Walking Great Dixter

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The first erythronium

For those first, heady weeks of spring, when the ephemerals began to bloom, a few of us played a little game: who can find the first bloom of x or the emergence of y. Initially, it was just me being stupidly excited by the first Tulipa turkestanica or frit in the meadow. The first violets, erythroniums, Narcissus cyclamineus. Sophora microphylla ‘Sun King’. I would drag everyone over to admire the miracle and they would all nod patiently. For a week or two it got so intense people started humoring me at lunch: “Ok, Amy, we’re ready for today’s nature walk. Lead on to the next 5 cm plant.”

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Ophioglossum vulgatum

They ended up being some of my favourite times with the gardeners and students because they were always generous with their knowledge of the plants – even if they’d seen something bloom many times before – and they usually took you to see some of their favourites as well. A stray comment about an anemone (pavonina or fulgens) blooming alone in the meadow, had Fergus telling us about how it had been there thirty years and never seemed to expand. Then, he suddenly dropped to his knees to look for yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) germinating, which reminded him it was a good time of year to look for Ophioglossum vulgatum and so we all trailed after him through the meadows, squinting (some were eventually found in the same spot Christopher Lloyd first identified them after waking from a nap in the lower meadow). Or poor Graham, who patiently tolerated my hellebore ramblings and then showed me the best erythroniums and the location of the only yellow snowdrop. Things got a bit dicier with the students – some accusations of blatant cheating and an imposed rule of latin names – but you know, that’s only to be expected (if I’m playing…).

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It’s interesting how little you end up walking around and just looking at a garden when you work in it, so I made a conscious effort to walk regularly, alone. In the morning, the dew or frost glistening, it was usually a brisk stroll, just to check on something from the day before, or maybe to visit the blooming Corylopsis glabrescens. And in the evening, it was often to catch the setting sun, or see what a warm day had pushed into blossom. At lunch though – those were scouting missions. It takes focus to be aware of the garden and small changes. Even now I can mentally walk through the garden with clarity. It’s a comfort that I left when the tulips were at their height – my Great Dixter is perpetually roiled in spring colour.

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The thing about Great Dixter is that almost every day a plant (or five) is putting on a new display. There are just so many plants, so many different plants. It’s hard to overstate. And if they don’t have it now, they’ve probably tried it. We’d go off to gardens or nurseries on the weekends and bring back plants we were excited about and Fergus would invariably have grown it before (and actually, it was growing right now, this very second, in the Vietnam stock bed!). It was overwhelming and thrilling. There’s nothing better than seeing plants you’ve only read about come to life in front of you. Well, except, digging it up, dividing it and potting it on?

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Gardening practice at Dixter is idiosyncratic, as one would expect at a garden created by intense individuals living in the middle of nowhere, England. Four months in the garden has infused me with a new confidence in plants. There are so many forces acting against them – clay soil and poor drainage, clumsy students, neglect, badgers, competitive neighbors and rampant self-sowers, etc., that some days we joked about how they have to really want to live to make it at Dixter.

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Sometimes, the jumble of plants at Dixter is oppressive. The garden drives home the maxim ‘less is more,’ and a light hand when editing a bed full of self-sowers manifests over a period of weeks as plants fight it out. My eye would tire while staring down the Long Border or parsing the combinations in Vietnam. It would tire, and it was only winter/early spring, nothing like the chaos of high summer or the bounty of fall… It’s not that I didn’t know what I was getting into, but experiencing it in person is something else. Walking endless loops failed to inure me to some garden moments. My catchphrase was ‘burn it’.

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And yet, I catch myself looking at our plantings at home differently now – contemplating how another layer of planting might be worked in, or why it might not be totally offensive to have those lime Aquilegia ‘Mellow Yellow’ close to some purple cotinus (perpetually dwarfed by our climate).

Just kidding. I still think it’s offensive. I suggested Geum ‘Mai Tai’ instead of the aquilegia.

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It’s difficult to separate out the garden, the garden walks, from my emotional attachment to the place. I made an effort to look at the garden, but I also lived, worked and socialized in the garden. The beautifully worn York paving stones that define the garden, are also the same ones I’ve spent days weeding; the walled garden is full of the work of decades and an ancient Cistus, but also hundreds of larkspur and nigella that Aideen and I planted; the weird trial strip by the fruit cage is ugly and dedicated to stock but it’s where Susan and I had a fun day working with volunteers, where I spent a few quiet days with Lewis and Aaron when I most needed them, where I watched the tulips succumb in days to fire blight, where I managed to get some cell signal… I have a fondness for it, despite its overabundance of bergenia.

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It’s hardly fair to talk about Dixter without disclaiming my gratitude towards the people there. They gave me months where I had no imperative except to show up to work on time, take in as many gardens as possible, and be with people who love gardens. At Dixter, the world of gardening expanded before me.

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But I also reveled in the smallness of it all. I walked the garden in hopes that I might somehow come to know it intimately, bounded as it is by hedges, fences and property lines, and hundreds of sheep. In spring, their baa-ing was incessant. But like any garden, it grows and changes, even before my eyes I watched beds swallow newly planted seedlings never to see them re-emerge, or a magnolia appear at the back of the long border like a mirage, with a few white flowers faintly outlining it, how had I never noticed it before? And of course I can never know the weight of history, the layers of imprinted knowledge of warm spots and cool, frost pockets, where the wind does particular damage, those are beyond the reach of my casual observances in a short time. But there’s still something to the containment, a satisfaction that each day you are getting better, that you could one day know the paving stones and trees at least, even if the plantings are ever changing or the shrubs sometimes pruned into dramatically different shapes. Even the topiary lawn took a butchering while I was there.

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It’s almost better to think of it as an extended pilgrimage – enlightenment through pacing and futile weeding of the topiaries in the midst of the meadow. What’s done today will need to be done again tomorrow, or maybe in two weeks, or maybe two years, but it’s rarely the last time something needs to be done. The garden is decades of memories of planting, pruning, weeding, staking, soil amendment and the like.

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As Robert Macfarlane so aptly says: “The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the then but felt in the now.” I came to Dixter for its history and plants, and felt Christopher Lloyd’s presence every day through stories, reading, a well-chosen tree, but my day-to-day experiences are superimposed on it, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. There’s no objectivity to my understanding of the garden. I respect it for what it is, and hope that it respected my efforts (and wild enthusiasm) in turn. The pilgrimage complete.

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