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

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Kate Cox July 29, 2016 at 11:50 am

Thank you for this review. I have just come back from a visit to Dixter, dismayed by my reaction to some of the more densely planted areas. Having expected to be overwhelmed by beauty I felt cross and hemmed in and had to escape to the car park picnic area for a glass of wine. I am reassured that others have felt challenged by this level of immersion.

That being said, in hindsight I love it that Christopher Lloyd, Fergus Garrett and their team have designed with plants as the priority rather than the needs of the human visitor; subverting the current norms of garden design, where form follows function and everything has to be logical, accessible and easy – where plants are the final ‘adornment’ you think about at the end. Dixter is a rebellious space, challenging the visitor’s preconceptions of what a garden should look like and feel like – and yes, largely populated by very elderly visitors, pushing determinedly through the planting with no complaints.

I also visited Sissinghurst – easy, romantic, beautiful. The white garden had been invaded by a few sneaky pink Cosmos, which amused me, but otherwise, even the butterflies conformed to the dress code. The small front lawn has been replaced by a planting of annuals, a bespoke seed mix that was in full bloom while I was there. Breathtakingly lovely.

clare January 13, 2015 at 10:37 pm

The Sunk Garden is indeed a vortex of planting but I don’t see it as more of the same. Here is one of the differences: In the Peacock and High Garden, as Robin notes, you are surrounded by and overwhelmed by the plants, above and around you. In the Sunk Garden it is all about view throughs, the void of the sunk space in the middle allows distance views of the plants that undulate in waves up the stepped levels of the Lutyens structure. You can stand on one side and see through to the colour and texture palette of the giant orange kniphofia rising behind the already in red berry cotoneaster at enough of a distance that the colour and texture becomes much more than the individual plants. Or you see the butterflies of the rosa mutabilis hovering over and punctuating the shadow of a Sambucus with bruised blue shadows, alliums perhaps. In the sunk garden you are constantly alternating between being close up and personal to the plants and seeing across to the other side at a distance. It’s all about views through to a seasonal change of colour and texture that has a delicacy that just can’t happen in the Peacock Garden.

There are moments of respite; most obviously in garden design terms there are the anchor points of the large osmanthus but it is the giant brooding cotoneasters whose structures dominate the York stone seats that really hold the place together. The plants are winning as usual but they are as solid and immutable as the stone.

That said, if you want respite then the sunk garden is not the place to look for it. Leave it via the steps and arch and walk into the front lawn or the blue garden, or the topiary lawn or the moat.

I like sensory overload. It’s exciting. I don’t always or perhaps ever want a nicely judged balance of mass to void. Try telling me to find balance when faced with a round of Epoisses de Borgogne. It’s just not going to happen.

Colin Bisset January 12, 2015 at 4:02 am

Interesting article and I really like the point about balance – that the Sunk Garden is overwhelmed by its plantings. Love the idea of being scrutinised by the plants, too! It’s always good to hear informed criticism, especially about such hallowed places. Might Robin take a look at Sissinghurst next?

annewareham January 12, 2015 at 11:05 am

I do need a good reviewer for Sissinghurst – but shouldn’t we let Troy Scott-Smith get his feet in the flower beds first?

Robin White January 20, 2015 at 3:23 pm

Thanks Colin. I did take a look at Sissinghurst when I was in the area but I found I didn’t have anything in particular to say.

Robin White January 4, 2015 at 6:49 am

Thanks to everyone for the encouraging feedback on the article. It’s much appreciated.

annewareham January 4, 2015 at 11:37 am

And there have been more, as ever, on social media. Here, some facebook responses: https://www.facebook.com/anne.wareham.5/posts/981455555201251?comment_id=985497524797054&notif_t=feed_comment

Martin December 31, 2014 at 9:39 pm

I hope Fergus doesn’t change the things you mention; not because you are wrong – I’ve never visited the garden, though your criticism seems reasonable – but because gardens without flaws can be sterile. To visit a perfect garden is dull….what can you do but admire and return home to make a pastiche. No, you need something wrong to stimulate, something to make you walk away thinking “I see what you’ve done but I would do this…” In that respect Great Dixter has done a good job I’d say, with a mix of things you liked and disliked – what more could you want from a great garden?

