Great Dixter

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Dahlia Chimborazo, Great Dixter, June 2017

This wickedly flambuoyant dahlia which I saw in the Great Dixter Nursery sums up the spirit of the place almost on it’s own .  Colour, variety, surprise and a little naughtiness mixed in.

Great Dixter was the last highlight of visiting gardens in England last summer.  It has a special place in my heart because when I first arrived in France, faced with a gardenspace that was new to me, I got into a groove of reading Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd’s beautiful, funny and incisive ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ which led to me reading much more of both authors. ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ may be out of print now, but good old Abebooks has copies, see the link.

Like all really great gardens, big or small, the wonderful thing about Great Dixter is the huge sense of presence from Christopher Lloyd, although he died in 2006,  and the freshness of the legacy of his style, his flair and also his massive commitment to the development of young people as gardeners and craftspeople.  The Great Dixter Trust is doing and has done great acts of restoration and of community building in it’s re-development of estate buildings and facilities- almost all of which, including the use of the house, is devoted to the education and growth of young people.  Fergus Garrett, who worked with Christopher Lloyd from 1992 when he joined him at Great Dixter, is now the Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, and continues developing and extending the legacy of the garden.  When he is bored, he will leave, he says.

So, what a pleasure to spend a day there at the end of June.  So much caught my eye.  I loved the forcing pot in the vegetable garden towered over by mighty dying seed stems.


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Great Dixter vegetable garden, June 2017

The Orchard Garden was giving the Long Border a run for its money with a glorious mix of Acanthus, yellow hemerocallis, orangey-red crocosmia and allium seed heads, not to mention the leafy underplanting.

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The Orchard Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

I have visited Dixter once before.  Back in the mid90s, my gardening was a small-scale pleasure with three small children, a fulltime travelling job, and a small, shady garden in Linlithgow near Edinburgh.  Back then, Christopher Lloyd had horrified the gardening establishment by ripping out his mother’s Rose Garden and creating the Exotic Garden.  I had never seen bananas growing before.  This time, I noticed the exquisite precision of the paving creating exciting and unusual angles for planting, see below.

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The Exotic Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

In the Long Border, which was not blocked by crowds of other visitors, we could sit at the far end on a bench and really drink in the cacophony and delight of it all.  Some people could be heard grumping about the drips and moisture from the closeness of the plants to the path.  There will always be killjoys.  The splendour and colour of it drowns them out.

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The Long Border, Great Dixter, June 2017

Down in the Sunk Garden, there was a group of very raucous ladies, so, despite inner calls of ‘Go away’, I managed to sit it out and wait for the storm to pass.  In 1911, Lutyens created some of the parameters of the garden and its design which remain today. Curving hedges, sandstone paving, decorative tiling which echoed the use of tiles in local farm buildings, all ripple through the garden.  Christopher Lloyd’s father, Nathaniel, created the Sunk Garden (and much else), ripping out the vegetable garden remaining from the First World War effort, saying famously, ‘Now we can play’.  Like father, like son.  I love the pool…octagonal, I think.

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The Sunk Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

All through Dixter, there are echoes and usages of the past.  The Horse Pond was originally used to water the heavy horses on the Dixter farm. Now, it is a luxurious oasis of aquatic plants, and Pontederia cordata was looking gorgeous with blue flowering spikes and sharp, spear-shaped leaves.

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The Horse Pond, Great Dixter, June 2017

Airy opium poppies drifted through other parts of the Vegetable Garden.

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The Vegetable Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

And the whole is grounded by the house, combining modern to the left with Lutyen’s respectful and yet bang up to date design from the early 20th century, with the old, the ancient reconstructed house from Benenden added on, saved by Nathaniel Lloyd to add to the modern design.  Respect, use or change, and move on.  A Lloyd motto perhaps.

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The Porch of the House, to the left Lutyens, to the right 15th/16th century, Great Dixter, June 2017

Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ and Le Bois des Moutiers

Sometimes, a visit to a garden introduces you to an unforgettable plant, idea or atmosphere which stays with you. Back in 1990, as a new gardener with not much under my belt, I visited Le Bois des Moutiers, an unforgettable house and garden near Varengeville-sur-Mer, in Normandy. And the plant that I saw there which became one of the first things I bought when we moved to Tostat, was Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis'  August 2014
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ August 2014

It is a wonderful shrub rose. It will grow almost anywhere, is pretty much evergreen all year, requires no pruning other than dead bits, grows away to itself until, in our case, it reaches 3m x 3m, and it flowers for 8-9 months of the year in bursts. It also needs no watering or special feeding of any kind. And when it flowers, it is as if a crowd of peach, pale cream, dark pink and buttery yellow butterflies have landed on the bush. The flowers are single, and crinkle up, so that they really do resemble butterflies en masse. And the colours change as the flower ages, from buttery yellow to deep deep pink. For me, it is one of the highlights of our ‘Shitty Bank’, see my earlier blog for more details.

And I first saw it at Le Bois Des Moutiers. The link takes you to the opening page of their website, and there is a video embedded which will give you a really good idea of how beautiful it is. Still owned and run by the Mallet family, who first commissioned Edwin Lutyens and his friend and associate, Gertrude Jekyll to design the house and the garden, it is a ‘must-see’ if you are in Haute-Normandie. The house is now open for visits guided by family members, and the gardens are open as well.

When we went in late summer 1990, Rosa chinenis ‘Mutabilis’ was flowering magnificently, and I was smitten for ever. Below, are 2 photographs from 1990, which show the Rose placed to front a woodland garden area, and it can be clearly seen mid-right in the second photograph showing the broad allee running down from the house. I remember seeing the then Mme Mallet in wellies in the front garden of the house, and I asked her for the name of the rose, and also for any plant nurseries she would personally recommend. She helped me with both with real interest.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' fronting a woodland planting (centre) Le Bois es Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ fronting a woodland planting (centre): Le Bois des Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis'  (mid right) and the allee leading back up the house: Le Bois des Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ (mid right) and the allee leading back up the house: Le Bois des Moutiers 1990

Here are 2 other views of the house and garden from that visit. In the first, I can be seen bottom-left in a large flowery t-shirt walking towards the house. It is a fantastic example of an Arts and Crafts house with many original pieces of furniture still in place that were specially designed for the house and Guillaume Mallet. In the second photograph, a very young looking Andy can be seen in front of a view of the house and the enormous Lutyens pergola.

Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: Me in a flowery t-shirt and the front of the house
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: Me in a flowery t-shirt and the front of the house
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: a young looking Andy in front of the house and the Lutyens pergola
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: a young looking Andy in front of the house and the Lutyens pergola

And whilst you are there, you can see the stunning Braque stained glass windows in the little church and chapel at Varengeville, and if you are in the mood for another garden, the late Princess Greta Sturdza‘s garden (which is on my list) can be seen at Le Vasterival. If you want to make a visit, the website includes all the information about the various ways of organising a visit but all are by appointment, so need to be arranged in advance. Princess Sturdza was a breeder of hydrangea, amongst other things, and I have just bought Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star’ which was discovered and bred by her. Got to make a trip to Normandy….