One of the best parts of my job is that you occasionally get to go walk about and illuminate and embellish your horticultural knowledge, inspiration, savvy and opinion. By doing this you get to realise that yes, actually you’re not biased, you do actually work in a fucking amazing garden!
So for this visit, myself, the Head gardener and a fellow student made an epic journey to East Sussex. Fourteen hours travelling by boat, and white van, over ocean and along motorways and mostly B-roads, sat as a passenger/map reader in a van for so many hours is a first class horticultural lesson. It is possible to witness the subtle, but distinct horticultural differences between Counties and Countries and Towns. You can see where the money lies by the husbandry of the ditches and road-sides. How the individual gardens change depending on the style of architecture, itself, a thing that is original to each County. The West Midlands are all warm stoned quaintness, with a tendency toward romantic cottage style planting, smart hedging and stone walls. The further South East you go, the more utilitarian the houses become, white weather boarded, Oast Houses with their fantastical pointed roof adornments, madly low roofed barns. Garden plantings too seem to be low maintenance in nature, shrubs and drought-proofs, chestnut hurdle fencing. Or in the case of the Inn where we stayed, lawned.
The Inn was very British. Low black beamed, hung with dried hops, black wooden floorboards, white washed walls, a massive, solid bar and about 400 years of history tied up in its hotch-potch alternating levelled floors. It even came complete with some UKIP/BNP wankers. Shaved headed, Union Flag tattooed old men who’s mother’s still didn’t love them. They pointed out to each other that they didn’t know if I was female or not and that I was probably foreign, loud enough to make me feel uncomfortable.. should I be someone who is easily made to feel uncomfortable. I shrugged my vast manly shoulders, shuffled my booted lumber-jack’esque legs, ran my sausage fingers through my cropped hair, rubbed my imaginary beard, and wished I actually had balls enough to kick their bigoted faces in… But I had just started my period, so I ignored whatever shite they carried on saying and drank my pint of real ale (how I love it so).
The main purpose of our visit was to attend the Great Dixter rare plant fair and purchase some exemplary examples of plant matter. Which we managed to do, including buying up the fair’s only three Manihot grahamii, so as to completely corner the market (in Ireland at least). I also managed to find a Comptonia peregrina for my own garden, which is great for erosion control on banked terraces (something I hope to do soon). After plant buying, we perused the gardens in torrential rain. There is no doubt that the gardens at Dixter are stunning. They are full to bursting, ensuring the need for you to force your way through over-hanging foliage, cleverly framing parts of buildings or countryside points of interest. The jungle area is luscious, a small area rendered endless due to the fact that you cannot see its edges, with Tetrapanax bursting through the flagstone path, Colocasias holding rain drops like jewels, and rare botanical delights peeping through here and there calling out for the gardener to touch them and examine their morphology.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Dixter was really as ‘thought out’ as all the opinions would suggest. It looks to me like something that is wildly thrown together, someone who loves “ALL THE PLANTS!” has put them in.. everywhere! There are obviously themed areas, such as the meadows and the cacti/succulent area on the steps and the jungle, but the herbaceous, floriferous stuff is a glorious chaotic madness. The only uniting factor I could see between areas, was a penchant for awfully shite variegated things… “ALL THE VARIEGATED THINGS!”
Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed by Dixter. It had a nicely irreverent feel to the place, a serene rebellion was happening, the same way it has presumably happened every year since Christopher Lloyd took over the place and later Fergus Garrett and perhaps even earlier, with Lutyens’ architectural addition. There is no doubt the gardeners here know their shit, as the husbandry is evident in the size and health of the plants and all the other background stuff that only other gardeners will hone in on, like gorgeous soil and weedlessness and correct pruning. It is a garden that, I get the impression, invites experimentation. It’s all about the plants here, they rule the day. The hedges determine their own cut (apart from the delightful whimsy of the topiary birds), the paths have to work around the botany, the visitor has to take the chance they won’t go home with sap, spines, prickles, needles, sticks, pollen or petioles in their eyes. Dixter allows dreaming. Dixter, doesn’t care about your horticultural design rules. Dixter is already home and it is drunk.