However, I think the comment “Dixter could easily settle into comfortable mediocrity as just another money spinning garden destination” is completely unrealistic. According to the Great Dixter Charitable Trust Report 2012/13 they made a slight loss on the year having had 40,000 visitors. In the previous year they had 51,000 visitors and made a modest excess. 2014 will be the first year they have had to cope without Heritage Lottery assistance and the Treasurer said in the financial report that the next couple of years would be “challenging”. Great Dixter always has to be a garden that appeals to the masses (tourists and “the aged” with time on their hands) or it simply won’t survive.

Interesting review – thank you for writing it.

annewareham January 1, 2015 at 12:39 am

“Great Dixter always has to be a garden that appeals to the masses (tourists and “the aged” with time on their hands) or it simply won’t survive.” That’s true for quite a few of us with gardens dependent on income from the garden openings and no extra assistance of any kind. A topic in itself.

Robin White January 4, 2015 at 6:47 am

Martin – reading your comment I saw a possible solution to the second problem (funding) in a response to your first point. On some level any garden will always be unfinished and flawed, but If Mr Garrett were to take seriously any of the critiques (very similar to the ones made by Phil Clayton recently in The Garden, incidentally, even though I didn’t read his article till after I had finished mine) it would give him a chance to relaunch Dixter. That would be particularly true if he did something clever with the tropical garden. With the inevitable publicity it would lead to renewed interest in the garden and increased attendance.

Big gardens like Dixter _should_ make money, at least enough to guarantee their survival. They are destinations – garden theme parks if you will. Obviously you don’t want to overwhelm the beautiful creative spirit of a garden such as Dixter with marketing and commercial pressures. But surely a key to keeping it afloat is to keep it interesting – and the key to keeping it interesting is change.

When I wrote my review I wasn’t just critiquing Dixter for kicks. I was hoping that some thoughtful feedback might be helpful to the garden makers there.

valeria hermida December 30, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Sorry what G. Q. and E means…?

Abbie Jury December 31, 2014 at 3:00 am

God, Queen and Empire.

Marvelous review, thanks. Absolutely agree with the comments on the tropical garden which struck us as being of the “I’ve got one of those” style – a trap, perhaps, for those pushing climatic boundaries.

Our memories of Dixter are, sadly, a little coloured by meeting some garden underling there (not Fergus!) who had clearly failed at Garden Charm School. It was a salutary reminder of the impact of personal contact. We need to go back and look again without that distraction.

Alison Marsden December 30, 2014 at 6:26 pm

I enjoyed Robin White’s review and found it thought provoking as well as reassuring that constructive, knowledgeable reviews of famous gardens do not have to unwaveringly admiring. Despite living within easy striking distance of Great Dixter I have not visited (yet!) so can only talk in more general terms. It struck me that when a garden maker is consumed with creating an area that depends for its style on what we might call ‘softer’ plants mainly herbaceous, such as in ‘cottage’, ‘exotic’ or ‘prairie’ it is easy to fill all the available space with plants and overlook the structural elements that are required in a succesful garden. Rather like having a painting without the straight lines of the frame. We are used to herbaceous borders looking great with yew hedges, prairie planting bordered by sweeping paths or lawns) and cottage gardens including fruit trees or ornamental shrubs as a skeleton to hang the exuberant planting. These work because there is a balance between interest and structure, between movement and static. There was also a reference to feeling overwhelmed which brought to mind echoes of the ‘mass to void’ ratio being different in UK latitudes from the dense jungle planting of the tropics. Such theories are taught as part of garden design; it is interesting to look at real gardens and see how they might apply in practice. Well, whether these thoughts are right, wrong or not applicable I have been inspired to resolve once again to visit more gardens in the coming year, so thank-you.

Adriana January 3, 2015 at 2:55 am

I found your comments particularly sound and enlightening Alison – it is easy to forget balance when we are caught up in the latest faddish planting designs.

