Thursday, 12 December 2013

Gunnera winter protection

A couple of my favorite foliage plants at Dixter are the Gunneras. Individual leaves can grow as big as 1-2 m (3-6ft) across! They prefer growing in wet soils, and are quite happy at water's edge, which is where they're found here. The slightly smaller leaved Gunnera tinctoria is growing on the bank of the Horse Pond, while the larger leaved Gunnera manicata grows around the boggy Lower Moat.  

Horse Pond before (August)

  Horse Pond after

Being native to South America, Gunneras require some winter protection in colder climates, such as the UK. Not only are the leaves aesthetically pleasing; they are also quite useful for protecting the crowns of the plant. Although I've seen this done at gardens in the past, this was the first time I've actually done it. 

Lower Moat after we finished

First, we cut the leaves off right at the crown of the plant. Then, we removed and composted most of the leaf stalk, which can reach 1.5-2.5m (4.5-7.5ft). Finally, we covered all the individual plant crowns by turning the leaves upside-down, and layering them in an interlocking fashion to hold them together.  

Resourcefulness at its best

We also cut pegs from old branches, which we used to anchor some of the smallest leaves, to keep them from blowing away during the winter.  

Friday, 6 December 2013

Plant of Interest

Crataegus ellwangeriana


Origin: USA

Size: 6 m (18ft) x 6m (18ft) 

Flowers: white-pink, May

Fruit: Sept-Nov, bright red, 15mm (1/2 in), edible

Cultivation: Can be grown in a range of soil types. Prefers full sun-pt shade (fruits best in full sun). Hardy to zone 5 (USA). 

Observations: (As seen at Great Dixter) One of the showiest Hawthorns I've seen in the landscape. Fruit can attractively persist for 3 months in Autumn! Small, well-rounded specimen, suitable for wide variety of gardens. Not commonly used, but lots of potential. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Christmas Fair

Last weekend was our annual Christmas Fair. Having been closed now for a month, this is a unique opportunity to come and see the house and gardens. Not only that, but parts of the house that aren't normally open to the public, are accessible during the fair.  Inside, booths were set up in the Great Hall and the Yeoman’s Hall, where fires were crackling in the fire places, and local vendors were selling everything from art and crafts to clothing or food. 

Visitors shopping in the Great Hall

Outside, we had a booth, where we were selling some of our favorite bulbs and plants, as well as some fresh vegetables. In the Great Barn, there was a variety of homemade cakes and coffee, tea and special seasonal drinks, while sausages were being grilled on the barbecue outside the barn. 

The Great Barn

It was nice to have warm drinks on a cold day

It's a really fun atmosphere. There was a little something for everyone, and it was great to see people of all ages enjoying themselves. 

Even the kids liked Simon's woodwork

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Ready or not...

...Winter is coming! Daylight is getting shorter and temperatures are getting colder. It's always a bit of an adjustment for me, but I do appreciate the change in seasons and the often-underrated winter garden. 

By now, we've been able to lift and process most of the Dahlias, Cannas and other tender material inside for the winter. We have also wrapped all the Musa basjoo (Banana) and the Dicksonia antarctica (Tree Fern) in the Exotic Garden. Using bamboo canes and twine to create a support structure, we densely pack straw and fern fronds around the trunks to protect them from the winter cold. This light and airy material allows the plants to breathe, without trapping too much moisture, which could rot the plants. 

Tight packing will be more protective and stable 

Completed insulation

We leave the foliage intact to maximize food and energy production and storage. Eventually, the foliage will die back and only the main stalk will remain. The straw will be removed next season as new leaves begin to emerge, and the threat of cold is passing. Additionally, since the main trunks are not cut, we will have larger plants next season.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Spring Bedding and Bulbs

It's been a wet last couple weeks, but that hasn't kept us out of the garden. Fergus has devised systems for everything, including planting in the rain! Lately, we've been busy tidying the garden and making way for the spring bedding and bulbs. Last week, this coincided with "The Art of Gardening" Symposium ( The symposium group (from America) was here for 1 week, during which time they received thorough information on the start-to-finish bedding and bulb implementation process. In addition to daily lectures with Fergus, they spent quite a bit of time in the garden, watching us arrange and plant bedding areas, before eventually doing some gardening themselves! It was a lot of fun getting to know and work with them in the garden during the week.

