Angus StewartGreat Dixter: a manic masterpiece

I have long been fascinated by the work of the late British garden designer Christopher Lloyd. So it was with great anticipation that I recently visited his Great Dixter garden in Sussex to the south of London. And I must say I was not disappointed by the extravagant use of interesting plant material throughout the landscape there. As a plant lover rather than a lover of landscape design I am a sucker for the perennial beds that Lloyd filled to overflowing with exuberant mixtures of foliage colours and textures.

Great Dixter

Great Dixter

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Great Dixter garden

I was particularly struck by the fascination with variegated plants used to provide contrasting colour in many parts of the garden. I felt at times the current gardeners may have been overdoing it in making their point. Whist I do love colour contrasts at a personal level there can also be too much of a good thing.

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Great Dixter garden

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Great Dixter garden

The crowded nature of the plantings was also a feature. There is hardly a square inch of the garden that is not taken up with plant material. I gather quite a lot of self seeded plants are allowed to grow when they appear. I love this effect in my own garden when everlasting daisies and fan flowers pop up in unexpected spots and help create a meadow-like atmosphere. The mass of vegetation certainly grabs your attention and creates an ocean-like effect of colour and movement.

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Great Dixter garden

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Great Dixter garden

The eclectic nature of the plantings was the final point that held my fascination and I was certainly not disappointed by Lloyd and his successors’ choices ranging from hostas to heucheras, geranium to geum, gazania to gunnera, gladiolus to granny’s bonnets, phormium to phlomis, papaver to paper daisy and allium to alstroemeria.

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Great Dixter garden

If you are a lover of colour and unusual cultivars displayed as a manic masterpiece then Great Dixter could be your cup of tea.

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Angus Stewart

About Angus Stewart

Gardening Australia TV presenter, author of 'Creating an Australian Garden', 'Australian Plants for Year-round Colour' and 'Let's Propagate', garden travel guide, native plant specialist and breeder. Central Coast, NSW. Find out lots more about native plants at Gardening with Angus.

13 thoughts on “Great Dixter: a manic masterpiece

  1. Manic masterpiece you say? Nope, I can’t see that. It just looks like one god-almighty mess to me. No form, no rhythm – just explosions of stuff. I last saw Great Dixter in 2004 when Christo was still alive and it didn’t impress me then either. It’s not just the plants – there’s no room for the viewer to be in either. Everything is literally in your face with tiny paths edging around huge volumes of plants. Suffocating sums it up. I love bold, beautiful and colourful, but not this.

    • Each to their own of course but I personally loved the “explosions of stuff”!

    • Bernhard Feistel on said:

      Perhaps the difference between manic masterpiece and god-almighty mess isn’t unbridgeable since Great Dixter is no ordinary mess, indeed.

      It’s a devilish firework of succession planting, thinking ahead and spontaneous responses.
      And how it continues to sparkle throughout the year. To me the yew hedges and the other back-bone parts hold it quiet well together and it is possible to get away from possible exhaustion and claustrophobic feelings in some areas by walking through the meadows or orchard areas (or the attached nursery) before being drawn back to the centres of eruption.
      Yet, if manageable, one should visit Dixter on weekdays and as early as possible, otherwise suffocating (of a more serious nature than within long borders) could be a problem.

  2. How many gardeners did you say they had? just wondering.

    • Hi Peta
      According to their website ” The number of gardeners varies but usually there are five full-time gardeners, supported by part-timers, students and volunteers.” Oh to have a workforce like that!

  3. Eugene on said:

    Christopher was as floridly verbose as was his planting. I adore Dixter and his writing. The two are inseparable.

    I agree with you Angus. Manic masterpiece indeed.

  4. I’ve only been to Dixter once, when Christo was alive, and thought it fabulous. There is a great deal of structure from the topiary and hedges, the flagstone paths, several converted farm buildings, and the house, and then the mad planting spills all around that. The garden design was originally by the arts and crafts architect Edwin Lutyens (frequent partner of Gertrude Jekyll of course). Christo retained these great structural ‘bones’ but very much imposed his own planting style on the garden.

    He was a great iconoclast and the garden has been extraordinarily influential on English garden design in the last two or three decades. Not everyone likes it, but people recognise its impact.

