Last weekend a good friend and RBGE classmate paid a flying visit before embarking on the prestigious Triad Fellowship, a year-long journey that will take him to Longwood Gardens in the U.S., Hidcote, and Japan. We took him around Sissinghurst then drove down to see what was happening at Great Dixter. Though Dixter isn't technically open to the public in winter, we walked in and found a garden with so much to offer despite the earliness of the season.
The usual winter-interest suspects were all present. The hellebores, snowdrops, and first narcissus were flowering, red Cornus stems glowed, and the crocus backlit in the low sun looked like handfuls of cut-glass gems had been tossed across the lawns. But what was different from many winter gardens I've seen is how these predictable plants were combined with more exotic and unusual plants that shook up the expected paradigm with great effect. The Great Dixter gardeners have added Euphorbias, Astelia chathamica and bamboo along with conifers of all shapes and sizes to the winter mix, above.
Cotoneaster, above right, has a reputation as car park plant, but I like it for many reasons. In winter it has a delicate structure that reminds me of fishbones, followed in spring by small white flowers reminiscent of Crataegus (hawthorn). It's unsurprising as the plants are closely related, both members of Malinae, the apple subtribe of the Rosaceae family. Cotoneaster grows little glossy leaves in the high season and its bright red berries heading into winter complete its four-season interest.
Whether it's Erigeron karvinskianus spilling from the characteristically-Lutyens circular steps or these self-seeded hellebores above, gardeners at Dixter don't shy from encouraging plants out of their bed into paths. It's a lovely effect, but hard to achieve in many public gardens because of the amount of foot traffic. Yet instead of bowing to the masses, Great Dixter instead asks a lot of its visitor: To walk through this garden you have to pay attention. Branches overhang paths, possibly poking eyes, herbaceous plantings grow head-high, limiting movement, and perfect vignettes grow right underfoot. Woe be it to the careless wander who'd trample a hellebore.
With each visit I make to Dixter I understand the Exotic Garden, above, a little more. This time it was looking hard-hit by our recent spell of record-cold weather. The Exotic Garden has always pushed the limits of hardiness in order to grow more tropical and subtropical plants, so it will no doubt be informative to see what recovers and what's lost. What I liked about this winter view was how it felt like I was on a stage set. The giant plants wrapped in straw and bamboo felt like set dressing, like at any moment they could burst open and undergo a total transformation, which they'll no doubt do with warmer weather. It was a novel feeling for a garden visit, and one I enjoyed even as others might just see the death and dishevelment of a harsh winter.
I don't love crocus, disliking their weak necks and tendency to flop face-first into the inevitable winter mud. But I didn't mid these great swathes covering the meadow at Dixter, and I think it's come down to two reasons. First, I saw them backlit in the sun, and they made the entire field sparkle. Second, there's not a yellow crocus among them. I don't like a lot of yellow flowers, and I especially hate yellow and dark purple together. So the usual white-purple-yellow triad of crocus has always left me cold. Take away the yellow, though, and I've had to re-evaluate my anti-crocus stance.
Our eyes were all caught by the distinctive form of the grass, at right, in front of the peacock topiary. We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if this groomed configuration was the product of perfect combing at the hands of a loving gardener or if it was natural growth. Or maybe it was the wind? These are the kinds of chats you have when a bunch of garden geeks get together. We were in heaven, but you've been warned.
Great Dixter is known for its exuberant, incredibly full planting style. In the high season its often difficult to walk around the garden because the plants are so lush and thick. This could make it difficult for gardeners to tend the carefully curated (yet artless-appearing) displays. One system that helps is to use bamboo canes, above to demarcate the locations of plants on the ground. These canes provide a road map, a hidden guide that allows gardeners to swap plants in and out of complicated combinations. It's a useful trick I may use someday.
The portico of Christopher Lloyd's house is always one of my favorite spots in the garden. It always has a novel and usually thought-provoking display. I've heard the current head gardener, Fergus Garrett, has a thing for exotic conifers and is incorporating them throughout the garden. I love that this display is a collector's passion project that showcases the amazing diversity, and beauty, of conifers.
And finally we ended up in the nursery, a pristine space packed with unusual plants. It always makes me happy to visit the Dixter nursery, which is orderly yet feels academic in the amount of information provided about the plants on offer. We spent quite a while here, oohing and ahhing over this and that before retiring to the pub to chat plants and gardens over beers. Just like old times, and a lovely day. Yet again, Great Dixter proved inspirational and exciting, even in late winter.