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

Clerodendron bungeii: the shrub with a lot of heart

Distracting myself from the box gloom, I am reminded that I only planted Clerodendron bungeii because of Christopher Lloyd. Memory tells me that he has it at Great Dixter where it reliably returns in its sheltered spot late every late Spring. You might think that you have lost it, and then it pops up, great statuesque stakes of upright stems, topped with gorgeous oval-shaped dark green leaves…

Clerodendron bungeii, Tostat, Apr 2015
Clerodendron bungeii, Tostat, Apr 2015

It has a distinctive burgundy tone to the green of the stems, the leaves and the later flowers.  With me, it has peppered an area about 3m x 2m with its stems, and is now turning into a real feature, one which I may have to control in a couple of years, if it continues to wander.  But it is the ideal summer shrub, looking good right through to the frosts, tough, self-reliant, only showing flagging by the leaves dropping back against the stems in severe drought and high temperatures, as we have had for the last month. But it bounces back, undaunted, with the return of cooler and rainier weather. The shrub is making a comeback, they say.

Clerodendron bud, Tostat, July 2015
Clerodendron bud, Tostat, July 2015

It looks pretty good as a bud, see above, nestling into the bright green leaves, and then it opens.

Clerodendron flower, Tostat, July 2015
Clerodendron flower, Tostat, July 2015

But actually, the real beauty happens after the flower has gone over. Then, you are transported to a world of Byzantine colour and beauty, or maybe Gothic and Jacobean…

Clerodendron bungeii seedhead, Tostat, Autumn 2014
Clerodendron bungeii seedhead, Tostat, Autumn 2014

The spent flowerhead turns into a jewel, and the colour is exceptional and rich.

Of course, it has it’s downsides. It is a romper. Florida websites are full of cautionary tales, so watch out, me included, if it likes you. I mow over it in our grass if it wanders over there, and will probably have to stick in a barrier at some point. But for me, it’s worth it, a late summer show that I would miss if I took the safe route.  Another reason to be cheerful.

Ranunculus, ranunculi…

Last summer, I had a real treat, courtesy of ‘Abebooks’.  Abebooks is a brilliant site for secondhand books, and is my first port of call when I want to buy anything that isn’t hot off the press.  I bought 2 Dan Pearson books and really enjoyed them both. In ‘Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City’ there was a short piece on Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’. I love the ordinary celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, and there is a spot in the garden, normally hard-baked in the summer, which is positively wet in the spring. We get a lot of rain late winter and in the spring, and there is a dip in the ground where water collects and also, probably because of a kink in the old roof, rain comes down from the roof in a spout. So it is really damp, and the native celandines pop up in a matter of weeks ít seems.

Dan Pearson caught my attention with ‘Brazen Hussy’. A great name for a sport spotted by Christopher Lloyd in his garden at Great Dixter, and being a man for bold names, ‘Brazen Hussy’ was what he chose.

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy' Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria Feb 2015

So there they both are.  ‘Brazen Hussy’ is a dark bronze-leaved variety with glowing yellow petals and quite big flowers- the yellow is almost blinding and for a small plant, it really packs a punch.  I could only find this at a couple of French online nurseries at a serious price, so I bought just three small plants last autumn, and dug them in near to the house, so I wouldn’t have to go hunting for them. For a lot of the winter, they looked very soggy and unprepossessing, and then, despite our biblical rain, they responded immediately to the lengthening light in February and I could see buds forming. So the picture above is of the very first flower and you can see the number of buds still in the wings.  I know from Dan that they die down after flowering, but continue powering away at the root level, so I am planning to move a good plant of Cenolophium denudatum that I grew from seed to grow up and over them.  It will be slow to start up in the late spring, and so they will suit one another very well hopefully. I have to admit that I found a good price for ‘Brazen Hussy’ at a Belgian nursery online, so there are three more small plants on their way to help make more of a clump of them together.  I really love them.  It’s a small price for abundant cheerfulness despite the weather.

PS I forgot to mention ‘Louis the Geek’.  He writes a great blog and I am signing up for it. His piece on ‘Brazen Hussy’ is here.