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Planting secrets of Great Dixter Looking for inspiration for your borders? We asked Fergus Garrett to explain his planting ethos, schemes and favourite combinations at the legendary Great Dixter in Sussex PHOTOGRAPHS MARIANNE MAJERUS

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the english garden June 2014

areas and colour harmonies in others. It is quite muscular, and there are always bold plants and punctuation marks. Whether they be yuccas or cannas, shrubs or cardoons, they pin everything down. The planting schemes are different every year, and it has gone in waves. In the mid-1990s, we bedded out a lot, and used a lot of annuals; then we fell back to more permanent planting. Out of the whole border space at Great Dixter, a third to a quarter of it is bedded out, and the rest is permanent.

There are so many experiments going on here all the time. We’ve gone from stiff style to a loose one and back to a stiffer style again in different areas. It has, however, always been fluid - that is the exciting thing. And we have found that using more or less of one particular plant can completely change the atmosphere in the garden. We know some of the combinations for this year already, while others are pot luck. As we are pricking out the seedlings, those things will become clearer. ▲

reat Dixter garden sits within the framework of an historic house with lovely buildings, yew hedges and topiary pieces, and York-stone paving that runs from one end to the other. It has ebullient, dynamic, stimulating planting that is typical of Christopher Lloyd’s style of bright colours and bold leaves, and this rubs shoulders with the countryside that flows into the place. The planting style here has energy; there are very strong colours in certain

planting design A loose scheme of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), the tall flower stems of Ferula communis subsp. glauca and pink gladioli at the feet of yew topiary.

planting design

We have five full-time gardeners including me, and quite a few students and volunteers. It’s a big team, but we grow everything ourselves. We could quite easily run the place on just three gardeners, but then we wouldn’t be able to teach. We are here to pass on knowledge, and people sometimes forget that. When I plant up the Exotic Garden by myself, I could do it in four days. When I do it with the students, it can take up to seven days, because there is a strong interaction that leads to discussions and tinkering, with them sometimes taking the creative lead, which then again has to be assessed - and all this takes time. But you win in the end, because you have great people coming out of the place who are the gardeners of the future. ▲


the english garden June 2014

These perennial cornflowers (Centaurea montana), forget-menots (Myosotis sylvatica) and yellow Aquilegia ‘Goldfinch’ are all self sown.

The bright pink poppy Papaver dubium subsp. lecoqii var. albiflorum punctuates the scheme. Tall umbellifer Anthriscus sylvestris, cow parsley, is dotted throughout and helps soften everything.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Euphorbia donii ‘Amjillasa’ are great foils to the yew hedge.

The Barn Garden is seen here in a self-sowing moment in late spring, when it has quite feminine planting. There is a framework within these narrow borders of permanent plants, which come into their own as summer progresses. This is the softness before the summer muscle arrives. Later in the season, grasses such as pampas grass and miscanthus punch the air, and this area is filled with dahlias, crocosmias and various other perennials.

Our pot displays change every two to three weeks, and they are always led by one person, who might be a gardener, or a volunteer, or a student. They are allowed to try things out and do something different, and then I come and critique it. The plants are grown in pots in the nursery, and when they are looking good, we bring them up to the garden and change the displays. On the whole, the pots contain just a single variety, though there are five different pots in the garden that are a mix, on the terrace. We take these plants in pots and group them together in a way that will have the most impact and stop the eye.

The fern Dryopteris wallichiana contrasts in texture with orange Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’ to the left.

Flashes of blue are provided by the viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ is happy growing in a pot.

Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ likes its soil kept moist.

Lythrum salicaria ‘Feuerkerze’ offers wonderful vibrant colour against the cooler plants.

Lower pompoms of red Bellis perennis Tasso Series attract the eye.

Eryngium giganteum, previously known as ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’.

Hosta ‘Halcyon’ (Tardiana Group) is a compact variety with blue-green leaves.

my favourite combinations

I really love this combination of Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’, as it just stops you in your tracks.

Bright-blue Echium vulgare is a great partner for hot pink Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus in early summer. Sow seeds of the bugloss and plant corms of the gladioli in spring.

Perennial cornflower, Centaurea montana, looks well growing underneath the delicate, pale-pink umbellifers of Chaerophyllum hirsutum ‘Roseum’, which has beautiful ferny foliage.

This area asks for no yellow, as it has a yellow backdrop, but we wanted to interrupt it, so we used blue lupin ‘The Governor’ and yellow ‘Chandelier’. It worked exceptionally well.

Dark-stemmed cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ dances above the flat white heads of Orlaya grandiflora, lime-yellow Smyrnium perfoliatum and mauve Hesperis matronalis.