Fergus demonstrates proper spacing and planting for the group

The first bedding project I worked on (with Ed) was the Circular Steps planting. The summer planting had already been lifted and the bed prepared. As with all planting projects in the garden, we put down boards to work off of. Boards are used for several reasons: to protect the beds from significant compaction, to protect the surrounding pathways or turf, and to keep the work space more tidy. Additionally, using boards allows us to work in a variety of spaces and weather (even when it's wet—this is good, since we've been having so much rain). The planting scheme was simply Myosotis sylvatica with Tulipa 'Combat' running through it. Although a somewhat straightforward palette, the planting technique and density are vital for a successful spring show.

Preparing to plant the Circular Steps 



After that, we moved to the Barn Garden, where we spent most of the week. There are several bedding pockets in the Barn Garden, which we had to clear and prepare before we could plant. Some areas had Dahlias that needed to be lifted. They were then cut back and the tubers placed as like-kinds in Styrofoam boxes, surrounded by just enough soil to keep them from drying out too much. Finally, they were labeled and placed in the cellar for the winter. There were other areas that required perennial cut-backs and the removal of select self-sowers and annuals. When we cut back spent perennials, we use bamboo canes to mark and outline groups of like-plants, so we know what is where until they reemerge next season. Once we've finished tidying an area, we often run a sweep of bulbs through the bed, either as a new addition, or to reinforce an existing bulb planting. We also use canes to mark out bulb plantings; again, this is so we can come back and know what's where until they emerge. By cutting back and cleaning up the beds, we've also made way for bulbs that are beginning to emerge now, such as Galanthus sp.



One of the more technical bits Ed and I have done so far involved many details. We began by marking a group of emerging Arum creticum (which had been hidden until now by a Tagetes 'Cinnabar') with canes. This rare species is just poking out of the soil in preparation for its spring show. Then, after clearing the likes of Erigeron annuus, Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer' and the Tagetes 'Cinnabar', we needed to lift, cut back, and divide a large planting of Aconitum 'Kelmscott'. Ideally, this should be done every 2 to 3 years, to maintain fresh, well-flowering plants. We also amended the soil with mushroom compost and fine bark, since they prefer well-composted soil. In front of the Aconite we planted a bedding combination of Aquilegia 'Kansas' and Tulipa 'Red Shine'. It's a lot of work, but I'm looking forward to seeing all these bedding areas in the spring! 

Emerging Arum creticum 

Canes mark a group of cut back Phlox 

After completed bedding work in the Barn Garden

Sunday, 10 November 2013


A few days ago, a group of us from Dixter had the opportunity to visit Wisley, one of Britain's most famous gardens. Wisley is the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) for a reason: it spans an impressive 170 plus acres (gardened) and showcases a wide variety of beautifully designed garden spaces, a cutting-edge glasshouse, an orchard, an arboretum, and trials field, among other things. They are also one of the leading gardens for horticulture education and science in the UK.  Wisley began on the principle of being an experimental garden, one that would help lead the way in the field of horticulture, and this is something they continue to strive towards to this day. 

Wonderful autumnal hues in the Glasshouse Borders designed by Piet Oudolf 

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a drive from Great Dixter, so we only had a 3 hour window to take it all in. I had the privilege of visiting Wisley in 2008, so although this visit was quick, I was able to prioritize. It was interesting to see things that have changed, or plantings that have grown in the last 5 years.

The Perennial Meadow has really filled in since I was last here

Some of my favorite spots are the Rock Garden & Alpine Houses, the Glasshouse Borders, the Perennial Meadow, and the Grass Gardens. 

