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Cornucopia - A Visit to Great Dixter

A Visit to Great Dixter
Jane Allison

Last June I visited the late Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter in Northiam, East Sussex. It is now cared for by Fergus Garrett, his friend and head gardener for many years, and retains the spirit and tradition of its late owner.

Lloyd is one of those gardening giants who divide opinion. He has been described as “authoritative and opinionated” by some, and “warm, generous and kind” by others.

He said of Gertrude Jekyll’s style of planting “There is something called the colour wheel which I have never understood. It is somehow intended to demonstrate which colours can be successfully put together, but the outcome makes no sense to me, so I shall ignore it.” This is why Dixter is known as ‘a place of pilgrimage for adventurous gardeners’. His colour combinations can make the eyes water!

Dixter is certainly a feast for the senses, but might not be everyone’s cup of tea. That doesn’t stop it being on the tourist route for specially organised international garden group trips. Visitors to Dixter need to come early to avoid tripping over admirers who insist upon taking photographs of every plant!

The approach, which leads down to the early 16th century house, is through the beautiful meadow area, which is mown twice a year, and planted with gems like orchids, fritillaries and camassia. Edwin Lutyens‘ expert touch can be seen in both the house and gardens.

The gardens lie all round the house, and there is really no set way of seeing them. I started in the wall garden, where there was a feast of red and yellow Aquilegia skinneri, competing with Eryngium x tripartitum, teasel and ladybird poppies. It is difficult to specifically identify plants at Dixter because Lloyd felt that labels made the garden look like a cemetery! Therefore I apologise for the lack of specific plant identification in many places.

Passing under the Lutyens archway into the sunken garden, the first thing you notice is the pond with a crocodile’s nose poking out of it! It is in this part of the garden, I think, where you feel Lloyd’s presence most strongly. Exuberant combinations of hemerocallis, geraniums, fennel and ripe allium heads explode on the eye, aided by lychnis, heleniums, Nicotiana sylvestris and white platycodons. Here also is a typical Dixter feature: rows of pots, three deep, which increase the depth and curves of the border. The rodgersia was in full flower and a joy to behold.

After admiring the enviable clump of dierama, I moved on into the long, narrow Barn Garden, which was like walking down a secret tunnel, with the sunken garden on one side, and mellow brick oast houses on the other. Here oenothera had self seeded amongst more impressive dierama clumps, and large, multicoloured clumps of lupins, miraculously free of slug and aphid damage, marched down its full length

I wandered under a yew arch and across the topiary lawn, into the exotic garden. To be honest, I found this part very disappointing, and a bit scruffy. Plenty of dahlias were in evidence, with cannas and banana palms, but it seemed untended.

After admiring the achilleas planted around the ‘hovel’ (an old cowshed), I made for the shop and nursery area for a cup of tea and a few purchases before exploring the rest of the garden. Don’t expect great catering at Dixter. There is a selection of ’bought-in’ sandwiches and tea or coffee in a plastic cup, to be consumed in a small, rather uncomfortable picnic area. Bring your own sandwiches, and take advantage of one of the many benches around the garden.

I started my post refreshment tour in the Long Border. This is accessed by Lutyens’ designed circular steps, smothered in Erigeron karvinskianus. Here I had help with plant identification, courtesy of a purchased planting plan for this area (not widely evident, so watch out for it as you enter the house). Lloyd’s happiness with self seeding is very much in evidence here with Digitalis purpurea 'Sutton’s Apricot', Verbascum olympicum and Delphinium consolida popping up everywhere. I particularly loved Clematis 'The President' romping over an old trellis frame, and providing vertical height, along with the cardoons. Shrubs and roses form the permanent structure of the long border - Spiraea japonica 'Gold Mound', Cornus alba 'Aurea' and Rosa glauca to name but three. The length of the long border is emphasised by the flagged path, constructed from London pavement slabs, but unfortunately it is rather narrow, and was crammed with visitors while I was there.

On, finally, to the High Garden, which lives up to its name: the way into it is up some narrow, steep steps. This was my favourite area. Being a fan of verbascums, I loved the way the self seeded Verbascum olympicum poked their heads well above the riot of geraniums, hollyhocks and inula. If there is a single ‘knockout’ plant at Dixter, the verbascum is it. Here there were huge swathes of Phlox paniculata, salvias and achilleas, just rioting away with no colour scheme - challenging the eye to make sense of it all.

You might want to linger in the muted greens and subtle wild flower colours of the meadow garden before you leave Dixter: it soothes the senses and does not attract the crowds as much as the last two areas described.

A visit to Dixter is a unique garden experience. It challenges and surprises, which I’m sure would please Christopher Lloyd no end!

First published in the Cheshire & Friends Group Newsletter Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 34.
© Copyright for this article: Jane Allison

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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