Great Dixter is, of course, already a familiar name to most Country Life readers, who will recall Christopher ‘Christo’ Lloyd (1921-2006) and his weekly ‘In My Garden’ column, which ran from the mid 1960s for more than 40 years. His garden masterpiece in the beautiful Wealden countryside of East Sussex was a constant source of inspiration for this writing and, today, under the aegis of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, the garden is more splendid than ever, a testimony to one of the finest and most charismatic gardeners of the past century.
Few gardens enjoy the continuity that contributed to Dixter’s seamless progression over a century and the story has been frequently told. Christo’s father, Nathanial, bought the property in 1910 and employed Edwin Lutyens to restore and extend the 15th-century hall house. At this time, they also laid out the framework of the gardens, a perfectly structured series of open-air rooms and enclosed meadows, with the house at the heart of it all.
After Nathanial’s death in 1933, his wife, Daisy, took over the running of the estate and she worked closely with the young Christopher in softening a quite formal design with intimate plantings, self-sowers and wild-flower meadows. They also started opening the garden to visitors and, after Daisy’s death, at the age of 92, Christo continued developing the garden in the same public-spirited manner. He delighted in entertaining and often seemed to enjoy collecting characters in a room who would complement and contrast with each other, rather in the way he did with plants in the border.
One of the most dynamic periods of the garden’s history commenced when Fergus Garrett started working as Christo’s head gardener in 1992. Suddenly, with Christo’s experience and vision joined by Fergus’s energy and youthful passion, anything became possible. The borders achieved an intensity never seen before; the old rose garden, a monoculture Christo had become so tired of, was ripped out and replaced by an exotic garden.
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‘People sometimes say we’re quite brave at Dixter,’ says Fergus, who is the trust’s chief executive, as well as the head gardener. ‘But this is just normal gardening for us, having fun with plants and not being afraid of trying things out. Often, our experiments work and, sometimes, they don’t, but that doesn’t matter so much, as long as we learn from them and keep moving forwards. That’s what the place is about.’
Since the trust took up responsibility for the garden after Christo’s death, some £8 million has been raised with the help of generous donors, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and substantial public support. This has enabled it to own the whole estate, including the house, garden and wood-
lands, ensuring continued public access and the intensive gardening that allows this wonderful place to progress.
It has also enabled sensitive repairs and renovations to the historic buildings. The house is open to public tours, but it also accommodates students studying Christo’s style of gardening. Further student accommodation and offices for curatorial work have been built on the site of the formerly derelict old farm. This gives enthusiastic and talented young people a chance to ‘live the garden’ and develop the skills necessary to manage historic gardens.
These skills are, sadly, becoming increasingly rare and this is Dixter’s investment in the future of British horticulture. One day, one of these students will be the next head gardener at Great Dixter, ensuring the continuity of creativity and dedication that shaped the garden over the past century.
I’m certain that, if Christo could see it today, he would be overjoyed.
The time I spent there as a gardener was more a lifestyle than a job-you become part of a dedicated, creative and often eccentric family. It’s an experience that affects the way I continue to garden every day and I encourage anyone interested in gardening to make a pilgrimage to this unique, iconic and beautiful place.
Great Dixter House and Gardens, Dixter Lane, Northiam, East Sussex (01797 252878; www.greatdixter.co.uk). Open this year until October 27, Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays (closed on all other Mondays), gardens 11am-5pm (last admission); house 2pm-5pm
View a selection of archive articles on Great Dixter at www.countrylife.co.uk/greatdixter
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