The Alpine Houses

View through the Rock Garden

Lovely Grass Garden composition by the restaurant

Great fall color on this Acer palmatum 'Elegans'

The whole garden has a wonderful balance of informal and formal elements and is maintained meticulously. The plant combinations and horticultural practices are some of the best you'll see anywhere, which is why it's a world-renowned garden and one of the most visited gardens in the UK.

The classic architecture definitely contributes to Wisley's charm

The Canal and fountain

Saturday, 2 November 2013

See you next year!

As of last Sunday, the garden is officially closed (*The nursery is still open-- see website for schedule). It was a bit strange this week with no visitors walking around the garden. We enjoy and appreciate all the visitors who come through our gate during the season, but it's also nice to have this break in the action to get our big projects done.  

Just imagine Fergus as the starter at a race: he's been looking at his it's time: "On your marks…get set…GO!" That's how this week started. According to Fergus, the last month or so "we've just been sharpening our pencils." Now it's getting busy. We spent most of the week taking apart the Exotic Garden, the majority of which is comprised of tender plants, making it a priority as colder nights arrive.  Every year the Exotic Garden gets planted up fresh and then dismantled at the end of the season: cuttings taken, plants lifted and potted up, and everything put into cold frames or a greenhouse. 

It's begun! 

You would think Musa would have bigger root systems! 

A variety of plants waiting to be processed

This Cordyline australis is one of the larger plants that came out

I have been assigned the task of caring for the "Hot House", (also known as the "Begonia House") which, as you probably guessed, is heated (has heat benches) and contains Begonias. It's a significant learning curve for me, as I've never looked after a greenhouse before. About half of the contents are cuttings (lots of which came from the Exotic Garden), which are more tricky to manage than established plants. The most important variables are water, temperature, spacing and air circulation. As with most indoor plants, (especially during winter) you must be careful not to over-water, which is probably the greatest cause of plant loss in this scenario. Temperature can also be a bit tricky, especially when combined with air circulation. It's somewhat experimental since we have such a wide variety of plants in the same environment, but we're keeping the house around 14 C (about 58 F). However, with outdoor daytime temperatures still reaching 14-15 C, it can really cause the greenhouse temperature to spike. I have to diligently keep an eye on all these factors, and check the house several times a day. When the sun is out and the temperature warms up during the day, I will open the vents and turn on the fan to create some air flow, which guards against pests and diseases. While it's good to keep the air fresh and circulating, you don't want to over-ventilate and let the house get too cold. 

Cuttings on the heated bench

The Hot House is filling up fast! 

There are many details, which can be a bit overwhelming at first, but everything we're doing makes sense if you slow yourself down and process it. Like anything else, the more you do it, the more habitual it becomes, and ultimately habit becomes instinct. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Propagation 101--and some!

We have been busy cleaning, sorting and consolidating in the greenhouses and cold frames, so as to be prepared when the first frosts appear--one of the worst possible scenarios would be getting caught off-guard!  By starting early, we can be thorough in our inventory-making for spring and maximize our already limited space.  Because we rely so heavily on our bedding plants, this is a very important task. Since space is so tight, we typically start a group of cuttings or seeds together in one pot, and as they begin to develop roots, we re-plant them in their own pot, the size of which varies with the size of the plant. 

Fergus gave us a list of plants, cuttings and plugs to "pot on" for spring.  The term "pot on" basically means moving a plant into a bigger pot to encourage optimal root growth. So much of gardening is about timing and planning ahead, and we want to utilize the next 2-3 weeks for additional root development on these plants, before the cold fully arrives. This will give us a head start come spring. After the plants are potted, we place them in the cold frame under a "light"(the name for a piece of glass), which will help trap the heat, and encourage root growth. 

Newly potted on plants under light in a cold frame

Also included in our punch list were a variety of seeds to sow into seed trays or pots. As these germinate and grow, we will be able to "prick out" the seedlings into plug trays, and then into individual pots as we get into next season. 

Myosotis 'Blue Silver' pricked out into plug trays (Right)
We also started moving unused Cannas and Dahlias into the cellar, making sure they're properly labeled and organized, so they'll be easy to differentiate in the spring. We haven't started lifting any from the garden yet, but that will begin soon enough! 