Tufts of the greater quaking grass Briza maxima offer a different texture and subtle hue to the lovely loud pillar-box red of Tulipa sprengeri, a small late-flowering species tulip.


the english garden June 2014

planting design ▲

The planting plan for the garden is all in our heads, and we discuss it all the time. It’s a collective thing that we do together, but I lead the way, as you have to have a creative lead. We all eat, sleep and live this place - we know what seedlings are coming up, what’s ready, how many of each we have - and people are champing at the bit to make combinations. That process starts at seed-ordering time, when everyone is allowed to order one seed they want to grow and put into a combination. This gets even the most timid people into that creative zone, looking forward, questioning themselves and analysing. We are always experimenting. Last year, we played with the stock beds. We cut into them with lots of self sowers and ran through a lot of cow parlsey and

In the long border, we plant pockets with bedding that are cleared every year. All the other plants are permanent. We analyse the border through the year, and look for weak points that have to be adjusted. They go into the notebook, and we work on them over winter and spring. Then we see how the changes work, and if they do work, they remain for a few years, until they fall apart again. We develop the planting like this, in a very reactive, piecemeal sort of way.

Sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis, sits alongside Weigela ‘Florida Variegata’, which really should be considered more often for its variegated leaves and pale-pink flowers.

The backbone of the planting is shrubs such as this cotinus. We are equal opportunities growers here at Great Dixter - we will try whatever, and don’t have a problem with any particular plants such as shrubs or grasses.

One year we’ll use cow parsley for a sea of white here; or we’ll run the lime-green of parsnips through. Next year, we may use a mauve larkspur or a verbascum.

June 2014 the english garden 91

planting design

Campanula lactiflora ‘Pritchard’s Variety’ is the best lactiflora, with the most intense colour, and a nice long flowering period. Its terrific rich hue goes well with the red Lychnis chalcedonica to the right.

Lychnis coronaria happily clashes in magenta at the front, and pops when set against the deep purple of Salvia nemorosa.

s e h T ck to d e b lifted, split and potted up every year, but half the stock goes back in to be grown on for next year. These areas are dug up every year, which allows us to move things around. They are big expanses; wonderful large chunks with lots of rich plants in them. They are a source of inspiration, and in them we will often catch sight of a colour combination or effect we decide to imitate in the borders. 92

the english garden June 2014

o sh Graceful Erigeron annuus is a strong self-sower that is nice to float through schemes. It flowers for almost four months.

se u

A white cloud of Persicaria alpina (previously known as P. polymorpha) this is a wonderful, first-class plant.

Verbascum olympicum has great stature and brings height and a blaze of yellow to a border.

flowering parsnips, to make it all looser. This year, I’ve pulled back from that, and the blocks are bigger and more dramatic. We are running other things through, like large angelicas and giant fennel. It’s a bolder scene, less wild than last year; and next year it will be different again. We’re rejigging all the time. My advice if you’re seeking inspiration for the planting in your garden is to always have a notebook with you, and a camera, and when you see something you like, immediately note it down, and then try to get hold of that plant. Be aware of where it’s growing when you see it - is it damp, or in shade? Try to mimic that in your garden. It is important, first and foremost, to get the plant growing well in your garden, and worry about the combination later. You might look at Campanula

lactiflora ‘Pritchard’s Variety’ (see opposite page), and decide you’d like to grow it because it is a vibrant mauve, and you also like the lychnis beside it, flowering at the same time - and there is your combination immediately. Put the right plant in the right place and grow it well, and get it established before you worry about the combination. As for Dixter this year, at the time of writing I haven’t worked out what to put in the Solar Garden yet. I’d like to grow amaranthus ‘Autumn Palette’, and cosmos with salvias in a coolish combination. Or do I mix it with some oranges and purples? I haven’t made that decision yet... Great Dixter garden is open until 26 October, Tues-Sun and bank holiday Mons, 11am-5pm. Tel: +44 (0)1797 252878.


We use lupins as biennials, and grow them from seed in April, lining them up by the cabbages in the veg patch. Once grown, we put them into various hot spots in the garden for bedding. Here are a mass of fuchsia-red Lupinus ‘The Page’ (Band of Nobles Series) and a pale apricot hybrid that occured spontaneously, and has no name. They give a real jolt at the end of May and into June, adding a lot of colour and good structure in the borders. We play with colours, growing single colours and then mixing them up. One year, we’ll do red and white, and another we’ll try blue and pink, or blue and yellow, or pink and red. It’s our play area and playtime, just messing around, but we know the lupins like our soil and perform here. After flowering, we dig them up and give them to the nearby village for the plant sale of the local horticultural society.

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Planting secrets of Great Dixter  

Art. revista The English Garden Jun 2014 compartido en El Blog de La Tabla

Planting secrets of Great Dixter  

Art. revista The English Garden Jun 2014 compartido en El Blog de La Tabla