You must know that teachers are seriously important people to seven year olds. “My teacher is called Fergus Garrett,” I told my son. There was a long pause before he decided to correct me, “No, I think his name should be Mister Carrot.” And so, the most generous and enabling teacher, a ‘wise old man’ of gardening is rebranded to fit his profession. This kind of side-swipe clarity that a young child can offer does not feel out of place in the gardens at Great Dixter where cutting through convention and pomp are natural bedfellows to inventive planting. Much has already been written about the drama of the gardens and about the making of them. It is the making that has been my pleasure this week as a student here.
The gardens close to the public at the end of October, so November is a month for taking apart the borders, wrapping up exotics and replanting areas in the frost-free window before winter proper sets in. Fergus produces extensive mind maps to animate the arc of work for the year, season by overlapping season. In this way he teaches his staff, students and volunteers about the long view and the detail of planning the gardens. Tasks can easily be shuffled around depending on the weather. When I arrive on a Monday morning in late November, a hard frost has been forecast so work in the exotic garden has been brought forward. I find myself plunged into wrapping up a tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, in tightly packed layers of straw until it resembles a stout barrel. I learn how to fold the fronds over the crown, packing each layer with straw not only for insulation but so that the leaves naturally channel rain away from the crown.
Next I move on to give the Japanese bananas, Musa basjoo, the same treatment but this time leaving the leaves protruding from the top of the cone-shaped edifices so they can continue to photosynthesise and feed the plant. For a young banana plant this extra energy could mean the difference between surviving a harsh winter or perishing. Knowing what each plant needs and providing the right circumstances is a fundamental building block of any garden and at Dixter it is paramount. There was some debate amongst the gardeners about whether to make a string net before stuffing straw in around the trunks or to pack the straw in and secure the structure with twine afterwards. The old twine from the straw bales makes good lashing whichever method you prefer.
Learning at Great Dixter is a rich, immersive experience and it comes in many forms. Direct, detailed instructions from Fergus enable me to carry out tasks without error. Not once during my stay do I see anyone having to redo work which is a testament to how patiently Fergus explains a task in the first place. His ethos of mentoring is carried into generous exchanges between gardeners working side by side. Then there’s ear-wigging conversations from the next bit of the border, much as in any open plan office where the only way to keep abreast of it all is to look and listen on all fronts. Personally, being surrounded by hort-geeks who are as interested in plants as me and talk freely about the gardens they love, their influences and experiences or discuss the ins and outs of a particular way of planting is utter bliss! Then there’s the garden itself which reveals so much about itself by osmosis.
During my week in November, there is no daylight outside of working hours so my quiet, pottering times in the garden are by moonlight or in dewy dawn fog. With no artificial lights near the garden, the dark here on a cloudy night is very, very deep indeed. My nose guides me round the garden. Brush past a pungent bush of the Mexican marigold Tagetes lemmonii or push aside a pine or eucalyptus branch along the paths. Or out in the meadow the combination of clay soil and wet foliage squelching underfoot smells comforting. My ears help too. A slurping hurricane of hedgehog works its way through the Long Border and I marvel that hedgehogs are still out and about in November. Rodents squeak and scuffle in the compost heaps. The overwhelming presence though is the lack of sound. The soothing silence of the gardens especially at night is so restful that I wander about happily. My eyes are not entirely useless but what I see are shades of black on black like the sharp, silhouetted scenes of the topiary hedges with the Milky Way above so bright it feels like part of the garden itself.
In my early morning forays by contrast, what’s visible of the structure of the garden is only an outline of cardoon skeletons (Cynara cardunculus) and Miscanthus plumes jostling in the pale sliver of sky between mist, topiary and cloud. The flower heads look for all the world like Hogarth’s gossips with the wispy speech bubbles hovering above them saying, “I heard him! It’s off to the compost heap with you m’dear!”
Indeed the Cynara are in for thinning. Johnny, one of the scholarship students, wrestles two of them out. First he digs a trench carefully around the roots, several spits deep in order to get purchase under the large root ball. He eases them out just as Fergus pops up, as he does, and talks to Johnny about slips (a method of propagating from the base of a plant). In my area of the border I am working to reduce a Monarda ‘Squaw’ patch, carefully lifting the excess into trays to go down to the nursery for potting up. I enjoy the way that everything in this garden is reused from the bailing twine, to sacks, to plant material, to grit. And I can tell you, it’s all about the grit! If I am to take away only one thing from my week working in the gardens it would be the meticulous boarding of the soil.
The garden is on heavy clay which has over many years been transformed into a rich loam. This hard-won victory represents lifetimes of man hours and is protected zealously by Fergus and his team. So we learn how to work our way into a border, clearing first at the edge then laying a tapestry of boards (the bigger the better) over the areas already dug. In this way, you protect the soil from compaction and as you work the spaces between planting pockets re-emerge.
I am working my way towards a clump of Silphium perfoliatum which need to be lifted. We leave as much soil in situ as possible, removing any weeds like the fragile white filaments of the nightshade Ciracaea lutetiana, carefully collecting annuals and self-seeders used regularly in the gardens here like honesty (Lunaria) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis). Bulbs too are saved, graded and replanted where appropriate. In my patch, there are emerging clumps of Galanthus that in places I have to board over knowing the foliage will recover. Another week and we’d be too late because these snowdrops would be well and truly above ground. No wonder Fergus runs a tight schedule of work. The windows of opportunity for reworking the borders are slim.
