Saturday, 14 March 2015

A good day at Great Dixter

If you’re a keen gardener, it’s not unreasonable for you to expect the plants in your care to flourish and thrive. After all the attention and effort you lavish upon them, it would be a bit galling if they were to turn up their toes and die. It does happen though, and even those of use who earn our living from gardening are not immune – no matter how sanguine I try to be in such situations, the walk to the bonfire with my latest vegetative cadaver is rarely undertaken with the jauntiest of steps. And so I was immensely encouraged to hear Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter’s head gardener, confess that much of his considerable wealth of knowledge regarding plant combinations has been acquired not, as you might imagine, from years of study and painstaking observation, but rather “the bitter experience of killing things”.

The context of this comforting revelation was a consideration of the thuggish nature of allium leaves, and the detrimental effect their luxuriant and haphazard canopies can have on perennials which take longer to muster their strength – specifically in this case the notoriously competition-shy phlox, but also other plants with basal leaves, such as asters and heleniums. Not all alliums are guilty – the narrow leaves of Allium sphaerocephalon, for example, are quite well mannered, but ‘Christophii’, ‘Globemaster’ and A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ are all guilty as charged. And it’s not just alliums we should be careful with – how many of us consider the foliage of tulips when making a selection, rather than simply the flowers and stems? Big, lax leaves are less useful in a garden situation, whereas a tulip like ‘Ballerina’ has a tidier habit, and can be planted at greater densities.

Fergus had taken an hour so out of his morning working on the Long Border to talk to a room full of garden writers and photographers, an event kindly hosted by the team at Great Dixter for the members of the Garden Media Guild. A perfect spring morning began with tea and lemon drizzle cake (two of the gardener’s basic food groups) and a chance to chat with friends in the education suite, part of the complex of farm buildings recently converted by the Great Dixter Charitable Trust in order to provide a learning environment and accommodation for students. Education lies at the heart of Dixter, and it’s no more than a couple of minutes into his talk before Fergus illustrates this.

“Teaching is what Dixter is about. With Christo, it used to take me three and half days to do the exotic garden. But teaching with students, it takes seven to eight days. Things take longer now, but they’re the future, these kids."

It’s hard to think of a better environment in which this next generation of gardener will hone not just their horticultural skills, but also their understanding of how a complex and multilayered garden works from day to day. With a small team of five full-time gardeners, plus volunteers and students, Fergus relies on a succession of complicated-looking flowcharts (he refers to these as ‘maps’), so that every member of the team knows how their current task fits within the context of the estate, which includes the borders, meadows and vegetable beds within the garden itslef, and the 52 acres of pasture and woodland beyond. Even a brief acquaintance with one of these maps serves to illustrate the intricacies involved in managing a garden on the scale of Dixter’s six acres, the sheer number and variety of the tasks seeming overwhelming at first. But one of the advantages of setting the work out in this fashion is that it allows you to see where the ‘crunch times’ will occur in the gardening year – the end of October and November being one, with another in January to March., and so Fergus is continually on the look out for any jobs which can be brought forward to relieve these busier times. (Any of those unfortunate, ill-advised folk who dare to suggest that gardeners have nothing to do over winter should be made to memorise one of these charts.) To this end, cuttings will be taken in September when light levels are high and rooting is better, and the team will start thinking about clearing and cleaning greenhouses in August in order to move in tender plants the moment the frost warnings suggest, so avoiding the chaotic bottleneck which might otherwise occur.

The wildflower meadows are now key to the look of the gardens at Great Dixter. While for the most part the public has got used to them, there are still some who complain later on in the summer months.  “Why have you left the grass like that?!” The staff seem to take this in their stride, treating this kind of encounter as another opportunity to educate the wider community about the
biodiversity work which has become an increasingly important facet of their role here. The meadows are cut when the latest flowering plant – usually the common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii – has had the opporunity to drop its ripened seed, around the last week of August. Fergus is experimenting with a mozaic system of management, which involves creating diverse areas of habitat within the meadow area, leaving some areas uncut, and allowing sheep to graze others. The hay is raked off by hand, a slow process, but one which avoids the detrimental impact on habitat management often involved with mechanised raking.

Ursula Cholmley, taking a day off from Easton Walled Gardens to make notes on the meadows at Great Dixter

Gardening at Great Dixter is clearly a cerebral activity, and the gardeners are encouraged to adopt a mindset of continually analysing successes and failures. Having in the past had indifferent success in getting the seeds of Tetranapax papyrifer to germinate, 15 pots were sown, each placed in a different location. The one which was treated to a combination of both misting and bottom heat was the only one to show signs of life, but when all 15 pots were placed in these conditions, germination was 100 per cent. “Don’t believe what’s on the seed packet,” Fergus tells us. “They say you should sow zinnias in March.” At Dixter, they sow the seeds in the first week of June, get germination within two days, and have plants ready to plant out by the end of the month. It’s important to know what works in your location, and this only knowledge comes through experimentation.

