This is the seventh installment of multiple reports from the week-long educational trip some of our team members took in the summer of 2022.
Great Dixter – A Garden Out of Place
Planning and research for our trip to England had begun years ago. Google searches for the “best gardens in London” or “Gardens of the Cotswolds” were a regular Sunday morning activity starting in 2017 for me. Originally our trip was being planned for 2020 until the pandemic. With so much time to prepare, I felt like I had found the best gardens for our small group of JWT gardeners to visit. I’d spoken to everyone I could, compiled a list of the best options, to eventually to be built into an agenda by Ariana. Highgrove, Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Kew. How could you go wrong with that line up!
As we began finalizing plans, I had a thought. There is one local landscape architect who should be consulted. In his younger years he spends months and years exploring England and the gardens there of. Mimicking aspects of them in his designs and dressing like a dapper English Gentleman while instructing jobsites in central Virginia, he would be the perfect person to provide a final approval of this itinerary. So, about two months before leaving I called to ask his opinion of our itinerary. In a way, this phone call was a small brag. I expected a “Cheers to you!” or “Wonderfully done!” after reading him the list. Without any hesitation after hearing the list of gardens he asked “Is Great Dixter on your list?”. I said “Could you repeat that? Great what?” “Great Dixter” he replied, “It’s an absolute must!” I said “oh, hmmm… can you spell that?” I had no clue what he was talking about. After that one small conversation, I became self-conscious about the entire trip. Why did he brush passed the “greats” and go at a garden I had never heard before? So, with more trust than research this garden and its funny name ended up on the itinerary.
Because I did so little research on Great Dixter, you might assume I had little expectation. On the contrary, it was quite high as it was the number one recommendation from one who should know. My expectations were set by what I knew (or thought I knew) of this designer. He is one who always demanded attention to the smallest of detail. Everything must be in its place and specifications must be adhered to, and his aesthetic was the only one to matter. I expected a garden where horticultural execution would be exhibited at every turn. Every cut perfect. Every weed pulled. Every plant in its place. The head gardener here must be a neurotic mess. I’d love to meet them and couldn’t wait see this masterpiece unfold.
As you walk up to the main house and turn right into the first garden room stone paths with tall perennials line the area. Passing through the yew hedge, we enter the garden room with a pond and a narrow path. Just big enough for one, normal size person.
Slowly you’re drawn from room to room by interesting hardscapes, unique plantings, steps to mysterious spots. There were plenty of oohs and awes.
Great Dixter isn’t a very large garden, but about half way through I became lost… Lost in thought. What is this garden? Where do I go next? How do I get over there? What’s the story with this place?
Great Dixter wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was messy at times. A little uninviting even. Plants were in control of this garden, not people. It wasn’t tidy and tucked in as expected. It was confusing. Why would he recommend this garden so highly? It felt like it was understaffed. A-ha! That’s it! Covid has led it to being under staffed! That must be it. Why would they allow the plants to take over otherwise? Okay, on the heels of a pandemic, it’s acceptable to allow things to get a little shaggy.
It turned out that wasn’t the case. We ran into a photographer from the national trust who had been photographing “Dixter” for 20 years. It looks the same as when Christopher Lloyd worked in the gardens on a daily basis. “Huh,” I thought to myself. “So, this is how he wants it? What am I missing?” It’s almost like Christopher Lloyd didn’t want it to be anything like the other gardens of England. I can appreciate being different, but what a risk. Then we walked the long border, around the cat garden and entered into the orchard, topiary and high garden.
Okay, there is something wrong here. You can barely fit down the paths. Weeds are growing amongst the desirables, everywhere! Sheared irregular hedges have random perennials like Hollyhock growing out the middle of it. You could barely take a picture because everything was overgrown and in your face. At this point it was becoming aggressively different. At this point I made two exclamations.
One, “this is a middle finger to someone or something!” The person who developed this garden was committed to doing things differently decades ago. It’s an old manner house which has had plants draped all over it for decades and decades with no effort to satisfy any normal garden aesthetic. It’s not hard to imagine well-dressed members of high society visiting the gardens in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s making comments like, “Only if that hedge was a little straighter?” or “maybe you should thin the perennials to better expose the walkways?” To which Mr. Lloyd could easily say “I prefer my garden to be walking a balancing beam on stormy seas. You should do what you like with your own garden.”
And two, “Is anything here considered a weed?” A weed is a plant out of place, and I think everything here has been accepted in its place. It’s the land of misfit toys. Nothing is rejected. Everything adds something. All plants have been allowed to be themselves.
Eventually it became obvious it was us that were bending to this garden’s will instead of the other way. Anyone that walks through Great Dixter must twist and scooch and duck to experience the fullness. This experience is a rarity in the land of gardens with perfectly shorn hedges and well placed plants. This garden is a weed. A garden out of place. One with deep, stubborn roots, created by a man with the same characteristics. Rarely do you find a garden that takes on the owner’s aesthetic and personality like Dixter. It has to remind us of the legacy we are creating in our own gardens today.