I thought I’d done quite well with my bulbs in pots this year, but after a visit to Great Dixter I’ve realised I should have planted loads more, in lots more pots, to really make an impact. A lesson learned for next year.
Ditto the crocuses that I planted under my apple tree. It took hours, and all I have is a tiny patch of purple. I think a badger may be to blame – there are quite a lot of bare patches where something has dug the ground up. Apparently they like tulips, too, so maybe the the Tulipa clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’ that I planted to coincide with the apple blossom won’t come up either – eek!
I spotted these winter aconites in the grounds of Cheltenham College yesterday, and made a mental note to plant some soon, so that I have something to look at next January. I planted loads of bulbs last year, many of them early flowerers as I can’t stand winter. But nothing has really appeared yet. My forced indoor paperwhites peaked way too early and the early Iris reticulata and crocuses are only just peeping through. The garden is looking a bit… brown (as opposed to white in much of the country).
To avoid the problem of nothing to look at in January next year, I’m going to order some aconites (Eranthis cilicica as opposed to Eranthis hyemalis, as it is said to do better in clay soil), Cyclamen coum and snowdrops, to plant in the green. I shall plant them at the back of the border and under shrubs, as they do at Great Dixter.
There’s something otherworldly about the place. In common with most grand houses (it’s now a hotel), the view is unencumbered by anything other than rolling countryside. On the day I visited, people were quietly eating lunch in the panelled restaurant rooms and sipping tea on the croquet lawn, much as they probably have done for centuries. It feels far removed from the world’s troubles.
The planting is pretty dreamy, too. Gravetye is the former home of the legendary gardener William Robinson, who eschewed formal Victorian bedding schemes in favour of mixed borders and wilder, naturalisti planting. Tom Coward, the current head gardener, continues in the same spirit today. He formerly worked alongside Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, and it shows – he’s not afraid to combine plants in interesting ways. I’ve never cared much for lupins or apricot foxgloves, but I loved how Tom uses them.
Even more impressively, the garden has been turned around in just three years – the previous owners of the hotel had financial difficulties and the garden became neglected. You wouldn’t know that parts of the garden are plagued by Japanese knotweed, which Tom has been working to eradicate. Other weeds, such as bracken, remain, and add to the charm – this isn’t a prim and proper garden.
Like many grand houses, Gravetye has elements that we mere mortals can only dream of, such as a peach house and a circular walled garden that catches every last ray of sun. It supplies fruit and veg to the restaurant, as well as cut flowers for the house. Tom grows lots of ladybird poppies, which supply vivid splashes of red. They’re hopeless in a vase, which ensures that they don’t get picked.
Meadows (and their loss) are big news at the moment, but William Robinson experimented with creating one 100 years ago. What goes around comes around, even in gardening – Gravetye is definitely having a moment.
When I was fairly new to this gardening lark, I went to a Gardens Illustrated talk about Great Dixter during Chelsea week. Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett showed slides on the history of Dixter and described how their planting evolved during the year. Christo must have been in his early eighties then and was as mischievous as ever – he clearly relished revealing the politically incorrect names of the pet daschsunds in old family photos, prompting a collective gasp from the audience.
At the end of the talk, a lady enquired as to whether Christo left his canna lily bulbs in the ground during winter.* ‘Leave them in the ground?’ he spluttered. ‘LEAVE THEM IN THE GROUND?! That’s a lazy man’s game!’**. He said that of course the bulbs were lifted every autumn, and that the lady should be under no illusions – Great Dixter was NOT a low-maintenance garden. Plants were continuously refreshed to give a good display – oriental poppies that were past their best might be replaced with the aforementioned cannas, for example, but the following year, he might do something different.
Dixter is known for its successional planting (planting that looks good throughout the seasons), something that many gardeners struggle with. Fergus hosts popular study days on this very subject and also gives short talks. As he flashes up inspirational photo after inspirational photo, you can’t scribble down his words of wisdom fast enough.
Some of the techniques Fergus describes are unashamedly high maintenance – replacing spent plants with an ever-changing array of annuals and bedding, for example. They also demand space (Dixter has a stock bed from which to pilfer plants). It takes real skill and plant knowledge to play with colour and to contrast textures and shapes, and Dixter’s constantly dazzling combinations may be beyond many of us.
However some of Dixter’s ideas are refreshingly simple. Fergus advises growing some plants that flower for months (such as Geranium riverslealanum ‘Russell Pritchard’) as opposed to more flash-in-the-pan varieties, and choosing plants that offer more than one season of interest in terms of foliage, stem colour or flowers. Dixter also makes use of unfashionable ‘car park’ shrubs such as Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ and Cotoneaster horizontalis (which are reliable and actually quite nice) and scrambles climbers such as clematis over shrubs to extend interest. Plants are often allowed to self-seed in the borders, creating unexpected combinations (although this does take some managing – deputy head gardener Siew Lee says they edit out 90% of the seedlings).
