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How to Tend an English Garden

Looking across the Peacock Garden to the 15th-century main house at Great Dixter Gardens.

Photo: Simon Brown

It is a cold, raw morning; a dusting of snow and ice crackles underfoot. My fingers are numb. The damp air seeps into my gloves and manages to get through my heavy boots as well. The sky is leaden. But all along the path I am following are elegant patches of snowdrops, their white caps shuddering up through the frost. It is shaping up to be another glorious day in the garden.

“Take a long look at that rose,” Fergus Garrett is saying with a twinkle in his eye. We are standing in front of an elderly, straggling shrub; a few shriveled hips cling to its wiry branches. My rather transparent inclination is to make quick work of the pruning job and get inside to warm myself by the fire. “Slow down. Don’t do a thing. Just look. Where are the old flowers? What is new growth? Just tell me what you think that plant wants.”

Even I had to wonder at my sanity when I enrolled in a course to be held in the middle of February—starting on Valentine’s Day, to be precise—called The Art of Gardening at Great Dixter. But I was intrigued by the idea of a working holiday—a chance to take a break from my desk and immerse myself in gardening, something I love to do. Faced with the blank slate that was the front yard of my new house, in a small town on the coast of Rhode Island, I figured I would learn from the best—knowing that garden wisdom is easily transferred from majestic grounds to even the smallest plot. After all, a rose really is a rose, anywhere.

One of England’s most beautiful and beloved gardens, Great Dixter was brought to splendor in the mid 20th century by the legendary horticulturalist and prolific, graceful writer Christopher Lloyd, known to his friends as Christo. My own copy of his early work, The Well-Tempered Garden, has become well-worn; published in 1973, it quickly became an indispensable guide and a best seller. Christo died in 2006, handing the management of Dixter to his closest friend, the talented, knowledgeable, and charismatic head gardener, Fergus Garrett. He oversees a series of intensive gardening courses held throughout the year; they are not only a splendid introduction to a beautiful place but also a way to learn from an undisputed master in his field.

I had visited the Dixter gardens a decade earlier, in the summer, and been taken by the gentle way one progressed through different kinds of spaces. I had been awestruck by the bountiful, famously colorful, and labor-intensive Long Border, 220 feet in length and 15 feet deep. I had admired the serene yet romantic grace of the expansive meadows that roll out like a carpet off the edge of the flower beds; I had been dumbstruck by the riotously garish tropical garden that had replaced a sedate rose garden. On this visit, while there was still a nip in the air, I wanted to see the so-called “bones” of the garden, its structure. I also wanted to understand how one prepares a garden for its new burst of growth; the passage from winter to spring has always seemed the trickiest to navigate. Knowing that Great Britain normally has mild winters, I blithely expected that the early spring garden would be teeming with flowering bulbs. As luck would have it, winter had been brutally cold and long. But within moments of setting foot on the grounds, the weather became irrelevant. I fell under Dixter’s spell.

When we finally do get inside, on that first wintry morning, it is to gather at an enormous hearth whose opening is nearly as tall as I am; large, perfectly seasoned logs are stacked beside it. The blazing fire warms the vast room. At Dixter, house and garden are equally impressive. Both were designed for Christo’s parents in 1910 by the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens, who had earned a reputation for making old houses sing. He worked in collaboration with garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, though Christo’s father, Nathaniel, and his mother, Daisy, were hands-on gardeners and designers. The original building, a timber-framed house dating from 1450, had been stripped of internal additions so that it was open all the way to the roof. A ruined yeoman’s hall house from 1500 was bought in a nearby village, dismantled, and rebuilt on the Dixter grounds.


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