A Week at Great Dixter

As much as I enjoyed my garden visits during my first week in the UK, the most thrilling part of my trip was definitely the second week spent at Great Dixter. I attended a week-long horticultural symposium led by the very-talented and dynamic Fergus Garrett - head gardener at Dixter for over 20 years, and master of the intensive, long-season succession gardening showcased there. It was a last-minute addition to my trip and I truly had no idea what to expect never having been to Great Dixter; but it was fantastic! The most practical and exciting horticultural education I’ve had.

  A view of the house from the orchard garden, September 2013

A view of the house from the orchard garden, September 2013

Great Dixter was the home of Christopher Lloyd, horticulturalist and garden writer. He lived at Dixter for most of his life, working with plants and developing the gardens and his unique planting style – adventurous, colourful, exuberant. Christopher Lloyd died in 2006 but Dixter continues to be open to the public as a charitable trust, under Fergus’ guidance. Its mandate is not only to preserve the Lloyds’ historic home and gardens, but to continue to garden in the distinctive style of Christopher Lloyd, while also using the gardens to educate gardeners in traditional gardening skills, plantsmanship and estate management.

  My symposium group and our first meeting in the garden with Fergus

My symposium group and our first meeting in the garden with Fergus

The symposiums offer a rare horticultural opportunity for professional and keen amateur gardeners to immerse themselves in the ‘how-to’ of such a unique garden and to have a chance to learn from Fergus – he’s a great teacher. The agenda for the week is wide-ranging: to learn and practice traditional techniques first-hand in the gardens, to discuss and explore aspects of complex and sophisticated border design, plant selection and maintenance, and to tour other nearby world-class gardens – in our case, Sissinghurst, Gravetye Manor, and the RHS Trial Grounds at Wisley to have a look at the famed Dahlia trials.

  Fergus discussing the planting in the long border

Fergus discussing the planting in the long border

Over the course of the week we covered a huge variety of topics – succession planting and extending the season, designing with plants, the best-performing plants, meadow gardening, creating exotic gardens. Each day was full to overflowing – lectures and slideshows were mixed with practical time spent in the gardens, examining and discussing the details of planting combinations and techniques, and long lists of plant names.
And, I should say, the garden was incredible in September, still full of flowers at a time of year when one might expect things to be getting a little dull. The pictures say it all.

The symposium group was together from morning ‘til night – we ate all our meals together, were joined at lunch and dinner (lovely meals, by the way) by guests with a specialty in which we might be interested (dahlia growers, former head gardener from Sissinghurst to discuss rose pruning) and by staff, students and volunteers. It was a full-on, immersive experience – all gardening, all the time. Amazing!