Once I’ve dug the Silphium out and replanted the disturbed snowdrops under the nearby hydrangea, roses and clematis, I add spent mushroom compost until the soil colour matches the surrounding earth. It takes a little grit too to achieve the same loamy crumb as elsewhere. The last job is to mark off the now vacant area with canes and start working my way out of the border backwards, turning over the soil that has been compressed under my boards. I go past the prepared areas where I’ve already dug out Rudbeckia subtomentosa, removed a geranium to make way for another euphorbia and the patch where this morning Canna ‘Erebus’ stood with two dahlias before I lifted them and took them down to the nursery, labelling and dating them.
Fergus appears periodically to chide us about not using enough grit on the boards or not enough of the right kind of boards or to praise us on our boarding. Like eager teachers pets, we are all hoping we’re getting it right. It’s all about the boards! And you know what, it’s a great system. Hauling the huge boards and long planks around the garden is hard work physically but the pay-off is enormous. You can work tidily in the borders, paths and boots are kept mud free and the grit prevents slipping whatever the weather. The grit is brushed into the beds as we finish each section where it improves the soil structure. It is a pleasure to work in such an environment and once you’ve got the hang of it, it makes so much sense.
When it comes to bulb planting however, we take the opposite approach, walking directly on the soil. In hushed whispers, students marvel at how Fergus manages to march through the borders barely leaving an imprint under his outsize boots. We all agree that under his generous boiler suit he must actually be a Skinny Minnie and the deception achieved with at least twenty layers of clothing! Laying out tulip bulbs is one of my favourite activities and I’m already picturing how the bare earth is going to look swirling with colour in the spring. Fergus shows us how to vary the pace of the planting and make the sweeps of bulbs lend just the right balance of blanket coverage to gapping. No Keukenhof bedding schemes here, more the effect of meandering water pooling and moving forward along a border. Johnny and I are planting Tulipa ‘National Velvet’ throughout our area in the Long Border. We’ve already dotted forget-me-not throughout which will provide a perfect foil for the tulips at flowering time. T. National Velvet is a rich, wine-red bloom at 40cm high which will zing among the plastic-blue of the forget-me-not. Fergus makes final adjustments to our area, talking us through the changes as he goes.
As a garden-maker, I am thrilled by these thinking out-loud conversations with Fergus about what is going where in the boarders and why. I am, however, still star-struck and my brain fizzes with all the ‘new’ I’m taking in. I struggle to kick myself into creative action but kick I must because there are precious few opportunities like this in life and I would like to give back as much as I am taking from this week. Fergus left us last night thinking about Helenium ‘Riverton Beauty’ between the cardoons and the Hydrangea ‘Anabelle’, flowing through to a pool of dahlias, maybe, with the monarda and grasses flanking before euphorbia and geranium pick up the dance at the front. He is thinking of a Eucalyptus gunnii centre right and a something, maybe a salvia, at the very front.
After a nights sleep, I wake with a clearer picture in my mind of what my little section needs. I hurry out to the border and take in the whole, which last night in the 4.30pm dusk was impossible. I sit and look and consolidate my thoughts about what I would like to see in the space. Will I be brave enough to say that what I see is a little different from what he described? I see a yellow-leaved shrub at the rear and a spikey clump forefront, maybe a Watsonia pillansii? Will my suggestions be useful? Should I just stay quiet and nod? What is the done thing here? As it turns out, Fergus returns with a crystallised vision for the space. He strides up through the orchard calling out, “I’ve got it. Cercis canadensis ‘Melon Beauty’ for the back. It’s new to us. Yellow leaf, will work well at the back.” I’m quietly pleased that my instinct for Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ was not so far off the mark after all. Fergus explains that it is too easily scorched to work in this part of the border but that S. canadensis aurea could have been a runner, were it not for the cercis. I pluck up the courage to share my other suggestions.
It’s hard to overstate how much fun these conversations are. My own work can be solitary and chewing over planting possibilities with the Mister Carrot is just about as great as it gets. He has such an intimate knowledge of this garden and an encyclopaedic horticultural mind. Inspiring is too insipid a word to describe the affirming embrace that working here has given me. Several times during my short and intense stay I hear myself say with delight, “I’m not crazy to make gardens the way I do!” Being self-taught, the gardens I make are possibly unusual in the garden design world. I place a lot of emphasis on teaching my clients about their plants and how to fall in love with the gardens I’m making for them. I don’t use a regular palette of plants that I roll out across my gardens, nor a set style. You couldn’t walk into one of my gardens and say, ah yes, this is a Willow & Wren garden. However, they are all quirky and highly individual pieces and all plant-led, with layered, sometimes complicated sequences that require the full engagement of the owners. This is not to say that they are high maintenance. Dixter is the definition of high maintenance! What I aim to leave my clients with is a garden that they possess, that encourages them to move forward with enough knowledge to confidently try new combinations, to actively think about what they do and don’t like or be bold enough to just to ring the changes for the hell of it. Structure, form, function and balance, yes, but there’s so much fun to be had in gardening. People are not static and their gardens shouldn’t be either.