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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

The rich soil is perfect for the flower beds; the meadows, on the other hand, need to be starved for the plants to thrive. There, the topsoil is very thin, and cuttings are raked off when the grounds are mowed. Stress is good for meadows—and Dixter’s meadows, in spring and summer, are spangled with the jewel colors of fritillarias, orchids, crocus, primroses, daisies, violets. Some visitors to Dixter have been known to complain that it looks as though the mowing hasn’t been completed. But Garrett defends the meadows as not only a beautiful addition that softens the strong lines of the paths and beds but also as being important for biodiversity. “Ninety-five percent of species-rich lowland meadows have disappeared in the U.K. since World War II,” he explains.

“The main thing is not to plant against nature,” Garrett says when he realizes his students are becoming stressed at trying to understand the chemistry of keeping soil in balance. “But if you are starting a new garden, you may have to break the back of your soil. Cart it out and redo it, even if you have to delay planting for a year or two.” I think ruefully of the heavy clay in my garden. I had been in a rush to start planting when the construction around my house was finally done. Now I pay for that impatience every time I put a spade into the ground. It’s backbreaking work. I’ll be forever trying to catch up on enriching it.

Garrett has organized several field trips for our group. We visit the world’s preeminent breeder of hamamelis (witch hazel) and are dazzled by the variety of reds, yellows, ochers, and oranges covering every branch of hundreds of shrubs. We motor over to nearby Sissinghurst Castle, whose famous white flower beds are just being cleaned for spring. One evening, the country’s best dahlia propagator visits and gives us a lecture about the obsessive discipline needed to cultivate showstopping blossoms for competition.

Christo wanted to train future generations of gardeners, and Garrett has taken up that important work. I am again struck by how seriously the English take their gardening, how people train for years to be able to take over the management of large public and private places, and how often the love of gardens is passed down from one generation to the next. Garrett remarks that it is getting harder to find young people who want to make gardens their livelihood, yet there is no end of volunteers who are willing to trade room and board at Dixter for a few months of the best hands-on training they could ever get.

Time is suspended at Great Dixter. To spend a week gardening there is to enter a magical dimension in a nurturing place, grounded in rich legacy, enthralling beauty, and the bright companionability of growing flowers and sharing them with the world. Dixter is a place that shows you how a garden can be the work of a lifetime, and how a lifetime can be immeasurably enhanced by coursing along with the rhythms of the seasons. It is a place where everything, from the hangings over the hearth to the piling of the compost, is the seamless expression of an interesting, quirky sensibility—one that will continue to enchant, inspire, and instruct generations of guests.

Over the next several days, we tromp in and out of the garden, layering on waterproof pants and jackets, bundling up in scarves and hats. We are assigned the task of pruning the large shrubs and small trees dotted through the mixed borders, as Garrett looks on. “Strong will give rise to strong,” he reminds us. “Plants that flower on new growth should be pruned in late winter. Plants that flower on old growth should be pruned after blooming. But we want you to learn to think for yourself. Just look at the plant, and figure it out. What does it want?” His voice stayed with me for months after I returned to my own garden.

Dominique Browning wrote the memoir Slow Love. She also writes for the Environmental Defense Fund and the blog slowlovelife.com.

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