At Great Dixter, Getting Your Hands Dirty Is the Point

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We were well into the sixth hour of another 10-hour day, our small band of gardeners laboring to find small nodules on the stem of the plant, cut off the stem below them, and lay it in front of us with the soil. hung in pots, all under the strict eye of our teacher, Fergus Garrett.

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An inviting autumn sun was shining through the windows of the room we used to work in, but we were far from being released. We still had to practice the proper way to germinate new plants from seeds, roots, spores and leaves. And Mr. Garrett looked at the pot with uneven soil, the stems attached to no life-giving knots and the soil too tightly or loosely packed.

Some of us were flagging, but Mr. Garrett was relentless. Perhaps, he suggested, we could push dinner back to squeeze in more time? Or renovate a later 16th-century house for another round of slides?


It was the sixth day of our weeklong seminar Great Dixter House and Gardens, a six-acre garden in Northium, East Sussex, has been celebrated for decades as a fountain of experimentation and creativity. While at first glance the Great Dixter may appear to be a typical English cottage garden, it is much more daring and symbolic, colliding palettes of colors, harmony and symmetry, unexpected plant combinations and breaking conventions in favor of constant change.

Mr. Garrett, 55, Great Dixter’s chief gardener, has inherited and expanded the work of Christopher Lloyd, the English horticultural legend who put Great Dixter on the map. Gardeners, gardeners and students from around the world have explored this rural corner of southeast England over the years to locate the different plants in the many gardens within the grounds. In recognition of his worldwide stature, in 2019 Mr Garrett won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honor, the highest honor in the English horticultural world. He teaches almost every hour of the seminar, is usually offered four times a year and is booked well in advance.

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When Covid-19 struck in the spring of 2020, Great Dixter closed both its educational programs and public access to its home and gardens. Gardens reopen in June 2020, operating at reduced capacity with timed entry tickets and is now fully open, although home tours are limited. The last week-long seminar was in March 2020. One is scheduled for October 30th; The dates for next year’s session have not been decided.

I attended in September 2019, and it felt like I, an amateur gardener who helps with a small community roof garden in Manhattan, had strayed into a PhD. Period. My classmates, an extraordinarily friendly group, were much more experienced than me; He had traveled from all corners of England, the United States and New Zealand and included, among others, a professional garden and landscape designer, a practicing barrister (and several lawyer-gardeners) and a gardener, who spent his free time with the world. – Renowned horticulturists on trips like a trip to the mountains of Yunnan to identify plants.

Many had greenhouses, cold frames, potting sheds, ample acreage and a difficult ability to identify almost any plant with a Latin genus name. I had a handful of teak and faux-terra cotta plastic containers, no indoor storage and plant knowledge limited to a few hardy specimens that survived the strong wind, harsh sun, and cold of our co-op’s 16th-floor terrace. but also an all-consuming passion for a garden that has proven to be an oasis.

Our courses cover succession planting (a fundamental principle of the Great Dixter that involves planning a garden that will bloom year-round at or close to); designing and laying a border with plants; meadows; soil composition; plant propagation; stacking and composting; vegetable gardening; and garden scheduling and maintenance. There were two field trips — to Sissinghurst, the famous gardens of Vita Sackville-West, poet, novelist and lover of Virginia Woolf; and the private garden of Charlotte Molesworth, an artist who creates fanciful shapes in her topiary garden in the Kent countryside. While in Dixter’s heart 1066 Countries, a short drive from the enchanting coastal towns of Hastings and Rye, the day and night of the symposium did not leave time for local excursions.

More than any specific subject, Mr. Garrett teaches how to take on a garden with new eyes – seeing past flowers in the shape, color and texture of foliage. Looking beyond one season to see what will bloom the next. Creating ideas through tree limbs or under leaf canopy. Finding contrasts in height, shape and palette. Envisioning a garden in layers that relies on a deep knowledge of when plants will bloom and wither. If designing a garden is like painting, Mr. Garrett is drawing as much attention to the background as the foreground, his anatomy of a garden like the curator’s label in a museum that would otherwise be missed.

Our days in Great Dixter started after breakfast at 8:30 a.m., when we were taken a short distance from a local hotel to the entrance. Most of the morning, we wandered through the gardens without crowds, savoring the calm and golden light. Then Mr. Garrett would appear and sweep us on our tours, explaining his gardening principles as he toured the many gardens within Great Dixter.

One morning, he walked us through Dixter’s famous Long Border, a vibrant “mixed border” of trees, flowers, ferns, climbers, grasses, shrubs, and bulbs, against a backdrop of arches carved from box and yew Is. He stopped, drowned, in a barren place, which was alive in the summer. The next morning, we returned to assess the planting, which he suspected was not working and might need to be reconsidered. Each year, he replaces 80 percent of the Exotic Garden, a former rose garden that he and Lloyd had taken out in favor of an experimental garden that includes plants from the tropics that must be carefully dug up and kept indoors so that England’s medium Can survive even in winter. . Another day we arrived at Wall Garden, where he saw a void, the next day what he considered a success – a type of pampas grass that would provide structure well into winter.