Sorting out Cannas and Dahlias in the cellar

Having had minimal previous propagation experience, I have enjoyed this type of work and learned a lot. It's fascinating to see a plant in this earliest stage and care for it, while watching it develop into form for next season. Speaking of next season, although one season is coming to a close, we are already getting ready for next year--the cycle never ends really! 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Great Dixter Plant Fair

It's beginning to feel more autumnal here, as the days get shorter, the leaves begin to change color and fall to the ground, and the temperature starts to cool down. Thankfully, we had a window of great weather last weekend for our 4th annual Plant Fair. We spent so much time preparing for this season-ending shindig, and our hard work paid off--it was the best Plant Fair yet! 

Shoppers peruse the different stalls 

The Great Dixter Plant Fair plays host to some of the top nurseries from around Europe and the UK. The nursery representatives began arriving and setting up their stalls on Friday, for the fair which ran on Saturday and Sunday. It was fun to meet and talk to everyone over the weekend. I especially enjoyed the group dinners, put on by our staff, where we were able to get to know some of the nursery men and women in a more informal setting. It really was a special weekend. 

Great people and great plants--What could be better?! 

The whole weekend was like a big family reunion. Not only does most of the staff participate in some capacity, several former staff members and "friends of Dixter" return to volunteer. Also, the gardeners who live at Dixter offer up their rooms to the nursery folks for the weekend, and "camp out" together in the one of the large common rooms in the house. 

I was assigned to car parking duty for the weekend, but we worked in shifts, so I was still able to see the fair. Although I didn't anticipate car park management as part of my training at Dixter, it was a key component of the weekend operation, and it was fun in its own right. Actually, I did get a laugh when one woman, finding out I was from America, exclaimed: "How did you end up at Great Dixter, parking cars?" It's true, you really do a bit of everything around here, when it's all said and done! 

Beautiful weather for plants and picnics! 

Although the festival itself only lasts 2 days, the Plant Fair requires much more time, energy, and thought than most people know--It really is a group effort! In the end, I think everyone would agree that it's worth it. Thanks to all the people who helped organize and put it on. Thanks to the nurseries that came and provided great plant material and horticultural knowledge. And thanks to all of you that attended and made it the best fair yet! 

One of my favorite scenes from the weekend

Friday, 4 October 2013

Horse Pond Cleanup

Last week went by quickly. Fergus returned from America on Monday, where he had been giving a series of lectures. His first speaking engagement was in South Carolina, only a hour from my hometown. One of the first things he mentioned was that he had a great burger! Despite a tinge of jealousy, I was happy to hear he had a good trip. 

Late afternoon view of the house from the Horse Pond meadow

We began the week cutting grass and cleaning up around the Horse Pond. This was a multi-day project. Similar to the meadow cutting, this late season cleanup will ensure that the grass is still short come spring, when the bulbs start to emerge. It was a little more tedious than the meadow, however, since there were plants that we couldn't strim around, but had to hand clean. One example is the group of Redtwig Dogwoods, Cornus alba, by the water's edge.  We had to weed and cut the grass that was growing up underneath the shrubs by hand, since they're planted so densely. It's monotonous work, but it is necessary to provide a nice, clean view in the winter, when the plants are displaying their brilliant red bark. 

Bracken Fern naturalizes on the hillside

Across the Horse Pond meadow, there is a large hill, which is home to a wonderful stand of Bracken Fern, of the genus Pteridium. These ferns, which spread by underground roots (rhizomes), seem quite happy where the clay soil meets sandy soil, on what used to be an iron mine, several hundred years ago. We cut back the grass and ferns on the hill, and sorted them into different piles as we went. The grass went on the compost heap, but we will save the fern fronds as insulation material for the winter. Specifically, we will use the fronds to protect the Banana plants that stay in the Exotic Garden over winter (I'm sure I will have example photos when the time comes). 

