Great Dixter is one of the most influential gardens in the world. Made in the Arts & Crafts style at the beginning of the 20th century it was the life-long home of the great gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd, or Christo as his friends called him. Led by head gardener Fergus Garret since Christo’s death, Great Dixter continues to be a centre of horticultural education and innovation.
My Englishman and I have come to Great Dixter several times over the last few years. Standing at the entry-booth on this warm August day I know exactly which part of the garden I want to see first: the exotic garden, of course, because it is bound to be at its very best at this time of year.
I quickly walk around the house, past the sunken garden and the ever changing display of pot plants, across a meadow and towards an old timber-framed building. This former cow shed forms one side of the boundary of the exotic garden, the other sides are made of yew hedges. In front of the wide building I bypass dahlia bushes full of intensely glowing blooms. I duck under a low beam and then I am inside the shed. The building is completely open on the other side and reveals the most extraordinary view: a tropical jungle, so dense, it seems to continue indefinitely.
I take one of the narrow paths into this lush profusion of plants. The giant leaves of the Chinese rice-paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’) hover like parasols above me. Every few steps I have to push the spiky fronds of a palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) or the leathery foliage of a Fatsia japonica out of my way. The far-spread leaves of bananas (Musa basjoo) float in front of the sun like the sleeves of a 70s tunic. I slowly take in the feeling of being completely immersed in foliage.
This rich mix of plants is overwhelming. In between giant grasses (Miscanthus), grey-green Eucalyptus and Melianthus there are – surprisingly – conifers. Four months ago, when we were last here, these oddly-shaped evergreens stood almost on their own. Now they are submerged in the fresh growth of other plants. I bend down to a Muehlenbeckia shrub. Its tiny leaves sit deep inside what looks like a molecular structure. As I get up, I feel the lacy tickle of a tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) on my face. I walk on. At some point I almost lose orientation in this abundance of vegetation.
Had I come here before 1992, I would not have faced such difficulties, as this used to be a classic rose garden, designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens. Then, Christopher Lloyd, together with his head gardener Fergus Garrett, tore out the roses. A chorus of disapproval came from the English gardening establishment. What disregard for the garden legacy of his parents! But Christo and Fergus didn’t care; they wanted to try something new. After a while, even the critics were impressed.
This spirit of change is still very much alive at Great Dixter today. The dahlias that are planted in front of the cow shed used to be inside the exotic garden. At the moment the design here is focused on green. This is a reminder that what looks arbitrary has been carefully chosen, planted and tended.
My walk around the exotic garden ends back at the cow shed. As my eyes get used to the shade, I see a bench near the back wall. Its construction could not be simpler. As I sit down I notice its stability. I look at the exotic abundance of vegetation, in cinemascope, framed by the crooked wooden beams of the shed and by large, uneven flagstones on the floor. Each material of the building has been worked on only as much as necessary and quietly displays the marks of use. Within this spartan simplicity, cultivated with meticulous care, I feel as if I am in a Japanese temple, pleasantly sheltered, meditative. The perfect place to contemplate the beauty of nature.
Later, while walking along the famous long border with my Englishman, I see the exotic garden from afar. It is small, surprisingly small. Yet, inside it feels boundless.