As I walk up the York stone path to the timber-framed porch of Great Dixter my first thought is “I wonder what’s in the pots?” I have visited the famous East Sussex garden and home of the late Christopher Lloyd on three previous occasions and have never failed to be impressed by the display of pots around the entrance of the Lutyens-designed house.
I am not disappointed. February’s display is an all-green collection of conifers. Under inspirational head gardener Fergus Garrett, who worked closely with Lloyd and is carrying on in his spirit, Great Dixter is an experimental garden. The entrance pots are a test-bed for plants that will eventually be used elsewhere in the garden – and currently Garrett is practising his alchemy on conifers.
Along with around 39 other paying students I am at Great Dixter for a study day on ‘Getting the Garden Ready’. Naively, I expect Garrett to start talking about jobs for February, moving on to March and perhaps taking in April. Not so, most of Great Dixter’s seed sowing was started last autumn, to free up precious late winter and early spring days for other tasks. If you only sow three sets of seed, Garrett recommends Ladybird Poppies, lilac Larkspur and Ammi Majus. At Great Dixter, they have sowed these and many more in double cold frames in the nursery, so that they already have a sizeable number of Larkspurs and other plants ready to be threaded through the Long Border.
Fergus’s way of talking is a reflection of his approach to gardening. He appears to be leaping around and making all sorts of connections, but there is an underlying structure to what he is doing and everything is carefully considered. A notebook is essential, we learn, so that in the late spring and summer months, when the garden is growing fast and reaching its peak, you can identify the gaps and what you would like to change for the following season and make a note of it then and there. Autumn is the time to lift, split and replant herbaceous perennials, before planting bulbs around them and carefully applying organic matter. Then it is important to mark plants clearly, at Dixter they use upright bamboo canes, so that in the winter you can spot the holes that need to be filled with bedding plants.
After a delicious homemade lunch of butternut squash and red chilli soup with oven-warm bread and a generous selection of cheeses, it is time to venture out into the drizzle to take a look at the garden close up. Fergus admits he is a “fair-weather gardener”, just one who knows what to wear to keep out the rain and cold. He makes copious work lists of all the jobs that need to be done, marking those that can be done in wet weather with an ‘R’ for rain.
We split into four groups and Michael Wachter, one of the permanent members of the garden staff at Great Dixter, takes our group around the High Garden. He explains the importance of knowing how and where a plant will grow in the wild, so Phlox, which comes from countries like Russia, forms a basal rosette and is slow to get started until later in the year, should not be grown too close to a rampant early spring grower such as Forget-Me-Nots, which will starve it of light. Michael tells us that now when the snowdrops are in flower is the time to lift, divide and replant them, so that they can see clearly where they have clumped up too much and where there are gaps. Later in the year when the snowdrops have died back, this would be much harder to envisage.
Sessions on improving the soil and sowing seeds follow and finally it is back to Fergus, who talks us through his plans for a section of the Long Border. He explains that he prefers to focus on one section at a time, using boards to get right into the middle of the border with minimum damage to soil and plants. He will then clear away weeds and dead leaves, assess whether there are too many of a plant in one spot and not enough in another, then stand back and see how it looks from afar. At Dixter, they do not cut back herbaceous perennials until the last minute, partly because they like the appearance of winter seed-heads, but more importantly so they can see remember the position and heights of plants. When they do cut back, they use bamboo canes laid flat to mark out groups of plants, especially those that require different types of feed and organic matter (for example Phlox don’t like the lime content of the spent mushroom compost they use).
The day ends half an hour later than scheduled, leaving me just time to dash to the shop and buy far too many packets of Great Dixter seeds and a long-handled ‘tickling fork’, one of Fergus’s favourite tools which allows you to get right into the border without treading on it and gently tease in organic matter where it is needed. I can’t wait to come back in the summer months to see the results of all this intensive preparation.
To find out more about study days at Great Dixter visit greatdixter.co.uk