The garden and manor house have now been open to the public for nearly six decades. Located in the East Sussex countryside, less than 12 miles from Sissinghurst, the semi-formal grounds are a completely different gardening experience. Like Sissinghurst there is a strong structure with imaginatively topiaried yew hedges and Yorkstone paving but the plantings are an exuberant exercise in planned imperfection with a seasonally changing tapestry of vibrant colors and textures that change annually.
When Christo was alive, Great Dixter was his plant nursery, living laboratory, and the setting for his mid-life rebellion after the death of his overbearing mother but beloved mother Daisy. Finally alone to run his own bath and shape the garden to his imagination, he shocked the gardening world by digging over the traditional rose garden and turning it into an exotic sub-tropical glade of fantastic foliage spiked with lurid color, all documented in his weekly column in Country Life.
I last visited Great Dixter on a wet May afternoon in 2006, just four months after Christopher Lloyd’s death. The British gardening world was holding its breath, not knowing if the garden could survive financially without Christo, and if it did survive wanting it to stay exactly the same – like an eccentric adored friend left to grow old gracefully. Fergus was in the nursery’s potting shed, and regaled us with some great stories of Christo, they had shared a vision of the garden and had both been keen innovators in the choice and combining of unusual plants.
Fergus was not sure at that point what the future held for him at Great Dixter, but had obviously been extremely fond of Christo and keen to make the garden work going forward although he felt that as a living landscape it should continue to develop if it was to maintain it’s place in garden history.
Eight years on it is clear the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, formed to ensure the garden’s financial security, has shared Fergus’s vision and is looking to the future rather than preserving the past. Thanks to this Charitable Trust, Christopher Lloyd’s legacy is being passed on by training future gardeners in his inspirational style, encouraging exuberant, experimental, planting concoctions that highlight the freedom of expression Christo was famous for - fabulous swathes of texture, scale and texture.
It is hard to take in everything at once, especially in late summer when the garden is reaching it’s exuberant peak. There is the high garden, the lavender garden, the sunken garden, the topiary lawn, the tropical garden, the 300ft long border, a horse pond with slopes of long grass that call out for summer picnics, and the meadow garden which Fergus is currently expanding. Every aspect has a play of scale and perspective and color combinations that take your breath away. No planting combination is repeated exactly year to year - even combinations that prove to be a stunning success. The horticulture students that converge from all over the world to study in the gardens quickly learn the only rule is that there are no rules – just an awareness of place. Nothing is planned on paper, all plants are grown from seeds in the nursery and the students are encouraged to take risks, juggle timing and push creativity.
Fergus, like Christo, is a horticultural gambler, juggling houseplants with dahlias, echiums, poppies and self seeding Verbena bonariensis and somehow making it all work. Each bed at Great Dixter undergoes major replanting at least once a year, twenty tons of homemade compost are added until the soil levels are so high the top layer is scraped off and the dark rich organic soil turns the gardens into jungles that exuberantly burst their boundaries and plunge to the edge of horticultural insanity.