Bagged fern fronds 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Exotic Garden Study Day

Throughout the year, there are a series of garden study days at Great Dixter. Last week, Fergus taught a day-long class on exotic gardening. A couple of co-workers and I were invited to join the group. Exotic gardening could loosely be defined as: the combination of coastal, tropical and/or cacti and succulent plants, often non-native, tender species, used to create a unique, long-season display. This isn't a book definition, but it provides some basic parameters. In reality, there are numerous variations to exotic gardening. 

Dahlia 'Chimborazo' in the Exotic Garden

Although difficult to imagine, the Exotic Garden at Great Dixter was once a rose garden. Influenced by their travels, Christopher Lloyd ("Christo") and head gardener, Fergus Garrett, wanted to create a space for late-season interest and color (into September and October). In the early 1990's, they began removing all but 11 of the best roses, while planting Cannas, Dahlias, Bananas and the like. Every year, they tweaked it, adding new plants, while removing others. I was able to appreciate the year-to-year changes even more after seeing Fergus's slides. 

The space they chose for the Exotic Garden is appropriate. Framed by hedges and the building, there is a certain feeling of enclosure. The space is made up of several different beds, divided by Yorkstone paths, which absorb heat in the summer, adding to the conducive environment. This layout allows for a variety of views and focal points. Because you can't see the entire space in one glance, visitors must move through the space, brushing against the plants and interacting with the garden.

Colocasia 'Black Magic' (left) definitely provides character

According to Fergus, "anything goes" in this garden space. He says he wants to "create an other-worldly garden." Plants with character are selected for this garden, specifically the bold, unusual or quirky ones. However, creating connectivity is still important, in order to bring the space together. 

One of Fergus's central philosophies is trying different things from one season to another. Although the Exotic Garden is currently composed of roughly 60% tender plants and 40% hardy plants, you could create a composition of only hardy plants. There are no rules---experiment! Because our garden consists of so many tender plants, it is more labor-intensive. Not only do we conduct 2-3 plantings during the year in the Exotic Garden, (filling in gaps or enhancing spaces) we must also lift most of the plants and bring them indoors for the winter. Is it worth all the time and effort? We certainly think so, but you can decide what works best for you! 

It's definitely worth the work!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Gravetye Manor

On Thursday, I joined the symposium group for a visit to Gravetye Manor, which is located about a hour and a half from Great Dixter, in West Sussex. Built in 1598, the manor has gone through a series of owners, but none more notable than the great gardener and writer, William Robinson, who occupied Gravetye from 1884-1935. Commonly thought of as the father of the English natural garden, Robinson was revolutionary in his planting schemes, specifically the way he blended the woods and meadows with the garden. 

The Wild Garden merging with the Croquet Lawn

Robinson's appreciation for the natural landscape has significantly influenced today's gardening practices around the world.  Great Dixter is what it is today, in large part, due to the work of William Robinson and Gravetye, specifically with the implementation of diverse meadow gardens. 

View of the Wildflower Meadow leading down to the Upper Lake

Following Robinson's death in 1935, the property came under possession of the Forestry Commision. After years of decline, the house received fresh attention in 1958, when Peter Herbert turned Gravetye into a prestigious Hotel. Today, under new management, Gravetye is making further strides towards improvement and quality in their Hotel & Restaurant, as well as the garden.  In 2010, Tom Coward, former assistant gardener to Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, was appointed Head Gardener at Gravetye. Tom's knowledge and passion has already gone a long way in renovating the neglected garden. Tom admits one of Gravetye's biggest obstacles has been gaining control of the invasive weeds. To this end, they have patiently delayed planting perennials in heavily infested spaces. However, they believe their diligence is paying off, and they will soon be able to move forward uninhibited. 

The Long Border

Only 5 months old, the Long Border is already bursting with shape, texture and color. It's just one example of the great work that Tom and his team are doing at Gravetye. I'm glad this once great garden is again full of life and excitement, and I hope that it will continue to inspire future generations, as it has in the past.

   Long Border planting