Evidence of this rigorous process of experimentation and review is also seen in the approach to plant combinations, which Fergus tries not to repeat, but rather to vary. We were treated to slides of different tulips through a variety of floral ‘carpets’ – aquilegias, arabis, foxgloves, anthriscus – the general idea remains consistent with each iteration, but the look differs dramatically as the principles are varied. On occasion, a combination will get an encore, due to a palpably manifest irritation that the first time round it hadn’t quite gone right. So, after an absence of several years, the pairing of Papaver commutatum 'Ladybird' with Orlaya grandiflora with receive an encore, with the relative ratio of one plant to another adjusted to achieve a more balanced effect. There’s no point in making rules if you can’t break them now and again.

Orlaya grandiflora with Ladybird poppies (detail from Cleve West’s Brewin Dolphin garden at Chelsea, 2012)
Later in the afternoon we were treated to a tour of the gardens by Rachael Dodd, one of the full time staff, a likeable and ebullient guide whose horticultural knowledge is evidently equalled by an enthusiasm for communicating her passion for the plants and for Dixter itself. Standing in the peacock garden, she became almost apologetic about the level of detail into which she had descended while telling us about trimming the topiary. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I was fascinated to learn that  the gardeners use lightweight, electric consumer-level hedge trimmers made by Stihl for this job, largely due to issues of balance, finding (as I often do when attempting something slightly intricate) that the heavier petrol machines are sometimes inclined to sink into the body of the piece, rather than skimming lightly over the surface. I’m not sure I could be doing with the trailing electric cables, but portability and versatility are probably of secondary consideration to the gardeners here.

Electric hedge cutters are used on the yew 'peacocks', light enough to skim across the top surface of the topiary in a smooth plane
How fascinating to learn, too, that the borders in the peaccock garden – normally chock full of plants billowing romantically between the tightly clipped yew forms – are actually the stock beds for the nursery. The plants used to be grown in rows, ostensibly for practical reasons, until Christopher Lloyd decided to lay them out with more of a concession to aesthetics, in layers, organised in sections according to season of interest. In early March, everything feels very calm and controlled, the beds marked out with long canes along the surface to indicate the various plant groupings, and short canes in the soil to flag the location of plant that has yet to emerge above ground. It’s an entirely necessary discipline with a team of gardeners working the same area, and will prove its worth over the months to come, particuarly once the plants start to bulk up.

This year, the far path is guarded by skeletal sentinals – an alarming sight, but a reminder of the resiliance of yew as a conifer that will rejuvinate from being cut back hard. These topiary pieces are old, and have reached a point where drastic measures are sometimes required. Fergus tells us that it will take a good ten years, perhaps more, for each piece to achieve its former stature, so it’s as well that they don’t all require this treatment at once.

We make our way through to the vegetable garden where, after a winter of mulching and soil amelioration, the compost heaps are still of a prodigious size. The use of this compost is restricted to certain areas, as they don’t get hot enough to kill all the weed seeds. In addition, Rachael tells us that they get through spent mushroom compost “by the truck load”; 25 tonnes of organic material is brought in each year. Fergus has phased out the use of inorganic fertilizers, relying on bonemeal and fish, blood and bone, and the nursery is now entirely peat free.

By the time we reach the end of the long border my brain has turned to jam from all the information, but it’s always a joy to walk this path, greeting like old friends the stalwart, ever-present characters – the towering golden ilex at the far end, the pinus mugo in the middle, and the pair of aucubas nearer the house – while peering with a mixture of curiosity and delight at the more ephemeral tennants of the various bedding pockets incorporated throughout for seasonal interest.

Male and female spotted laurels. Aucuba japonica 'Crontonifolia' and f. longifolia
Towards the end of the tour, by popular request we get to poke our noses into one of the cellars, where a new use for fish boxes is revealed – stuffed with dahlia tubers and cannas and stretching from the entrance through another doorway and beyond, no doubt shortly due to be potted up and making their way to the cold frames.

There was plenty more to the day. I’ve not found time to write about the tour of the house, nor the work done with by the guys in the barn using coppiced chestnut from the woodland – pieces which are used in the garden, or sold on to offset the cost of their employment. It’s all up here though *taps head*, and in here *taps notebook*, to be used at a later date, no doubt. I’m especially glad to these last two chaps, as they kindly helped to get me back on the road after I'd stupidly left my car headlights on and drained the battery flat. But that’s another story.

With especial thanks to the Garden Media Guild and the team at Great Dixter for a thoroughly interesting day.

Tight clipped

‘Various things poking up through the peacocks’ Rachael

Fluffy pruning

The Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair marks the opening of the gardens, on Saturday 28th & Sunday 29th March 2015. Admission £8.00 including entry to the gardens.