concessions to those, so I could have done with a few less people about.

  2. Reblogged this on Sequoia Gardens and commented:
    Great Dixter and Sissinghurst are the two gardens that inspired me most as I developed Sequoia Gardens. Recently my gardening friend Dan Cooper visited Great Dixter – and reported so beautifully that for the first time I reblog (share) someone else’s post. Thank you Dan!

  3. Dan! As a South African regularly exposed to sub-tropical gardening (my local town, Tzaneen, 35km away but 800m lower in elevation qualifies), the Exotic Garden tends to leave me cold. In your first photo it looks like nothing so much as an untended mealie field (maize) to my African eye. I think to a large extent we tend to have to control exuberance, whereas in England one needs to add it. In your second photo I find it much more attractive – but then you have added, rather prominently, an English rose…
    As for the Long Border – it is my most important reference in my own Upper Rosemary Border, and although it is hardly ever as floriferous as Dixter’s, the texture of your high summer photo is not too far off what I have almost year-round.
    Then there’s the pots… in my Johannesburg apartment which I sold some years ago (just before we had a major property boom 🙁 ) I had a large terrace only, set 5m above a wild tree-filled garden. Ideal for pots! In my new life (where until last week I was planning on nothing more than a gardening service once a week) I think pots will again play a major role – and your photos of Great Dixter are setting my mind going… 🙂 Thanks for a lovely post!

    1. Hi Jack. Pleased you enjoyed the post. I take your point on the exotic garden. Really since the Victorians embraced sub tropicals, these plants had been regarded as a little high maintenance and suitable only for big formal parks here. They are not so challenging to grow really, but not many do. I think the solitary rose must have been Christopher Lloyd’s nod to the garden’s past glories. How are plans for the new life going – is there progress?

  4. Hello, wow.. A garden full of everything!!!!!! A bit too much for me. Like Jack I feel it is a bit ‘over excited’ aside from the charming English Rose who likes his new car. And,can you believe, today arrives garden illustrated with a huge article on Great Dixter’s kitchen Garden… How amazing is that. Fabulous post. Am super intrigued by this place. On my growing to visit list. And… My dahlia catalogue arrived today. I was going to put to one side as I don’t really have the time to cultivate a new area for them but then, inspired by your pots, I thought I would ‘have a go’! So dahlias in pots for me this summer!

    1. You would have loved the veggie patch – lots of heritage tomatoes and a collection of unusual solanum. They were growing their squashes on top of enormous compost heaps which looked spectacular. It’s been very dry here so like us they have had to do a lot of watering. You should go for the dahlias – they are no trouble at all except for slugs and needing staking and watering. Worth it for the big bold flowers. Post on different varieties coming soon 🙂

  5. ive been there twice this year, looking at your pics reminded me how much larger their rudbeckia flowers were than mine, about an inch wider, even though i grow the same varieties they sell (with the exception of triloba and speciosa),…. still a mystery.

    i cant agree about the young people being gainfully employed there, everyone i saw working in the gardens on both occasions were europeans and only the shop had english workers. dixter runs a placement scheme of £40/week and free accommodation on a first come first served basis, i enquired about this and theyre booked up for 6 months, the only thing i didnt like from my visits was seeing all the placements they had given out to europeans.

    Dixter is thankfully non-commercial which means they cant employ many people (perhaps as little as fergus and one or two other people), they were even doing a raffle at the plant fair to pay of a one year (min wage) studentship placement for one person which they do every year.
    i think alot of the english people there are local volunteers.

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