    I like the fact that the new head gardener, Fergus Garrett, has tried to keep the spirit of the garden without slavishly following the exact designs, or using the same plants, that Christo used. Some argue that it is better now than its was in Christo’s time. And Garrett is doing fascinating stuff to make it more sustainable, with a special focus on mitigating climate change. Plus Dixter now offers study days, workshops, talks, lectures, and year-long scholarships, all to spread expertise and enthusiasm about flower gardening. It’s a great (and pretty rare) example of a garden retaining its essence and vigour after its creator has died. So often they become museum pieces.

    and it’s in Sussex by the way, not Kent!

    • Thanks for the comments lanscapelover. Whether you love or hate this garden it is always great to see a garden that inspires a passionate response! Thanks for the correction on the county, having consulted a map I can see it is just over the border between Kent and Sussex so I have asked Catherine to correct the location, I would hate people to miss this amazing garden.

  5. JenniP on said:

    Suppose we can all derive something quite unique from spending time in gardens such as Great Dixter. When travelling with non-gardening friends and dragging them to every garden I could jam into our itinerary, they felt quite different about GD than I did. Perhaps it’s the history, the now-passed gardeners whose story, knowledge and opinions influenced the gardening world that effects how I feel about a place. Whilst I also felt I was in a manic masterpiece where bold experiments were conducted and a plantsperson’s temple, my friends were puzzled with what GD really was about… I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare GD with Sissinghurst or Hidcote etc. because it’s just not what it’s about. Waiting for Michael McCoy’s imminent two-bob’s worth here….

  6. Appreciate your comments also JenniP. I would make the observation that the first impressionist paintings were rubbished at the time….. So I agree wholeheartedly that Great Dixter should not be compared to gardens like Sissinghurst as it is obviously one man’s bold statement of personal style. I wonder what Claude Monet would have made of it…….

  7. helen mckerral on said:

    Hmm, Angus, very interesting. It looks a bit of a jumble to me, but I’ve never seen in in real life, and I wonder whether perhaps this is a garden that needs to be appreciated in real life,that way, rather than through to photographs? Apropos of my recent blogs on photography I was discussing this with Catherine the other day, because – surprisingly – some very beautiful gardens just aren’t photogenic: eg crowded lush tropical gardens, with narrow winding paths through the greenery, are often almost impossible to do justice.

    My second thought is that there are so many different plants clustered together – as you say, it’s exactly the sort of thing I, and many plant lovers would do, as opposed to today’s professional designers with swathes of mass plantings but (sigh) less variety. But then, Lloyd was very much a plant lover, wasn’t he, so could the garden simply be an anachronistic but true reflection of his vision that jars with the more minimalist approach that’s considered attractive today?

    Either way, your blog has inspired me to see the garden if ever I visit the country! Great post, Angus!

  8. I have been fascinated by this debate concerning GD – and for once disagree totally with Catherine Stewart and side with the ‘plant nerd’ Angus Stewart, who he says, is a sucker for the perennial beds that Lloyd filled to overflowing with exuberant mixtures of foliage colours and textures.
    Fergus Garrett (Lloyd’s successor) appeared at the 2011 Australian Landscape Conference where he provided two extraordinary presentations on the gardens he had created at GD.
    One viewing at GD totally obscures the genius loci, because we are reading what we see as ‘The Garden’. Not so! The genius of GD is the extraordinary variety and experimental nature of Garrett’s arrangements and his succession plantings which are being constantly varied from season to season.
    We must have seen about 100 different garden creations in that period – the sheer variety and creativity was breathtaking. People were stunned.
    Perhaps GD needs to ensure this is better understood otherwise people will think from their visit that they have seen ‘what it’s all about’. Perhaps they should be encouraged to obtain a DVD or see a DVD presentation on site, to enable them to understand. I shall take this up with Fergus Garrett and am intrigued by this debate – to see how the views of a ‘plant nerd’ and a ‘design nerd’ (me) may happily coincide

    • Thanks Warwick for adding another dimension to this discussion. My visit, of course, is but a snapshot (literally) in time of this amazing garden. Time is the fourth dimension of a garden and I can well imagine how this garden evolves through the seasons because of the obviously amazing plant knowledge of those looking after it. It sounds like Fergus has continued the spirit of Christopher Lloyd in the best possible way, through practice. I love it when great plant knowledge is combined with the artistic flair of innovative plant design and I believe Great Dixter to be a consummate example of this. As with all creative art forms it will never appeal to everyone but you do not necessarily have to love something to appreciate the creative genius behind it!

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