I was wamblecropt with flowers: a review of Great Dixter by Robin White

December 26, 2014

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

I’ve been hoping for a review of Great Dixter, and now here it is, thanks to Robin White. And it’s the second piece I’ve now read recently about the garden: it is also featured in The Garden (RHS) in the October edition. (See here)

One of the things people say to me often – you’ll find it in some of the Comments on this site – is that assessments of a garden are just ‘personal taste’ and so, presumably, cannot be taken too seriously. Yet both these pieces raise similar questions about Great Dixter.

And both add provisos. I think we have to read this as indicating that any criticism of any aspect of a garden has to be hedged about with assertions of the garden’s positive qualities.

I should be grateful that a publication like The Garden is willing to suggest that there may be room for improvement in a particular garden, and indeed, I am. I also find myself hoping that one day it will become possible, indeed ordinary, for people to be braver and that such declarations will become unnecessary. A garden has to be of some quality to be worthy of serious critical review.

Anne Wareham, editor

For wamblecropt see here)

dixtertopiary copyright Robin White

Robin White

Driving to Great Dixter always feels like an induction process. Coming from any direction you gradually home in on gorgeous old houses with their vernacular red tiled siding and circular brick oast buildings with their weird pointed spires. They are at every turn of the road. It is essential quaint England, the edge of the stockbroker belt, at the border of Kent and Sussex. All around has the air of having been settled and wealthy for centuries. You get an irrevocable sense that all’s well with God, Queen and Empire.

Dixter dried flowers copyright Robin White FS

I have made a habit of coming to visit Dixter as often as I can manage on trips home to England from California. I don’t come for G. Q. and E. Traveling from my home in mixed race, gun-toting Oakland I feel pretty ambivalent about the G. Q. and E. paradigm into which Dixter is embedded.

I come to Dixter because I love it. I want to make that clear from the start. I am going to criticize Dixter in this review, but it doesn’t mean that I think the garden is not worth its reputation.

You get to Northiam and after a short trip down a hedged lane there you are at Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett’s project, a slightly crumbling medieval manor refurbished by Edwin Lutyens a century ago with gardens around that have been loved and coddled ever since. You park, you hand over your dosh and enter.

copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

The garden is under Fergus Garrett’s leadership now but the presence of Lloyd, who died in 2006, is still everywhere. Together the two men, with Lloyd at the helm, built the garden into what it is today.

Dixter 3Lloyd didn’t tout himself as a garden designer. He famously said of himself: “I couldn’t design a garden. I just go along and carp.” It’s a curious thing for him to have said, sounding coyly modest for the creator of such a great garden, but at the same time I wonder if Lloyd wasn’t preemptively deflecting criticism that he knew could justifiably come his way. I think his comment works both ways.

Dixter copyright Robin White

Even if he stumbled upon it by accident and it was not the result of talent at design, what is spectacular about Dixter and what draws me back over and over again, is that Lloyd created a garden that is an immersion experience.

I always go first to the east of the house to look at the part of the garden that is Dixter’s great experiment. There you enter into terrain where the conventional garden rules are upended. With most big garden borders you stand on a path and look at the garden: slicing and dicing, chopping into digestible pieces, identifying nice tableaux, taking it in, cataloguing. But usually you are “over here” and the garden is firmly “over there.” It’s a bit like watching a film.

copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

In the Peacock, High and Orchard gardens of Dixter that relationship of looker and looked at is turned on its head. Passing through enormous yew hedges that form great big containers, walking on little brick paths through overwhelming plantings you almost feel as though the plants are examining you. The plants dwarf the humans. And they are everywhere. There is no way to take it all in, no way to even see most of it. The planting is so dense that there must be plants that grow and flower and die that no one ever sees. It is all about them and not so much about us.

copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

This upending of the typical relationship of people and plants is one of Lloyd and Garrett’s strokes of genius. Truly brilliant.

But can you have too much of a good thing? The last time I was there was at the end of September 2014. I wandered through the hedged gardens and was powerfully wowed and awed. Over the decades Garrett and Lloyd developed a knowledge about how to plant in succession and how to extend the flowering season that means that this garden culminates in a spectacular autumn show of color and seedheads. There’s kind of a cumulative effect. Instead of the autumn being a difficult time of year with the garden limping towards a lame finish, at Dixter it’s a bit like the finale of a fireworks display.

I got through to the vegetable garden where Garrett and some of the current students and volunteers (who form much of the workforce at Dixter) were building an old fashioned haystack with the cuttings from the wildflower meadows.

copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

Then I doubled back to the Sunk Garden, which is to the west of the house.

