My last hurrah before departing for India was a trip aross Kent to the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair. I neither had the time nor the need to buy more plants, but I went anyway, prepared to be abstemious: I was feeling brave. I have never visited Great Dixter as late in the year as October, and besides, it was a rare opportunity for me to meet up with my friends Beth and Dan, who are rarely sighted outside Cornwall, let alone as far away as East Sussex.
It takes an indecently long time to get from Broadstairs to Great Dixter, but it’s a pleasant drive. I had not counted on Tenterden hosting a road-clogging Folk Festival. The one in Broadstairs brings me into close proximity with enough Morris Dancers to last me a lifetime. I’d mind less if they looked like they were enjoying all that jingling and flailing about.
The appeal of the Great Dixter Plant Fair lies not in the plants, although they are many and varied, but in the charming way it’s organised. The most manufactured material on site is corrugated iron, but even this has an appropriately agricultural feel. Elsewhere seating, display benches and counters are fashioned from straw bales, trestles, softwood poles and logs covered with thick layers of hessian. The use of natural and weathered materials creates the impression that one might have wandered onto the set of a period drama rather than into a plant sale. It’s wonderfully simple – retail stripped back to basics – although the rusticity does not go as far as declining plastic cards.
Whether by design or by accident, visitors to the fair tend to dress the part. You will not spot a single red cagoule or trendy blouson sported by these plant connoisseurs. Barbour jackets, hunter wellies, walking boots, buttock-hugging jeans (mainly on the ladies) and home knits are de-rigueur, with the occasional, description-defying theatrical garment worn nonchalantly by someone long past caring what others think. (I look forward to reaching this point in my life and am already accruing several eccentric pieces in readiness.) I did not dress correctly for the spring fair, so planned ahead for autumn and donned a mustard yellow fisherman’s smock. Beth commented on how well I blended with Dixter’s exuberant borders. I’ll accept that as a compliment.
Following my trip to Cornwall, where I managed to pack a car so full of plants I could barely see out, I exercised remarkable restraint. In all, I purchased just four plants. From Edulis Nursery came Hedychium ‘Helen Dillon’, named by Crûg Farm Plants for the famous plantswoman (I was told Helen doesn’t actually approve of the selection, which is a little unfortunate) and Pteris tremula, aka shaking brake, a fresh-green fern from Australia. Both have come straight into the garden room, where the bright, cool conditions should suit them perfectly. The scent from the hedychium is wonderful to have so close to my writing desk.
If one wants to bag the most special plants, then it pays to arrive early. As I drove in, an hour after the start, a long caterpillar of cars was already trying to squeeze itself down Dixter Lane. Inside these mobile Edens, travelled the pick of the bunch. A table marked ‘Unusual Plants’ at Cotswold Garden Flowers was almost bare by the time I had navigated through the crowd, but I was not too late to bag a small Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Fang’ which is a plant I first admired in Marrakech a year ago. This is definitely a plant for indoors during the winter and a hot spot in summer. My final purchase, Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Variegata’, will produce sunshine-yellow flowers in late winter when most plant can’t even be bothered to keep up appearances.
For the most part it was a dreary, grey day, but despite the occasional drizzle a walk around the gardens was not to be forfeited. We found them in fine fettle. The Exotic Garden was probably at its zenith, in terms of height certainly. I’ve seen it looking better, perhaps earlier in the year when the roses look fresher and one can see the wood for the trees, but it’s always a garden brimming with interest.
Some of the foliage plants had escaped onto the steps leading down from the Wall Garden. In spring this very same area was home to a riotous display of tulips. The transformative capability of grouped pots is so brilliantly illustrated at Great Dixter and is a constant source of inspiration to me. Just when I think I’d rather be able to dig and weed like other gardeners, I’m reminded that container gardening opens up so many possibilities, especially in a confined space.
Back in the Exotic Garden there is a lime-green persicaria that I lust after. Its leaved display burgundy blotches arranged like a flock of migrating geese. If anyone knows the name of this beautiful foliage plant, do tell.
The Long Border was still firing on all cylinders, fuelled by dahlias, asters, salvias, helianthus and grasses. Perhaps it was thanks to the low light levels, but I managed to capture some of the reds more accurately than normal, especially Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (below), which Christopher Lloyd transformed into such a popular garden plant.
The High Garden was a billowing mass of colour and texture. In the Peacock Garden one had to admire the planting combinations, which lesser gardeners might never have considered. Particularly striking was a partnership of burgundy amaranthus with acid-yellow evening primroses and mauve Michaelmas daisies.
Although it can be a slog to get there, a visit to Great Dixter is always worth the effort. In autumn one can appreciate the gardens in all their ebullient, overblown glory before the cold and wet causes them to shrink back into themselves. Over the next month or two the gardeners will beaver away to reveal the garden’s fine structure, and soon the cycle of adorning it will begin again.