Stepping onto Great Dixter soil is like stepping into a dream world of wispy, airy meadows, curvy Dali-esque hedges, alien jungles and a colourful patchwork of plants you’ve never seen elsewhere.
No matter where you point your camera, you’re going to take an amazing photo. Literally. But it’s a place best seen, felt, smelt and indeed heard with your own senses (the rich meadow planting buzzes constantly).
This is a living sculpture that’s breathtaking from every angle. Famed garden writer Christopher Lloyd and now head gardener Fergus Garret have clearly obsessed about every inch and detail of this fantastical garden.
A garden so overwhelming and complete in its constant evolution that it took me back a year to the start of my own adventures in becoming a gardener and the excitement I felt by seeing the new.
Back to my roots
Exactly one year ago we visited lots of gardens, including Cragside and Biddulph Grange, which we fell in love with for their complexity and imaginative creativity. It’s hard to believe that at that point – although I have loved plants and grown things all my life – I had only just started my new journey into the world of gardening, horticulture and botany. I hadn’t yet seen a Dahlia, didn’t have any favourite plants and Cragside had only just awakened my love of the mystical fern and white foxgloves.
Since then I have read, watched and learnt everything I can by growing it myself. Pausing to look back, I’m really proud of what I have been able to achieve in that time and happy to have found something I really love, at long last.
In the past month or two however I had become slightly despondent after the mountain I had to climb to try to pass my RHS Level 2 exams in June. I got to the peak and collapsed.
Then Great Dixter happened
Great Dixter is like the fertiliser on my roots. To see someone’s vision so immaculately realised has reinvigorated my want to achieve my own dream with our garden.
I have years of practice to go, but I think I’m on the right track. It turns out that many of the plants at Great Dixter are the same plants we are squashing into Littlebury. In particular, I’m overjoyed to see combinations I’ve dreamt of so gloriously growing right there, in Great Dixter’s gardens. Especially dwarf conifers and pines – which I think can be wonderful – stuck into flower borders.
We overheard a tour from a gardener who was talking of the techniques Christopher Lloyd used for successional flowers. I rushed back to our holiday barn and ordered his book on the subject. I love the idea of planting pockets for spring bulbs followed by summer annuals. It sounds so obvious now but I didn’t know to do that.
So far, I have barely touched on the house, an important central set piece that is every bit as eccentric and jumbled, yet complete and assured as the garden. Three wings from three different time periods. Simultaneously a focus and a canvas for the plants around it.
Great Dixter has shown me that a garden can be a masterpiece, like any other form of creativity. And, standing in a living masterpiece, now able to name many plants directly in Latin, and to understand how and why this garden is the way it is, made me finally understand why I love other masterpieces like Cragside and Biddulph Grange so much.
Best of all, it’s shown me there are other people who love plants and nature and design in a similar way to me. What I hope to achieve in the future is possible with hard graft and determined practice.
We’re all guardians of nature
Anyone can enjoy a visit to Great Dixter, and needless to say I can’t recommend a day trip here enough. For me, personally, I’m glad I held off until I was able to understand what was going on in each bed and meadow. The extreme high maintenance and raw talent going into every square meter.
More than recognising their hard work, I’m glad I held off to be able to recognise that the people in charge of Great Dixter are realising the real joy of gardening is the ongoing daily maintenance and tweaking, ever improving – your work can never be done. Everything is constantly changing, growing with an infinite amount to learn and master. A work that lasts a lifetime and far beyond our little lives. The mish mash of past and present, the passing of knowledge from one to another, seems to be epitomised by Great Dixter’s spirit.
I’m reminded of the God’s Gardeners in the post apocalyptic book Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood. Its futuristic gardeners who respect and love nature to survive on an earth destroyed by humans. Growing little pockets of plants and wildlife to improve people’s lives.
In their isolated spot at Great Dixter we could be in that future, the rest of the world hidden from sight. The spot so otherworldly and timeless, you could be in the past or the future at the same time.
Happiness to me is that sweet spot only achieved from being at one with nature: understanding, respecting, shaping and helping it thrive, enhancing it and showing it at its crazy, imaginative best – a task that only humans can do. Great Dixter, a working garden in Kent is the closest I’ve seen to that being fully realised.