23 Oct 2019

Life as an Apprentice: a week at Great Dixter, East Sussex

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

Famed for its eclectic borders, Arts and Crafts history and talented plantsmen, Great Dixter House and Gardens sits on the edge of the small village of Northiam in East Sussex. As part of my Apprenticeship here at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, I was able to work for a week in the garden to find out more about their horticultural methods.

Purchased by the parents of Christopher Lloyd in 1910, the Dixter Manor – which dates back to 1220 – was renovated by the Arts and Crafts architect Edward Lutyens. He used local materials and traditional building methods to ground the manor and buildings at the heart of the garden.

Christopher Lloyd or, more fondly, ‘Christo’ lived and worked at Dixter throughout his life, writing many books, studying, planting and building the legacy the garden has to this day.

Now, under the guardianship of Fergus Garrett, the humble and localised aesthetic has been retained; every year the horticultural team enters into local growing competitions, hold fetes and plant fairs. Despite this, the garden refuses to stagnate and the planting continues to be as experimental as it is bold. Dixter’s influence can now be felt on a global scale.

Arriving at Dixter on Monday morning, the dew was resting heavily on the meadow and the soft morning light was creeping its way through the gaps of the yew peacocks.

We made our way to the sunken garden where we were scheduled to meet with the horticultural team. The paths seemed narrow, mainly due to the immensity of planting; a tapestry of flora tumbling and falling in every way possible.

As expected, the colours were as abundant as the shapes and textures making for a rich and immersive visual experience.

With Fergus away in Istanbul, we were eased into the daily routines of the garden which included sweeping paths, distributing ornamental potted plants around the main house and tending to the nursery stock.

The Nursery itself at Dixter is impressive- mainly, I think, due to their commitment to keep all elements of production in house. One great example of this is their potting soil – they are still chipping away at an 8ft mound of degraded material that had been rotting away for around 10 years. They break it up by hand, sift and heat treat it in two large ovens in the potting shed, before enriching it with bone meal.

That afternoon, Michael a German horticulturist and keen forager, showed us – using the beautifully delicate Ammi majus – how to stake plants in the true Dixter fashion.

By observing in detail the habit by which the plant is falling, the stake can be made to appear an illusion or at the least subtle. He also spoke at length to us about the planting methodology in the mixed borders. Dixter’s borders require a great deal of maintenance. There are large areas of block perennials that have their own flowering peak and in between is what they deem ‘No man’s land’, an area that is added to and changed throughout the year to extend the season of interest.

Unlike Christo, Fergus makes great use of self sowers in these areas, selectively thinning, to name a few: Verbascum, Dipsachum, Erigeron and Linnaria to provide height and depth in patches that need it.

On Tuesday, Fergus returned from Istanbul with, quite literally, a suitcase of aubergines and a host of botanical tales from his trip. The team gathered in a quiet corner by the lower meadow and he began to map out his plans for the garden for the coming week.

Arriving on Wednesday morning, it was apparent that the pace and focus had turned and, with Fergus’ energy and guidance, the whole team set about preparing to plant new areas. Myself and Jack were given a section on the Long Border to plant. We were presented with sky-blue Salvia uliginosa which was to sit snug alongside Rudbeckia ‘Gold Star’ with the crimson spires of Salvia confertiflora to reach up proudly behind.

The amazing, if misleading, thing about the long border is that it is also incredibly wide – giving scope to experiment and vary the height of planting three-dimensionally.

Overall, I had a truly rich experience at Great Dixter. The energy and enthusiasm of Fergus and his team was contagious and the precision and care that they take when working, especially when planting, has helped me evolve my own critical eye.

I very much anticipate my next visit (hopefully to one of their famous plant fairs) and encourage anyone with an eye for provocative planting to go and experience Dixter first hand.

Jen Keyte July 2019