The visitor, on his arrival at the garden gate of Great Dixter, may experience something of a surprise. No shaven lawn is there to greet him; no carefully tailored topiary; no billowing herbaceous border. All those features of an English garden are present, but they come later. The first thing the visitor to Great Dixter sees is an area of long grass – which at first glance looks like an unkempt field. But it is a field with a difference, and it is what Mr Christopher Lloyd calls his ‘Meadow Garden – rough grass and, to which suitable additions have been made. It is something we go in for in quite a big way. It disconcerts some visitors – the trim-minded ones, and delights others. . . My mother started it, and I have continued – con amove.’
In May, June and early July the ‘Meadow Garden’ at Great Dixtcr is very beautiful, starred as it is with tall daisies, cornflowers and poppies. But it is a highly sophisticated form of gardening, and without Mr Lloyd’s expert eye, it could easily revert to hayfield and cease to be a garden at all. So it should be copied only with great care.
Great Dixter is perhaps the most typically English garden one can think of. It was designed about sixty years ago by the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is not, therefore, a very old garden . . . yet, so happily is it married to the gabled house that it surrounds, that it seems far older than it is’. It is primarily a plantsman’s garden, and there is no plant in the garden which is a dull or common plant. Furthermore, having been chosen with great knowledge by the owner Mr Christopher Lloyd, there are no plants which are not, probably, of the best variety available. ‘So’, it has been written, ‘the garden might be legitimately described as approaching the ideal — an architect-designed garden planted by a connoisseur among gardeners. . . .’ This is a rare combination.
The several gardens at Great Dixter lie all around the house. Each has its own character and its own atmosphere. They open, one from the other, like rooms in a house; one of the first on the visitors’ tour is a sunk garden, luxuriously bordered with planting on three sides, and with a central lily, the fourth side being formed of a low out-building which in summer is completely embowered with vines, and roses.
Out of this sunk garden, paved paths, with thickly planted borders on either side, lead under the walls of the house. In summer these borders are full of colour.and Michaelmas daisies are to the fore, but these are inter-planted with fuchsias, plants once thought to be half-hardy – as indeed some are. Three of the most effective of these romantic, Victorian-looking are the flesh-pink Lena, the red and mauve Display and the vigorous Madame
Cornelissen. With these are grown hebes – till recently known as veronicas -which come into their own in September, Autumn Glory and the pale mauve Midsummer Beauty being two of the most attractive.
From the flowers already mentioned, the impression might be given that the garden at Great Dixter is at its best in late summer and autumn. It would be a false impression. It is indeed a garden for all seasons, save, of course, winter, when, like all good gardens, it hibernates – though not for very long.
In February there are witch hazels and winter jasmines to lay their sweet scent on the still cold air, and the intrepid early iris. In March the first daffodils and earliest magnolias appear. In April come the species tulips, scillas and all the flowers of spring to take the eye with colour. In May the Meadow Garden comes into its own, and from then till the first frosts the garden is fairly bursting with colour and bloom. Recently a formal rose garden was made on the site of an old cattle yard. It is a new addition, and a most successful one.
Mr Christopher Lloyd is one of the most talented gardeners in England, and one of the best garden-writers we know. On his favourite subject he is always entertainingly articulate. When asked what were his favourite plants he replied:
It may sound snobbish, but I do like unusual plants. The storehouse of plant material that we can grow in these favoured islands is prodigiously rich, and yet is drawn upon so niggardly that I am continually goaded into championing things that should be seen more, like aciphyllas (the spear grasses of New Zealand), the South American sea holly (Eryngium pandanifolium), with its sea-green scimitar, Zigadenus elegans, with sprays of starry green flowers, the bold-disced alpine thistle (Carlina acaulis), and Euphorbia wulfenii with its glaucous foliage and pale green flowering clusters in spring. If, as in all these cases, the plant has good, positive structure as well as subtle colouring so much the better.
Handsome foliage appeals to me very strongly; I would sell my soul for a shrub like the Cape Honey Flower (Melianthus major), and the fact of its being tender seems quite beside the point to me. Who would shirk the little bit of trouble needed on such a plant’s behalf? And I am crazy about variegated foliage: a grass like Arundo donax variegata, or the sword leaves of a variegatedor of the green and yellow phormium; these plants make for big moments.
And yet I like the showy and the obvious as well, as a contrast, if not used indiscriminately and without imagination. I like dahlias and cannas, not in solid beds on their own, but taking their place among border plants and shrubs such as buddleias, hypericums, perovskias and caryopteris. In fact, I like mixing all categories of plants. It seems the natural thing to do. Their different habits act as foils one to another.
The garden at Great Dixter is different from most other British gardens in one most important respect. A great feature is made ofplants. In these days of shortage of labour this is very rare: a few antirrhinums, perhaps, a modest show of petunias and tobacco flowers, but that is usually the sum. And yet how beautiful they are, and how much colour they bring to the garden at a moment when colour is sometimes on the wane. Mr Lloyd is adept at growing and defends his taste for them.
The only difference between me and many other gardeners is that they cannot be bothered with the recurring business of, pricking and planting out, whereas, to an extent, and in the interests of, say, the smell of mignonette and stocks, or of a good contrast in colour and form, I can. But I like too: sweet williams and foxgloves in particular, but, as these go over in July, it works well, I find, to some annuals such as cleomes in early May and have them coming on in readiness to take the biennials’ place. Of course, another nice poirit about annuals and biennials is that you can take a rest from, and conic back to them so easily. No major decisions have to be made as to what must be sacrificed or eliminated or worked up again by some long-winded technique.
And so, thanks to the trouble that has been taken over the ‘business of sowing, pricking and planting out’, the garden at Great Dixter is bright, in season, with Salvia farinacea, a sage plant with mealy blue flowers and blue; with rudbeckias (cone flowers) such as the annual Autumn Glow, which has brilliant golden flowers; with the seldom-grown tithonia, from Mexico; and with spider flowers from the West Indies.
All this, as Mr Lloyd is ready to admit, takes a lot ol time and hard work. His garden is an example of the achievement of a dedicated gardener. It has been planted with discrimination – and unique taste. It has been maintained by hard work. It has been cherished for years; in Mr Lloyd’s words, con amore.
OPEN April 2nd – October 16th (approx): daily in the afternoon except Monday, open on Bank Holidays.
LOCATION In Northam village on A28 Hastings to Tenterden road, near junction of A28 and A268.