Catherine December 30, 2014 at 2:51 am

An excellent critique of GD but I will differ from your assessment of those yew-hedged Peacock, High and Orchard gardens. My one and only visit to GD was not long before Lloyd died and I was so disappointed. I had seen many photos of his amazing plant combinations and had high expectations, not realising that entering those gardens would make me feel like I was being swallowed whole. They are overwhelming, crowded and claustrophobic and his experiment with upending that relationship between people and plants is a dismal failure, unless it was to make garden visitors so uncomfortable that they hurriedly shuffled through – a clever tactic for getting the crowds through faster. I think that like many potentially great artists, Lloyd just didn’t know where to stop, so what could have been great works descended into a confused ‘Where’s Wally’. I wondered how on earth those luscious GD plant photos had been taken. Maybe stilt walkers!
Thomas Church had it right – “gardens are for people”, otherwise what is the point?

Beth December 28, 2014 at 5:17 pm

This was the kind of garden criticism that we need more of. It calmly offered specific suggestions for improvement without resorting to clever insults and nasty, ill-mannered comments that turn off everyone. And it will likely be far more effective criticism, leading to the changes that are sought, rather than wholesale dismissal of the reviewer as someone whose judgment should be questioned, rather than respected. It takes some bravery to point out the flaws in a beloved and world-famous garden, but Mr. White has done it in an admirable way.

Luke Roeder December 28, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Great review thank-you. I was a little overwhelmed when I visited a few years ago. I can see that it is difficult perhaps not to get carried away with the momentum in a garden like Great Dixter but less is nearly always more.
It is a fantastic garden and will visit again.

Paul Steer December 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm

An enjoyable journey into the garden, well written and critiqued – it takes you there – would love to read more reviews by Robin.

Ben's Botanics December 26, 2014 at 9:47 pm

I absolutely love exuberant massed planting but I must concede that I’ve come to appreciate the importance of space to balance it, if only to be allowed breathing room and a space to step back and admire the scale and effect. Big plants excite me, but unless you can get far enough away from them to appreciate their scale it becomes very difficult to appreciate them properly. Also densely planted areas lose their magic if you’re not allowed space to rest; a little calming space stops these intense areas from just being an assault on the senses.

Helen Yemm January 20, 2015 at 1:07 am

I love G.D too, but find some of the intense hedged bits overwhelm me, especially when nose to tail with other visitors. Ben’s Botanics: I couldn’t have put it better if I tried. And yes, we should leave Troy (Sissinghurst ) alone for a bit. I have really enjoyed this.

annewareham December 26, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Edward Flaherty:
Thank you for your post including Robin White’s ‘I was wamblecropt with flowers’ review of Great Dixter. One quote from him made clear to me the fundamental attraction of Great Dixter and special other great gardens. But before I share that quote with you, please let me provide a contextual clue–when it comes to plants, I am a great fan of Algernon Blackwood.

Robin White wrote “…you almost feel as though the plants are examining you.” And when you feel the plants are examining you, you have entered their world–no longer in the world of human cultural constructs–the world of fairies, elves–the world of subliminal existential pleasures offered by the beauties and processes of the plants themselves.

The visitor, thus bereft of the need to explain, embarks upon a journey, along paths never before imagined…a journey rarely discovered by those who are obliged to write in the language of humans. I think that is where Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett have been so successful–creating plant dominated portals through which certain visitors will pass.

Thank you, Anne, for sharing his work,
Edward Flaherty

flahertylandscape = Portal for landscape journeys

Helen December 26, 2014 at 7:49 am

What an interesting article. I haven’t been to Dixter yet but will be in June 2015. I have wanted to go for years, have the books etc etc but my enthusiasm was a little dented earlier this year when it featured on a TV programmes and I saw for the first time the planting which engulfs the visitor as you describe. I felt some what claustrophobic watching and now you imply the same. I will keep an open mind but I would much rather go with lower expectations than the feeling I have had for some time of a pilgrimage!!!

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