Anyone who’s interested in gardening will have heard of Great Dixter. But despite having seen the gardens on various television shows, and read about them in magazines, I’d never taken notice of where they are. And so, when I picked up a leaflet earlier this week, while having a few days away in East Sussex, it came as a complete surprise to find that I was only twenty minutes away from Great Dixter. Obviously, I had to go, even though it had to be a shorter visit than I would have liked. Sadly there wasn’t time to look around the house, but the garden was the main priority.
The first thing that struck me about the place was it’s rusticity. You enter along a path that leads up to the front door. Flanked by orchard trees set in wildflower meadows, it reminded me of the illustration of Kelmscott Manor on the frontispiece of William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’. It’s a classic Arts & Crafts look. Despite the garden’s frequent appearances in the media, the only part that I recognised was the front of the house – I remember an article showing the gardeners very carefully composing the many pots that are clustered around the front door. Arrangements of pots are a big feature of Great Dixter, along with narrow paths and wildflower meadows. I particularly liked an arrangement of plants in the exotic garden, and when I got closer I was surprised (and impressed) to see that the Gunnera was in a pot.
I liked all the long grass. It’s good for wildlife, good for the environment (no temptation to resort to chemicals to keep the lawns green and weed free) and it looks good too – it makes a good contrast with the formality of the topiary hedging. The long border was looking good too.
The Long Border
But though I very much enjoyed looking around the gardens, I was a little underwhelmed, considering all the hype they get. Christopher Lloyd (who created the garden and is no longer with us) was apparently known not to mind the odd weed or two, and this ethos has been continued under the current administration. The gardens are an interesting mix of the formal and the informal. But informality often slips into a lack of order, and occasionally descends into full-blown chaos. You can see this in the photo of what I think is the high garden. It’s a mass of plants, without much contrast or, at this time of year, much in the way of flower.
Maybe at some point this garden will explode with colour – I don’t know because I struggled to identify individual plants from the confused mass of mid-green.
In the sunk garden, disorder gave way to a rather careless health and safety disaster waiting to happen, with a self-seeded, eight foot tall Euphorbia sprawling across a narrow path. It was impossible to get past without brushing against and breaking leaves, and that sap is nasty stuff, particularly if it gets in your eyes or your mouth. I’ve known people who have ended up in A & E.
Having said all that, it is a very special place. I like to see plants labelled, so that I can identify the ones I don’t know, but labels can make a garden look like a collection of exhibits, rather than a garden. At Great Dixter there are no plant labels, but any disappointment you might feel over this will surely be forgotten the moment you walk into the nursery area. So many gardens have plant sales areas with a small range of standard garden centre fare, usually bought in from Holland, that bears little relation to the plants in the garden. But the nursery at Great Dixter is amazing, with a fantastic selection of plants, many of which are grown in the gardens. With only a few exceptions, the stock was all very healthy, and the prices were quite reasonable too. You pay for them in a fantastic old barn, busy with various potting activities, and with a doorway that can’t be more than four feet high.
The estate consists of a collection of ancient buildings – the fifteenth century house, an oast house, and various barns (one of which was being thatched while we were there) – which make a fantastically picturesque architectural environment around which to build a garden. It would, I think, be a wonderful place to work, and with all of the gardeners working away, it looked, not like a recreation of a medieval idyll – it looked like the real thing.
And so, despite my criticisms, I’d love to go back. Great Dixter is beautiful, and perhaps unique, with an amazing atmosphere. If you ever get the chance to visit, I can thoroughly recommend it.