I’d missed one too many plant fairs at Great Dixter, so I was not about to forgo another. We made plans, reorganised others, kept an eagle eye on the weather, confirmed that dogs were welcome and set off for Sussex shortly after breakfast on Saturday. A smooth drive took us through some of the prettiest countryside in Kent, just as autumn’s brush had started to paint it in soft shades of fawn, yellow and orange. In Tenterden our passage was briefly slowed by cheery sides of Morris dancers performing in the town’s folk festival. A more English vision you never did see. In less lovely Ashford I admired a procession of Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywood’ smouldering in their characteristic end-of-year livery – blackish-green suffused with blood-red. This has to be one of my very favourite street trees and I wish it were planted more often.
Our arrival in Northiam was perfectly timed so that we would be parked-up just before the plant fair opened … or at least it would have been had hundreds of people not arrived well before us. By the time we had traipsed across the hay-strewn field, taking care not to slip on the greasy clay mountains thrown up by Dixter’s resident moles, the first comers were already standing sentinel over little clutches of plants, like king penguins protecting their chicks. If plant buying were a competitive sport, Great Dixter’s plant fair would surely be its Wimbledon. All the great and good of gardening and garden design were there, some blending in, others standing out from the crowd. Everyone is hugely amiable, vastly knowledgeable, and on the hunt for an interesting plant or two. The atmosphere is friendly yet rarified. Anything unusual or especially desirable is snapped up fast, but once a few precious treasures have been bagged, everyone settles down for a natter or goes off to enjoy one of the talks provided free by the exhibitors.
It is hard not to go slightly mad and start grabbing everything that takes one’s fancy, however it is often the less immediately appealing plants that are the most exciting. I find that it pays to do a few circuits and make sure nothing has been missed. Those shopping for the moment are conspicuous with their totes crammed full of grasses, asters and echinaceas. A mobile phone is essential for looking up unfamiliar plants and to avoid asking questions which might reveal one’s abject ignorance …. not that anyone would be anything other than willing to share their knowledge if asked.
Great Dixter’s gardens were magical as ever; perhaps not the best I have seen them at this time of year, but brilliant nevertheless. (The weather was dull to the point of being dark, which did not help.) The Jungle Garden was so jungly as to be almost impenetrable, which made me feel heaps better about my own interpretation of this style at The Watch House. Considering this plot was originally an enclosed rose garden, it’s not a surprise that the paths are a little too narrow for all the gregarious giants that have taken the roses’ place. Despite all the wildness, the standard of planting and maintenance was exemplary as usual. I learn more useful lessons from Dixter than from any other garden I visit, especially when it comes to gardening in pots. Turns out marigolds are a ‘thing’ this year, and the love-in with conifers continues unabated.
The main border was still magnificent, an example to us all when it comes to succession planting. So much colour and substance; I’m not sure it ever has a bad day. Some of the other garden rooms had been ‘let go’ in a way that would not be considered acceptable elsewhere, but at Great Dixter this is all part of the charm and atmosphere. If an aster falls this-a-way, or a grass topples that-a-way, then that’s fine. I especially admired a Rudbeckia called ‘Henry Eilers’ (see image further down this post), producing finely-quilled yellow flowers reminiscent of a spider chrysanthemum. One more for the ‘when I have a bigger garden’ list.
Having reacquainted myself with the Great Dixter Plant Fair I am definitely returning for the next one in spring 2020 (dates yet to be revealed). I hope very much that Brexit will not prevent the excellent nurseries that travel from the continent from participating, as this is one of the many reasons why it’s a special occasion. For those of us without the time and means to travel Europe in search of fine plants, Great Dixter is a place of pilgrimage, discovery, and of kinship. Long may it continue to be so. TFG.
A highly indulgent list considering the lack of space in my garden and that winter is fast approaching, but these opportunities were too good to miss.
- Telanthophora grandiflora – the giant groundsel from Mexico. Anything but weedy, this is a magnificent beast, although not frost hardy.
- Titanotrichum oldhamii – An old-world Gesneriad (i.e. related to gloxinias, streptocarpus and African violets) from Taiwan, Japan or China. Produces yellow, foxglove-like flowers from a rosette of fuzzy basal leaves. Once something of a rarity, several plantspeople are now offering it for sale. Hardy, even in Scotland.
- Cyperus haspan – a diminutive, jewel-like papyrus producing emerald green stems each topped with a fuzzy brush of filaments. Apparently hardy, but it will be overwintering indoors with me.
- Dichorisandra thyrsiflora – otherwise known as blue ginger because of its growth habit and foliage, this beautiful plant is in fact a spiderwort (tradescantia family). I have been lusting after this since I first saw it at the Eden Project in Cornwall.
- Begonia ‘Burle Marx’ – a new introduction which promises to grow to quite a substantial height before producing clouds of white flowers. I figure any plant worth of the name ‘Burle Marx’ must be worth growing.
- Globba winitii – I drooled over globbas when I visited Burma seven years ago. Commonly known as dancing girl gingers, they are the prettiest and most delicate of all the gingers. G. winitii has pink bracts and yellow flowers which tremble in the slightest breeze. Whether I can keep them alive or not is yet to be seen!
- Globba shomburgkii – as above, but all yellow.
- Dahlia imperialis ‘Alba Plena’ – The Beau could not resist this giant of a dahlia. We already have imperialis, which is unlikely to flower this year, but he loves a species dahlia and so there was no question that this had to be added to his collection.