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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.