One idea that I reckon everyone can get behind is to plant bulbs at the base of a shrub. They’re unlikely to be disturbed by digging, and they’ll bring colour to the garden before the shrub gets interesting. The bulbs will then retreat underground, letting the perennials planted around them take over. In the picture above, snowdrops are planted under hydrangeas; elsewhere, hyacinths pop up from under a spiraea and Tulipa sprengeri nestle under a fuchsia. This is definitely something an ordinary gardener could do – and should do, to get the most out of their small space.
*The lady’s question shows how things have changed – I shouldn’t think many people would contemplate leaving cannas outside these days, given our recent freezing winters.
**’That’s a lazy man’s game!’ is now one of my favourite sayings. One of my friends once heard it as ‘That’s a lesbian’s game!’ which gives it a whole new dimension.
PS: In case you’re wondering about the hellebores, they’re ‘Anna’s Red’, named after the garden writer Anna Pavord.
If you read a lot of gardening blogs, you may have noticed that there’s been a flurry of posts on Great Dixter recently. That’s because the garden invited bloggers to an open day last week. (What do you call a group of bloggers? A bevvy? An annoyance?…) We all behaved in exactly the same way: we briefly said hello to people we’d known previously only by their blog name, and then whipped out our cameras and notebooks and started snapping and scribbling away. I know for a fact that Michelle over at Veg Plotting took these very same pics. She’s probably writing exactly the same blog post too.
I love Great Dixter. Its Edwin Lutyens layout (yew topiary and garden rooms) may be eternal, but the planting is ever changing, in the spirit of the late Christopher Lloyd who gardened there for years. It’s now in the very safe hands of Fergus Garrett, to whom I could, quite frankly, listen to for hours as he divulges his secrets to Dixter’s legendary plant combinations.
The first time I visited Dixter, I was struck by the beautiful pot display at the entrance to the house. It was the first time I’d seen so many containers grouped together – I was used to seeing a few tiddly pots of geraniums standing feebly outside front doors. I rushed home and tried to emulate the exact same look on my balcony.
Fergus told us that the display is refreshed every two or three weeks from the end of March until October. It’s often put together by Dixter’s students, who then move on to helping make bigger decisions about borders and bedding displays.
Fergus explains that Christo was very generous with his gardening knowledge, and that he continues in the same spirit with his students. ‘You give someone everything in the hope that they will give everything to someone else,’ he says. And that’s what I love about gardeners – I’ve yet to meet one who isn’t more than happy to share everything they know.
If you’re feeling glum because the days are shortening, the temperatures are falling and everything is dying back, take yourself to the Inner Temple Garden without further ado. The High Border is still a riot of colour, and for a few glorious moments you can kid yourself that it’s still late summer.
The border contains many of the plants you’d expect in a late-season garden – grasses, dahlias, rudbeckias, asters, cosmos etc – but head gardener Andrea Brunsendorf puts them together in an original and adventurous way. She chooses varieties for their form, flower shape and colour, and thinks carefully about how they might complement other plants; the centre of one flower might complement the petals of another, for example. And she isn’t afraid to mix colours in combinations that more traditional gardeners would shy away from: orange, pink and red sit happily next to each other in the form of Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’, Dahlia coccinea ‘Mary Keen’ and a red rose (above), as do red roses, magenta dahlias, blue salvias, purple aconitums and yellow rudbeckias (below).
The border also looked pretty amazing when I visited the garden in May. At that time it was filled with alliums, aquilegias and oodles of tulips; oriental poppies then carried it through until June. Andrea admits that the border has a ‘June hole’ when she lifts the tulips and replaces some early flowerers with the tender late season plants such as dahlias. But for a border that powers on until the first frosts (which can be as late as December in central London), that’s a very small price to pay.
As my friend Steven and I walked along Warren Street to London’s cheapest pub (we are so classy) we passed the building on Warren Street that I’ve featured several times on this blog – and in the previous post, actually.
Steven exclaimed: ‘That’s the house you’ve featured on your blog!’ (glad to see he’s been paying attention). He dragged me down the cobbled street at the side of the building to look at the mews that it leads on to, and we found yet more great planting.
Someone around here has seriously green fingers, and they’ve well and truly understood that less is most definitely NOT more when it comes to pots outside houses. You need big pots, and lots of them, Great Dixter-style. A few bitty ones just don’t cut the mustard.
Last Sunday, my friend Naomi had an impromptu lunch party. It was still going strong at 6.30pm, when her garden was bathed in some lovely dappled shade.
The garden is the perfect illustration of just how many plants you can cram in, and how great a garden can look, if you don’t have a lawn. The front is reserved for veg and some extremely tall sunflowers courtesy of Great Dixter where Naomi sometimes volunteers.
Naomi spreads her knowledge of gardening far and wide – she’s got entire streets in her neighbourhood planting veg in their front gardens and beautifying their tree pits. As a result she’s just found out that she’s been nominated for two community gardening awards.
Be sure to check out her popular and very informative blog.