Great Dixter: Garden Rebel

30 August 2017

Horticulture is not generally known for its rebels.  Nor is East Sussex (Bloomsbury Group aside).  ‘Shape shifting’ and ‘taboo-breaking’ are not terms usually used for such things.  Yet Great Dixter (one of East Sussex’s, and England’s, greatest gardens) does it all.  It is the David Bowie, the Pink Floyd, of gardens.  It likes to do things differently.  Or rather its custodians have always sought to do so. 

 This marvel of a garden masterpiece, nestled in the comforting rolls of rural Sussex, was forged by Christopher Lloyd, for whom it was ever home.  With the confidence that comes from knowing a place from birth he set about creating a garden that broke down predictable diktats (not putting this with that, keeping plants at the front of the border low, lots of reliable evergreens etc.) and set the standard for ecstatically beautiful planting.  Over 50 years later it still feels revolutionary.  When Fergus Garrett took over the garden upon Lloyd’s death, this spirit, characterised by a bold charisma and a thirst for the least expected, was given a new life and pushed further in to every leafy nook of Dixter.  It can sometimes feel a little cultish this adoration, can it really be so fabulous?  Well, yes.

What makes Dixter brilliant is hard to distil.  Yet distillation feels like the only appropriate approach.  It’s more like trying to capture some heady essence than seeking to dissect a ‘Design Approach’ as a route to creating more Dixters, clones, grafts.  Yes, the Lutyens house is dreamy, with its time worn brick and silvery wood.  So is the charming collection of outbuildings, the Kinfolk perfect benches popped down at the end of mown meadow paths, and the astoundingly good pocket nursery.  But even if you went all Met Cloisters on it and recreated all of these things in one place, you would still get nowhere near what Dixter really is.  A huge part of this nebulousness is the people that work there, hugely knowledgeable, hugely passionate and willing to take risks.  Sure, plant Eupatorium at the front of a border.  Or roses in the tropical garden?  Pears and Hydrangeas?  Why not.  Even Fuchsias get a look in.  These magicians even managed to make us swoon at a raspberry ripple-esque Phlox.

In later summer it’s all particularly delicious.  A recent trip (that also took in the eerie Prospect Cottage in Dungeness) had us holding back bowers of enthusiastic dahlias just to move along the paths.  Tall colonies of Japanese Anemones, diaphanous in the late afternoon light, combined with Thalictrum and Cosmos also gave a sense of wispy height, like a net of flowers and stalks strung on twigs across the border.  And the pot displays, Dixter’s speciality, are mad and delightful in equal measure.  On our visit a Japanese Acer, some variegated Pelargoniums and a solitary Verbena bonariensis (amongst others) were clustered together.  Sounds ghastly.  Looked brilliant, just.  Perhaps that’s the secret, for planting design, or anything, to be truly exciting it needs to be at least a little bit scary. 

- Elizabeth Tyler