I first heard of Great Dixter Garden, Christopher Lloyd, and Fergus Garrett while visiting White Flower Farm in Connecticut. The Farm's Long Border was a British import, personally designed by Garrett. To my then "green" eyes, that first glimpse of Dixter's style encompassed all that a garden should be, and continues to be, for me: plants shrieking with colorful exuberance, bursting rudely from their rooted positions, gregariously leaning their elbows on their neighbor's shoulders, intermingling drunkenly abreast like tie-dyed Phish-heads lucky enough to score floor seats at Madison Square Garden during New Year's Eve. Like U2 and Coca-Cola agree, there ain't nothin' like the real thing. I knew then I HAD to see this place for myself.
And I did. Two weeks ago, I fulfilled one of my deepest horti- cultural desires. May 18th, mid-spring, 68 degrees Farenheit. The incredible scenery moving past my window on the train ride from Gatwick airport did not disappoint: fields so verdant they just glowed spring, and each cluster of hilltop trees were followed by my musings of "Capability" Brown envisioning my exact time and place. After a white-knuckled drive on the "wrong" side of the road, I arrived at Great Dixter early afternoon. I spent my daylight wisely by scampering over every inch of the place, laughing, crying, photographing.
Great Dixter, the world-reknowned garden, lies in the village of Northiam, near Rye, in southeast England (go to Haye's Inn, and ask Craig for a Scotch egg. Take his advice and do not eat three). The house was purchased by Christopher Lloyd's father in the early 1900's. The layout of the garden was designed by Edward Lutyens, and was first planted with a running commentary of Taxus hedging. Christo, as he is lovingly referred to, began seriously building the gardens in the 1970's. Not until the arrival of Fergus Garrett did the gardens explode with assertive inspiration.
Christopher Llyod, visionary author, plantsman, designer, and resident of Great Dixter, met his gardening soulmate in his head gardener, Fergus Garrett. Together, they coined the high-maintenance method of "succession gardening". This technique delivers a constant segue of cacophonous color and texture throughout the gardens that occurs literally moment-to-moment, not just season-to-season. This team was responsible for shocking the public when they ripped out the ancient rose garden, and replaced it with the Exotic Garden: Cannas, Dahlias, Musa basjoo, Tetrapanax papyrifer, Phormium, Hydechium, essentially launching the contemporary craze of incorporating tropical and non-hardy plants into the garden. An enviable working relationship, these two collaborated so fervently that you instantly feel the intensity of what they achieved the moment you step foot in the gardens.
The colors! The shapes! The plant personalities! The feeling of this garden is wonderfully chaotic, yet somehow perfectly relaxed. Self-sown plants are everywhere: boasting their ability to thrive in the crack of a wall, or flaunting their unexpected quaint qualities at the feet of unintentional neighbors. Color schemes at Dixter are not pined over as some garden designers do. If a combination happens to work, serendiptiy descended. Color is considered, but not fussed about. The focus is definitely more on form and texture, because as we know --especially in this garden-- flowers are fleeting.
The colors at Dixter seem to ask questions of the viewer that are hard to answer. Do these colors really go? Is this combination meant to provoke? Do these people know what they are doing? As you might imagine, yes, they certainly know what they are doing. Christo thoroughly enjoyed being shockingly adventurous with color. Together, he and Fergus bucked the color wheel and threw fabulously oddball, and at times, accidental, combinations into the garden. As a result, the palette is not too comfortable, overworked, or subtly pulled from some whispered hue. It certainly is not about putting two flowering plants next to each other and walking away with a smug smile. I came to understand the colors when I picked my head UP, and surveyed the garden in large vignettes, then coming to my own personal relationship with the colors I saw.
I spent 5 days at Great Dixter, honored to work alongside the dedicated group of gardeners there. For me, this garden was a surreal paradise; a tangible fantasy that I was able to walk through, touch, and smell. The smile never left my face. My impressions, lessons, and memories are vivid and permanent. My only regret is that I am not able to witness the garden unfold throughout the season; I am missing so much, even as I write! To Fergus, Aaron, Tom, and Sarah--see you soon! And to Christo . . . you left us your garden. Cheers.