He taught through repetition, first taking us through the physical garden, then showing him slides showing his commitment to succession planting: how to design the same area to provide visual interest every season. That starts with focal points like yuccas, conifers or alders—plants that will live as long as possible throughout the year. Then he adds layers – planting snowdrops blooms in February in England, primrose flowers in spring, and smallspike false nettle lasts through the fall, with the brown remnants of the tees providing shape even under a dusting of snow. He rewards movement, contrast, and emotion by wielding a brush of color, shape, and height, which he designs for the wave.

Such a design requires careful planning and thorough knowledge of individual plants – how steep, wide and tall they grow; which will provide shade so that another layer will flourish beneath them; which will make room for the surrounding plants or smother them; How deeply or widely will their roots spread. Mr. Garrett compares garden design and maintenance to dinner party planning – what tasks need to be done next and what are the last minutes, how many hours of preparation are needed (weeding, pruning, planting annuals) The materials needed and how well they will combine.

Upon entering, classes were convened at the Hall of Yemen in the main house, designed by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, with a new addition to two 15th- and 16th-century structures completed in 1912. Yemen had a fireplace, sofas and a long table. With hard chairs (the better for attention during long days, we were concerned), decorated with simple bouquets from the gardens, including my introduction to a beautiful grain-pink droopy bloom colloquially known as Kiss-Me. Known as -over-the-garden – the door.

The long days of the study were broken up by morning and afternoon tea breaks, lunch and dinner, with meals largely grown or raised on the ground, substantial bottles of red and white wine, and as opposed to desserts. failed to do, including a cake with mulberries. From the trees of the Great Dixter.

The garden, centered around the charismatic, gentle leadership of Great Dixter Mr. Garrett, resembled a bustling mix of laboratory and commune. In addition to some students and garden workers, there were young people, some formerly homeless or otherwise challenged, who were taken under his wing to learn gardening or traditional woodworking.

Woodworkers gather in a 15th-century barn and use hand tools to build ladders, garden benches and hampers, which are scattered around the garden to keep out badgers and other pests. There are obstacles. Great Dixter has its own nurseries, meadows, woodland and farmland, and composts its waste in giant piles, the latter being sterilized in-house to prevent weed growth. Visiting scientists conduct biodiversity audits and have advised Mr. Garrett not to remove some rotting tree stumps as they serve as nests for the rare solitary bee.

The camaraderie was contagious, and we students often ended our long days with late-night conversations over drinks, where we washed away what we had learned, swapping pictures of the gardens as other children did. are, and begin to plot out how to tear down and re-imagine our own seedlings. Then we lay in bed and woke up early to taste the full English breakfast and started on the next topic.

Staking was: Garrett showed the proper way to stake plants for support, essential in a public garden like Dixter that is always on display and extremely useful in an environment like mine, surrounded by heavy wind. We practiced clove knots for attaching bamboo sticks and learned to place them on the undersides of leaves and on the back of the stems, the better to hide them.

The soil analysis was: Consulting our multipage handouts, we looked at Mr. Garrett mixed Dixter soils to add additional drainage and growth, such as bark, grit, and organic matter. We followed them as they decoded the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium optimally for plants.

Those in the group who had extra land wanted to make meadows strewn with wild flowers. So Mr. Garrett and a senior gardener, Graham Hodgson, first required them to be blanketed with hay or black plastic for two years to kill the weeds, then stopped mowing long enough so that the flower seed heads were covered with earth. spread in It was sowing season, and gardeners were cutting flowers and grass “up to the finger”, as Mr. Garrett said, to allow for new growth.

On our last day, our knowledge was tested. Garrett divided us into two teams to design the boundaries in a full Sun environment. We named and finished plants to serve as anchors and under-layers through which sun was needed, the length of their growing season, how many we needed in each section, and whether our design allowed height. , the foliage and color had provided ample contrast.

Mr. Garrett approved of our focus on contrast and seasonality, but noted that both group boundaries were full of plants and didn’t deploy enough movement or strategic use of color or shape to draw the eye through them. Then it was off to a friendly pub for a farewell dinner, where many of Great Dixter’s staff would accompany us to Roast Beef, Roast Lamb, Chicken with Dressing, Yorkshire Pudding and Sticky Toffee Pudding, served with applesauce or giant chunks of ice. joined for Cream.

We woke up the next morning, ready to return to our real lives. But first, some of us headed back to Dixter for an early stroll through the gardens, before it opened to the public. There I turned to one of my favorite places, the Barn and Sunak Garden, set against the typical white fireplaces of the Ost House, where hops were dried in preparation for making beer.

In the soft light, I tried to look with…

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