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

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


This week, Great Dixter is hosting a garden symposium group from North America. One of the perks of working here is that Fergus will often ask you to tag along on educational opportunities. This week has been a perfect example: yesterday, I was able to join the symposium group for a talk by Alexis Datta, the former Head Gardener of Sissinghurst. Today, I was even more fortunate to join the group for a tour at Sissinghurst. Troy Scott Smith, the newly appointed Head Gardener, was very kind to show us around the world-famous garden. 

Troy talking to the group on top of the Tower

Although Sissinghurst has quite a storied history, it wasn't until 1930, when Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West arrived and revitalized the neglected Elizabethan property, that it started to become what we know it as today. Located in Kent (about 20 minutes from Dixter), Sissinghurst sits amid a wonderful mixture of woods and farmland. Despite their limited design background, Harold and Vita masterfully dissected the space into a series of rooms, making the 6 acres feel much bigger, without losing its sense of intimacy. Hedges, composed mostly of Yew and Boxwood, play a major role in the partitioning of rooms, and are a work of art in and of themselves. Remnants of the original walls also delineate space, while lending to much of Sissinghurst's unique character. 

A view from the Tower shows the layout of rooms outlined by walls and hedges

Heralded as one of the flagship gardens in England, Sissinghurst is truly a remarkable mixed composition of formality and informality. While some point to the White Garden, and others the Rose collection, or still others the tightly clipped hedges, to me, Sissinghurst's greatest attribute is its spacial balance and flow, coupled with a most effective combination of hard and soft elements. 

View of the Elizabethan Tower from the White Garden

Fifty-plus years after the passing of Vita and Harold, Sissinghurst still pays tribute to the visionaries and creators of this gem. The garden is carefully and thoughtfully maintained in such a way as to respect and carry on their work. With the passing of the baton to Troy, I expect there will be changes in the coming months and years, but all for the betterment and quality of this special place. 

A small tribute in the Tower stairwell

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sore already?!

It was a busy first week. I'm still getting to know names and my way around the garden, but meanwhile there's work to be done! It's been quite warm and dry this week, which has been helpful for the projects at hand. We've spent a couple days gathering wood from one of Great Dixter's two Woods. We were mainly gathering Chestnut, Hornbeam, Ash and Birch. This was wood that had been cut down previously and is now ready for use. The Chestnut will be used for odds and ends around the garden, from tools, to hurdles, which help support plants, or act as barriers. The Hornbeam, Ash and Birch will be used for firewood in the house this winter. As part of a working Wood, the trees are harvested on about a 15 year cycle through the practice of coppicing. Coppicing involves cutting a woody plant (tree in this case) down to a set point, usually close to the ground. It will then send up new shoots, and the cycle is repeated. When done properly, you move from one spot to another harvesting where ready and allowing other spots to regenerate. Thankfully, we have a chainsaw and a tractor these days! 

Stacking was another story!

We are also currently cutting the meadows. This too, is a time-consuming project because meadows are such a large component at Dixter. In some ways it's sad to see the meadows get cut back because they are pretty right up to the end, even when dried out. However, it needs to be done so that the early spring bulbs, such as Crocus, have space and light to emerge. We wait as long as we can to allow wildlife activity to wrap up, while also allowing flower seeds to ripen and disperse, especially the Orchids. 

Topiary Meadow (Before)

Topiary Meadow (After)

One aspect of work that I particularly appreciate at Great Dixter is the clear purpose behind every project and how everything comes full circle. After the meadows are cut, we bag up the cuttings and put most of them on the compost pile, while other bits, which are highest in seed diversity, are strewn in areas that we want to develop or enhance for future meadow spaces. We have several compost piles at Dixter. In this case we add to the compost pile that will supplement the vegetable garden, since the meadow cuttings contain weed seed, which we don't want in the display beds. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013


Hello, my name is Ben, and I'm from North Carolina, USA. I am the 2013-2014 North American Christopher Lloyd Scholar. I will be spending the next 11 months living and working at Great Dixter House & Gardens in East Sussex, England, followed by a month at Chanticleer, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the USA. I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn in and represent these two renowned gardens, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you in the coming year. 

I arrived in Northiam, England last Friday, 30 August. I appreciated having the weekend to familiarize myself with the house and gardens before the program began on Monday, 2 September. My first impressions of Great Dixter were a bit overwhelming. Prior to this scholarship, I knew this was a special place, from hearing head gardener, Fergus Garrett, speak at a symposium a few years ago, to reading books and articles about Great Dixter. However, this exposure didn't fully prepare me for the real thing; being here in person is surreal. I guess what I'm saying is: you're just going to have to come experience it for yourself!