Sunk Garden, Dixter copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

The Sunk Garden is walled with borders and walkways descending to a small recessed terrace with an octagonal pond in the center. Photos on the web of the original layout show a much more spacious design. Decades on, the borders are filled with the same mountainous planting that I had been enjoying elsewhere only here I felt like I was entering a vegetational vortex. I spiraled down through waves of planting to the pond at the bottom and I got a sense of there being no escape. And no oxygen. I was wamblecropt with flowers. I desperately wanted space. I wanted stillness in the heart of chaos. But the pond, which could potentially provide that, was itself stuffed full of plants and the patio cluttered up with pots.

Dixter Sunken Garden 2The area breaches some fundamental design principles and this is where Lloyd’s self-deprecating comment rings true. The scale is off. The pond is too small to anchor the mounds of planting. There is a lack of contrast and a lack of restraint. If you have everything everywhere it just doesn’t work. The reason the dense planting of the hedged gardens to the east is fantastic rather than just a mess is that the hedges themselves are containers: a framework which provides context. They allow breathing space as you pass from one room to the next. Not so in the perhaps appropriately named Sunk Garden. The only option is to fight the current all the way back up and escape the walls.

Dixter sunken gardenAnd then if you are unlucky in your choice of exit you might find yourself next to the dachshund themed patio – something I usually try hard to ignore when I’m at Dixter. It is a pebble and concrete creation where Lloyd had two of his favorite dogs depicted in different colored rock.

Someone should have stopped him.

Dixter Dogs thinkingardens

I have to admit I have little patience for the British predilection for inserting cute animal themed elements in their gardens and in this case the word “jackhammer” floats dangerously close to the surface of the mind. It wouldn’t be against Lloyd’s philosophy if it were to be dug up and replaced. At the end of his life, thinking ahead to what would happen at Dixter when he was no more he wrote in the Daily Telegraph “I don’t want the place to become a museum…the garden is sure to change.”

Garrett picked up the theme later: “Inevitably things will change. But that change will be gradual and natural, and for the right reasons: for improvement’s sake, not for change’s sake.”

The question for me is whether the changes will be at the micro level – such as choosing to eliminate the rosa ‘Gruss An Aachen’ and punch up the aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Nora Barlow’ – or whether Garrett will be able to pull back the lens far enough to address the big picture at Dixter. There are structural problems with the garden. Weak spots.

One hope would be for Garrett to rethink the much vaunted Exotic Garden. This area is a cornerstone of the mythology of Dixter. Lloyd decided to dig up his mother’s rose garden and as a consequence received harsh words from English rosarians. The story is told that this was a revolutionary act, but in a way what Lloyd replaced it with – a garden of tropical plants – is as much of an aesthetic monoculture as were the roses in the first place. From the perspective of my adopted home in California there are many plants in the Exotic Garden that are familiar. But it is odd to see them But it is odd to see them all together as if they were in a zoo. Yes, they are all unusual, stunning to look at, architectural in nature, but they don’t form a very interesting group and in fact clash with each other as they all strive to impress.

Tropical Garden, Dixter, copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

A challenge for me as a designer in a warmer climate is to find ways to integrate these more exotic plants with other more familiar garden varieties. There are lots of interesting questions surrounding them. How does each plant work best in the garden? Should they be massed? Should they be single specimens used as sculptural elements? Can some of them work in a mixed border? Can you successfully combine seriously spiky agaves with, say boxwood balls? Does it work or does it look ridiculous? Is it even legal?

Tropical Garden, winter, copyright Robin White for thinkingardens

I hope that Garrett will take Lloyd’s pioneering interest in tropical plants a step further to start addressing these and other questions. Garrett has a rare opportunity in a really good garden such as this. He has already grown through his apprenticeship, matched his master, and now Dixter is his. He has declared that he is determined to go on exploring. How far will he go? And how will he replace Lloyd – or the provocative role that Lloyd played in the dialogue between them? What will happen to his creativity without someone to play with and play off?

Dixter for thinkingardensPulling away from Dixter on a sunny Thursday in September I was struck by the overwhelming numbers of aged garden goers in the car park. A couple of buses were maneuvering through the entrance. The disturbing idea came upon me that, fueled by coach loads of tourists and seventy-somethings with time on their hands, Dixter could easily settle into comfortable mediocrity as just another money spinning garden destination.

Hopefully not.

Robin White

Robin’s website

Robin White, portrait






If you found this interesting you may also like this piece: Be Critical, by Tristan Gregory

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: