I jumped at the chance to hear Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter – undoubtedly England’s most famous garden – when the Horticultural Society of Maryland brought him to Baltimore to speak. Rush-hour traffic to get there be damned!
Here’s Fergus pointing to the same view of Great Dixter’s famous 200 x 15-foot border. It’s the ultimate in romantic cottage gardening; just don’t ask how much work it takes to make it all happen.
Here’s Fergus on stage and also posing with Christopher Lloyd, the gardening icon who lived his entire life in this house (built in 1460). Lloyd wrote about the garden he created there for 50 years until his death in 2006.
Now for my notes of the talk – lots of design and growing tips from Lloyd himself, with a touch of Garrett. It all resonated with me big-time.
- Be free in your garden, but follow the basic rules of ecology, like “Right plant, right place.”
- “Dixter has a handshake with the wild” and “Don’t be frightened of the countryside coming into your garden.”
- Lloyd’s greatest passion was seeing plants in the wild, studying plant communities.
- Asked when to move plants, Lloyd responded, “Whenever you bloody well please.”
- He used the word “magic” a lot.
- His “play” with conifers was ridiculed at first. Now it’s “chi-chi.”
- Good gardens need see-through plants and architectural plants.
- Don’t put too-similar things together; gotta have contrast.
- Grow something well and then find good plant partners. “Chris was always visualizing combinations.”
- Let plants self-sow and merge into each other. Then tweak the design.
- Break ALL the color rules if you want. Don’t be pigeon-holed into rigid color combos; just be yourself.
- It’s “absolutely fine” for visitors to have to walk around plants on a path (example above).
- “We make wads of mistakes.”
More about Dixter
- Great Dixter is located in England’s equivalent of Zone 8 – which means its lowest winter temperatures are similar to Norfolk VA’s, but its summers aren’t brutal like Norfolk’s.
- The gardeners may not have deer to contend with, but the badgers are a challenge.
- The garden is managed as organically as possible. That means being okay with a bit of visible insect damage.
- Fergus lives near the beach in Hastings. (Can you imagine living at the beach and working at the best garden in the U.K.? I’m sick with jealousy at the thought.)
- He’s willing to leave all that and speak when invited because the extra income is used to pay the promising interns chosen from around the world.
About 50,000 people visit Great Dixter every year. Click to find out more about visiting Great Dixter.
I’ve never seen the garden myself but if I ever do it’ll be with Carex Tours, whose leader Carolyn Mullet let me use some of her photos for this post. Carolyn has taken several groups to Great Dixter and since meeting Fergus this week in Baltimore, her next group can look forward to meeting with him in the garden.
Top photo by UK Garden Photos on Flickr.