Great Dixter, Sussex, UK

Words & Pictures: Jill Anderson

Sussex is rich with gardens to visit and one of the most famous, tucked away deep in the countryside is Great Dixter, family home from 1921-2006 of one of the most influential and original gardeners, the garden writer Christopher Lloyd, known to his friends as Christo.

The original medieval house – a complete joy in its own right – was bought by Lloyds’ parents, who commissioned the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design an addition to the house in 1910. Lutyens (who, incidentally is almost best known for having designed Queen Mary’s dolls’ house which you can see at Windsor Castle) also laid out the bones of the six acre garden surrounding the house.

The beautiful house makes for a fine backdrop to the garden, as do the various steeply roofed barns and outbuildings that create boundaries to the different areas of the garden. There is so much to see but try not to rush. A series of garden rooms, choc full of plants, to the east and south of the house are sub-divided by big, solid yew hedges, which take a whopping 400 hours to trim from August onwards.

Around the house the gardening is very intensive: tender plants are lifted and stored each autumn, and thousands of plants grown from seed. Combinations of bedding plants are agreed between Head Gardener Fergus Garrett, his team of three gardeners and the students. Fergus arrived at Dixter in 1991 and worked very closely with Christo: together, they wandered the garden forever reinventing the borders and testing new ideas – the more colourful and outrageous the better. Now Fergus keeps Christo’s vision alive. Combinations of new varieties are often tried-out in pots to see how they perform together, before being used in the garden.

Part of the garden is used as stock beds, but you wouldn’t know this because the plants are arranged in pleasing groups rather than formal rows. Each year all of the perennials in the stock beds are dug up, the soil improved and plants divided and re- planted. Excess plants from here are sold in the nursery.

Despite the gardens’ pedigree, horticultural snobbery doesn’t seem to exist, everyday shrubs are given equal billing with more refined ones.

Elsewhere near the house is the Sunken Garden and the Topiary Lawn with its’ shapely, clipped yews and more of those wonderful barns in the background. The Exotic Garden was boldly, and at the time controversially, transformed by Christopher Lloyd from a sedate rose garden into a place of lush, tender planting, which changes each year.

By way of contrast, the rest of the garden stretches out languidly through the crocus studded orchard, meadows and beyond to the ancient woodland. Over the years the methods for managing the twelve acres of meadow have been refined, resulting in a slow approach that encourages a rich biodiversity of plants and tiny creatures.

Summer colour in the garden is magnificent, but visit in early spring to appreciate the structure and lay-out of the garden.

Quibble

Only the Grinch could find something to object to here. Not to be missed:
 Planting combinations, topiary especially the peacocks, lovely arts and crafts detail.

Gardens nearby

Sissinghurst, Pashley Manor Gardens and Bedgebury Pinetum are all eight miles away in various directions.