Last week, we spent a June night at Great Dixter. I arrived late after giving a Garden Masterclass at Sissinghurst and met Fergus Garrett on the drive, who was busily ferrying a very full car of excitable people to the train station. The sun had already gone down and twilight had begun. Dark hedges and the push of meadows spilling over the path to the front door. The greyness of the Crataegus orientalis that I have known since I was a teenager and a cloud of perfume from the pots of the sweet pea ‘Matucana’ huddled round the porch at the front door.
Great Dixter had been hosting a group of environmentalists and like-minded thinkers for the previous three days and the after-party mood pervaded the house. Washers up in the kitchen after a final last supper and the remaining guests who were also overnighting, drinking in the half light on the back terrace where the enormous myrtle hunkers into the building and dierama spill from cracks in the paving. Huw and Wren had arrived earlier, but no one knew where they were. Standing on the parapet of the terrace, though, I could hear familiar voices down in the stillness of the garden.
Descending the circular steps by the old mulberry where the giant fennels were seeding, a push through the foliage of the Exotic Garden and I emerged into the darkness of the low slung barn known as The Hovel to find our friend Julie Weiss and a friend of a good friend from New Zealand, Claire Mahoney, both volunteer gardeners there, seated with Huw around the long table. We ate in almost darkness, charged our glasses and ventured into the garden. Out onto the Topiary Lawn where a fleet of luminous Common Spotted orchids were holding the last of the light amongst the topiaries and back up to the house. The colour in the gloaming all but gone, the white of the aruncus threw the last of the evening light and we buried our noses in the lemon-scented, creamy goblets of Magnolia grandiflora.
We pushed on, up the steps, through the Lutyens archway and into the Sunk Garden, the light now having dropped to the point where we could only see form and the space between the plants. That all important roominess that allows you to appreciate the rhythms and the shapes one plant is allowed to throw against another.
On under the arches of tall hedges and onto the Old Drive where the planting towered above us. Luminous oxeyes at our feet and the brushstrokes, one against the other, of the plumage of Cortaderia richardii against last light in the sky. The opaque silhouettes of the topiary peacocks. And on, box hedges crowding the path, their musty perfume and silvery stands of the cardoons reaching towards the longest day of the year and caught now in low moonlight. The hedges rearing up around us dark but with moon shadow, architectural and towering, the just light spilling from their doorways inviting you to walk on and discover.
Defeated not by darkness, but by the length of a long day and the desire to get up early, we retreated to sleep. Both ends of the day are my favourite times to look at a garden and to be in the garden early the next morning was just as magical. Magic being a word which really does apply to Great Dixter, the sum of its parts amounting to so much more than its whole. That extraordinary energy that comes out of a place being nurtured over time and layered with stories and experiments and the constant striving for things being better. Richer for being inclusive of the wild and the tamed and management of a place where you can feel the joy in the process.
We spent time apart and time together as the morning busied towards opening. The early hush of the gardeners sweeping the paths, watering and making preparations for the visitors. A stolen hour with Fergus in the High Garden talking plants and doing and time snatched between setting up the tasks of the day. The colour now with us again and the changes that come with it. A punch of blue cornflower in green, the growth in the garden palpable everywhere. Change afoot. Early summer giving way to the next chapter.
Huw made the comment that Dixter is always different, but it is always the same and we reflected upon how right this statement felt. It is a place that is layered with thoughts and the love of plants and making a place that sings. The different hands that have contributed to this. Christo’s mothers’ orchids now running riot in the meadows, plants in the borders that I remember reading about in his book, The Well-Tempered Garden, and seeing them for the first time in real life as a boy. Brought to life in Christopher’s writing and still there, but with the new layers that have swept through as Fergus has welcomed nature in and blurred the boundaries still further.
If I was a student again, I am sure I would have made it my mission to study there. It would have been an incredible grounding in gardening intensively and mindfully. Maybe I would have never left, but on reflection I think I probably never have. Dixter somehow feels like it is running in my blood and will always feel like home. Somewhere inclusive and thought-provoking. Always with intrigue. A real place of sustenance and inspiration that only seems to get better. I am a lucky man to have been allowed to feel part of it and I am sure you too can feel the same. Just go and I promise, it will provide.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 25 June 2022