Saturday, 13 October 2012

Great Dixter

On the way to Rye, less than an hour away from here, there lies hidden in a corner of the village of Northiam one of my favourite gardens. This is Great Dixter, the home of the late Christopher Lloyd – colourful, influential, and sometimes controversial gardener and writer who created a very unique garden at his family home. Looked after since his death in 2006 by a charitable trust, the gardens continue to inspire and evolve under the guidance of Christo’s head gardener, Fergus Garrett. From the moment you approach the medieval facade of the house along the path through the wild flower meadow at the front, you know that you’ve arrived somewhere special, and the rest of the garden doesn’t fail to deliver on the promise.

Arriving at the porch the visitor is greeted by a continually changing but always spectacular collection of pots and containers, overflowing with all manner of flowers and foliage and colour. It’s almost worth a trip for this alone –  rich food for thought for anyone with a small courtyard garden or a paved area without flower beds, for the sheer variety and unexpected exuberance of the effect that can be achieved from gardening in this way. It’s true that container gardening can present its own challenges – watering, feeding and weeding need to be approached with more discipline for plants in pots, which are often less forgiving than those in the ground – but the sight of this ensemble is enough to make anyone want to give it a go.

Turning to the left and walking along the front of the house you soon come to a garden with the most amazing clipped yew shapes – geometric forms in deepest green, with topiary peacocks on the top; a lovely mixture of formality and humour. That’s where the formality ends, however, as the spaces between the statuesque forms are packed with billowing perennials and the planting, whilst tightly concentrated in terms of the number of plants, has been allowed to indulge a pleasingly loose attitude as regards the boundaries provided by the landscaping. All this creates a pleasantly disorienting effect, and I realise that my recollection of exactly where the paths go is slightly confused as I grapple with my recent memories of this beautiful yet bonkers, Alice-in-Wonderland space. I remember at some point scaling some steps to the upper level in the peacock garden, which might cause access problems to those with limited mobility. But you have to remember that this was built as a family garden rather than a visitor attraction, something testified to by the narrowness of the paths in many places, especially where the plants spill out over them with apparently unruly abandon, as they often do, adding to the romance of the place.

This is not low maintenance gardening – it’s a plantsman’s paradise and a designer’s dream, but the lack of formality and apparent wanton attitude of so much of the planting belies meticulous planning and many hours continuous hard work by the gardening team. These borders never sleep – whatever time of year you visit, they will be full of interest, as you would expect in the garden of the author of Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. I have heard Fergus Garrett speak on how he will look at photographs of the same small section of the long border taken at different times of the year, planning precisely which plant should follow which as one season gives way to another, what’s working well, and what isn’t earning its place. The plantscape is always changing at Dixter, and a ruthless attitude can be employed by the head gardener if some combination is not working as hoped.

Ducking under the mulberry tree (we’d missed the fruit by a few weeks, more’s the pity), we made our way past the steps leading down to the orchard and the most fantastical bit of bedding I’ve ever seen on – a crazy tableau of sempervivums, echeverias and other succulents – into one of my favourite areas, the exotic garden. A one time cattle yard, and then rose garden, I’ve only known it as a home for dahlias and lush, exotic foliage plants. So verdant on this visit (by now pouring with rain), it was almost impossible to see the path, and we had to literally push aside the plants to make any progress. Giant leaved tetrapanax, bamboos and tree ferns, this is a true jungle, albeit in East Sussex. I almost felt a machete would be in order, although I hardly feel that such extreme pruning would have been popular.

Ed almost gets eaten by the giant tetrapanax leaves
There are many other areas to explore – the high garden, the orchard garden, the horse pond, the sunk garden and the topiary lawn – such that your head is quite reeling by the time you reach the exit. In reality, it’s beyond my capacity to process in a single visit, which is why I feel so fortunate to have Dixter on the doorstep, and I’m looking forward to my next visit when it opens again in April. (It’s a shame to have to wait so long, as I would love to see this garden after a heavy frost.)

An annual ticket continues to be absurdly reasonable, particularly since having seen the garden once, you will doubtless want to come back throughout the year.

More pictures can be seen here.