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Savour the Unbridled Glory of Great Dixter

by Anna Pavord

Of all the gardens in Britain, Great Dixter in Sussex is the one I know best. Way back, I commissioned its owner, Christopher Lloyd, to write a gardening column and it was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for decades until his death. He died almost 10 years ago, but thanks to his brilliant head gardener, Fergus Garrett, the place still has the joy, exuberance and wild energy that I always associated with Dixter.

Fergus - half Turkish, half Irish, wholly original - was the one who first suggested that the grass roundels of Edwin Lutyens' formal steps might be bedded out with cactus. Fergus encouraged Christopher in his plan to do away with the Edwardian rose garden and fill it instead with the kind of dramatic, exotic foliage you are more used to seeing in the Caribbean.

Christopher was born at Dixter House in 1921, and lived there for most of his life. The bones of the garden are still essentially those laid down by Lutyens, working with Christopher's father: broad yew hedges, wide terraces, topiary, flagstone paths, an archetypal Edwardian arts-and-crafts design.

The wonderful thing though is the way that the fine, strong layout, done more than a hundred years ago, not only accommodates but enhances a style of planting that has absolutely nothing to do with formality or restraint. You see this most clearly perhaps in the High Garden, a series of enclosures that originally formed part of the working, rather than the display garden. For many years, it was where stock plants were set out in rows to supply the nursery at Dixter. But Fergus, while still keeping the stock plants the nursery needed, rearranged them in high-spirited, dynamic swathes of cleverly contrasted foliage and form.

I was there in late June, when an opium poppy (it's called "Lauren's Grape") was laying trails of deep purple through one of the beds in the High Garden. At first I supposed they had self-seeded. "No," said Fergus, who was with me. The poppies had been raised from autumn-sown seed, pricked out individually into trays of plugs, then planted out as baby seedlings from the plugs, before the roots began to resent their containment.

And that explains why the effect was so electrically brilliant. The poppies weren't random at all. They had been threaded through the other plants in a very deliberate, connected way. And yet the effect would necessarily be evanescent. The opium poppies, fabulous when in flower, only last a couple of weeks. "But the foliage is good," Fergus said. Which it is. And earlier in the season, it would have provided a useful wax-grey background for the tulips, bedded out up here for a spring display.

There was a tiny, beaten-earth path leading through one of these so-called stock beds, almost obscured by the papery drooping lockets of the annual quaking grass, Briza maxima, grown from seed and planted out earlier in spring. It was one of the best paths I took that day at Dixter. It immerses you in the dynamic extravaganza of the Dixter style. You are like a swimmer at sea, just about maintaining the equilibrium. But only just.

There's a dynamism about Dixter you don't find anywhere else. The high-spirited young gang that garden there - they come from all over the world to learn with Fergus - give it a special animated vigour. They work very hard because the Dixter style demands it. But the rewards! Oh the rewards!

The garden at Great Dixter, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex TN31 6PH is open until 25 Oct, Tuesday-Sunday (11am-5pm), admission £8.80. For more information call 01797 252878 or see

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