Great Dixter

A current article in the magazine, The English Garden, reminded me of my brief visit to Great Dixter, an exceptional garden in Sussex, England.

Great Dixter includes a 15th century manor house, and a six-acre garden that was created in the arts & crafts style around 1921 by Edwin Luytens, a noted architect and garden designer. The new owner then was Nathaniel Lloyd, who had sold his printing business and began to write influential books about gardening and about brickwork.

Nathaniel’s son, Christopher, who was born at Great Dixter, developed the garden from 1954 until his death in 2006. During that time, he pursued a style noted for dense planted beds, bright color combinations and bold leaves, punctuated by large topiary shrubs. He also wrote many books on gardening, several of which are in my collection.

My visit to Great Dixter was fourteen years ago, when I was already an avid gardener, but not well enough informed to realize that I was seeing one of the world’s finest residential gardens.

Fergus Garret, who was Christopher Lloyd’s friend and long-time gardener, cordially welcomed our tour group and left us to see the garden on our own. We did not meet Christopher Lloyd, but we wandered through the garden with much appreciation and little understanding.

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Today, Garret is the manager of Great Dixter, frequently changing its beds and pots of annuals and perennials, with a team of five full-time and five student gardeners. The garden is open to the public and receives tens of thousands of visitors each year.

To learn more about Great Dixter, visit its very good website, or use Google to search for Great Dixter and click on the button for Images.

If I were to visit that garden again, I would know something about Lloyd, Garret, and the garden itself, and I surely would appreciate its displays, but I might not have any deeper understanding of the garden. Every garden reflects years of work by one person, or a small group of people, evolving visions, ranges of knowledge and, often, changing measures of time and money. Such variables make the garden very complex, conceptually, and quite resistant to interpretation by the visitor who sees it for an hour or two.

All we can see during such visits is the condition of the garden at that moment of time. In some cases, certainly not all, we can see a distinctive style, like Lloyd’s. But we cannot see what the garden has been or what it will be, or why it loos as it does. We can like the successful bits, but we shouldn’t disparage unclear or disappointing parts: their sad states could have an innocuous history.

The net effect of a visit to a significant garden, then, combines enjoyable experience and mystery. We can always discover interesting plants and plant combinations to add our own gardens, and perhaps learn from the owner about the science and art of gardening. And that’s reason enough for exploring other people’s gardens.

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