Great Dixter is a garden both Wellyman and I have wanted to visit for years. It, and visiting Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden at Perch Hill, were the main reasons for booking this holiday, a sort of garden pilgrimage if you like. The garden of celebrated plantsman Christopher Lloyd, who died in 2006, Great Dixter has long been somewhere lauded by the gardening elite, one of those gardens that should be on on your list to cross off if you want to be seen as a serious garden connoisseur. Sometimes they get it right and you find a real gem, others, you leave wondering what all the fuss was about. I’m pleased to say I found Great Dixter to be the former rather than the latter.
The gardens were laid out in the early part of the 20th century by the architect and landscape designer, Edwin Lutyens, who had been employed by Lloyd’s father to renovate the medieval house. Christopher’s mother was a keen plantswoman and introduced her son to one of the most influential gardeners of the 20th century, Gertrude Jekyll. With this sort of background it seems inevitable that Lloyd, himself, would become a gardener but, in fact, he too, became a leading force in the gardening world. For over 40 years he wrote a gardening column in Country Life Magazine and was the author of over 20 books on the subject, most notably The Well Tempered Garden.
After spells away doing National Service and teaching horticulture he returned to Dixter in the 1950s, where he gardened until his death. In the later years of his life Lloyd was aided in the gardens by Fergus Garrett. They formed a strong bond and it is Fergus that continues to manage the garden today. Christopher Lloyd was perhaps most famous for his exuberant planting and his desire to try unconventional colour combinations. He was not afraid to use plants that others would say would clash or be too brash.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to another garden that was so full to bursting with flowers. It was a joy to see so many plants and no bare earth. When you pay to visit gardens like this who wants to see soil in June. His use of colour was at its most evident in the long border with stunning planting designed to provide interest from April to October but with its peak from mid-June to August. His style of gardening is high maintenance to say the least and we were left wondering how anyone could penetrate the borders from summer onwards, such was the density of the planting. To maintain the look of fullness, annuals and bedding are often replaced throughout the summer, sometimes as much as 3 times.
Meadows play an important part in the gardens at Great Dixter. They are the first part of the garden that greets you as you enter through the gate and walk towards the house. These areas were created by his mother who loved these naturalistic scenes and would spend her time growing wildflowers from seed. To the back of the house are more meadows which are breath-taking in their simple beauty. Meadows better than any I’ve seen in any nature reserve. I don’t think I’ve seen so many orchids in one place. It’s a strange thing to go all this way to a garden and be blown away by the meadows, but we were.
The barn garden and its planting surrounds the sunken garden with its pond and terraces and was beautiful, a sheltered hideaway. This is just one of many areas at Great Dixter where you realise how important the backdrop of the stunning buildings is to the feel of the gardens. The oast houses with their cowls that are such a quintessential part of the Sussex and Kent countryside, the beautiful tiled barns with their oak trusses and the house, itself, all gave the gardens a real sense of place and set about a debate between Wellyman and I as to how important the setting and buildings are to a truly great garden. Would it be possible to create an outstanding garden if the backdrop was a block of flats, or your average housing estate? I’m not so sure.
There is a well-stocked nursery for those who have been inspired by the planting combinations in the garden. The one downside were the refreshment facilities, which for a garden of such renown were disappointing – a tea/coffee machine and a fridge stocking insipid sandwiches. When Lloyd himself wrote a book entitled the Gardener Cook it was rather a let down and a real sense that the trust that now manages the gardens was missing a great opportunity. Improvements to the visitor facilities are ongoing, so hopefully this element will be addressed, which could bring in much needed revenue.
This was a minor gripe, though, for such a beautiful place. The most striking feature that I’m left with from my visit to Great Dixter was the sense of the personality of the man who gardened here for most of his life. The quirky, the stubborn, the conventional and the revolutionary were all evident. This element that makes this garden so special, however poses problems for those who are gardening there now and in the future. Is it possible to maintain the sense of a garden’s creator once they have died and for how long? I’m pleased that, although Christopher Lloyd is no longer here, I was still able to experience something of the individual through his lifelong passion, the gardens of Great Dixter.
For more information about Great Dixter.