I recently had the chance to hear Fergus Garrett speak at the Mercantile Library. His talk, “Designing with Plants the Great Dixter Way” was really interesting. Garrett has been the head gardener at Great Dixter House & Gardens in Sussex, England since 1993. Great Dixter is the family home of gardener and garden writer, Christopher Llyod.
He started with some of the history of Great Dixter (built in the mid-15th century!) and the additions the Llyod family made there in the early 1900’s. Garrett talked about the “spirit of a place” and how he tries to understand a place’s history to be able to carry it forward. He likes to use plants that do well in an area in a style that suits them.
There were a lot of interesting anecdotes about the Llyod family and their gardening philosophies. I actually wasn’t sure what to expect before going to this talk but I ended up surprised by the inspiration I got from it. One of the biggest themes that kept coming up was how much Christopher loved to “play” in the garden. Although the gardens were mostly formal, he wasn’t afraid to break traditional rules. He constantly changed layouts and had little sentimentality towards his plants. There was a drive to constantly experiment and surprise. He grew plants from outside his planting zone, and then ripped them all up the next year. He put colors together that weren’t popular, like pink and yellow. There were archways, rooms and spaces created with plantings to give the garden sections different formalities and atmospheres. He made bold changes within the season and from year to year. Garrett continues those practices and you really can’t expect to see the same thing each time you visit Great Dixter, to quite a drastic extent.
The examples of experimentation in the garden were inspiring. It helped remind me that there are no real rules for your garden. There might be things that work better, or that most people do – but you can make your garden whatever you want it to be.
Other items in my notes are on some interesting practices I want to do more research on. Garrett mentioned that they seed “just in time” for transplants. They have one tiny greenhouse for all the plantings they do at Great Dixter, so they don’t have space to hold onto anything longer than needed. They must have an incredible planting schedule to have plants ready exactly when they need them throughout the season.
The other practice regarded their meadow maintenance. He said they mow the meadow twice a year, timed with seed germination. They also use a parasitic plant to clear out grasses in the meadow – which sounds super interesting, but I didn’t get any more details than that.
If you ever have a chance to hear Fergus Garrett speak, I would definitely recommend it! The photos and stories were great, and I definitely left feeling inspired.