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