Our most important tools

The most important tools a gardener has are eyes – those and a notebook, according to Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the renowned Great Dixter in England. He urges gardeners to always be looking at their garden, keeping notes of what works and what doesn’t, and “editing”.

Great Dixter in East Sussex came to prominence under the late Christopher Lloyd who, in turn, had inherited the garden from his mother, Daisy. Fergus, a trained horticulturalist who was born in Turkey, worked alongside “Christo” for 15 years,  taking on the role of guardian since Christopher’s death in 2006.

“We make rules, break them, experiment all the time,” he says of the 2.4ha house and garden that attracts some 50,000 visitors a year.

A view of the long border at Great Dixter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“One of the philosophies that underpins what we do is to contrast plants to get maximum effect from them, but plant combinations change as the space changes and the plants themselves change as they grow.”

Great Dixter comprises several garden areas, including a walled garden, meadows, mixed borders and the well-known exotic garden, which was created after Christopher decided he no longer wanted to have roses in his garden. Great Dixter is also famed for its succession planting, particularly in the long border – as one group of plants dies down, another is springing up to take their place.

“Not everyone wants to do that, it is pretty labour-intensive, but we should all be looking, analysing and editing,” Fergus says.

Christopher, who wrote Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners, always had a notebook in hand when in the garden, and Fergus has adopted the same habit.

“Colour is important and so is contrast, but one thing that people underestimate about us is that shape comes first – shapes make a garden interesting.

“The visual effect of a planting is highlighted by different textures, shapes and colours and then, when you put seasonal layers on it, it becomes very exciting. As long as it is different, it catches the eye and that makes it work, instead of the eye just sweeping past.”

Great Dixter is about “ebullience” and “abundance”, Fergus says. “We make sure we plant some tall things up front. Why? So you have to brush past it, which then makes you part of the garden.”

He admits that not everything works, but that he and his team try to learn from their mistakes – and their record-keeping means they won’t make the same mistake twice.

“We don’t change everything every year – we’re not fidgety. We have one bed that’s been the same for 10 years. But we try and make the flowering season last as long as we can, and that’s down to planning and choosing good plants.

His advice is to “look a plant up and down and be critical” before you buy. “Think about the stems, foliage, structure, seed heads and, finally, the flowers – and remember that just because something is common, doesn’t mean it’s not useful.”

Further reading: Tim Richardson on Great Dixter and Fergus Garrett (2009).
Further listening: Fergus Garrett interviewed about Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter (part 1 of 3, 13 minutes 27).

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.  

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