How to Tend an English Garden
With a course at England’s Great Dixter gardens, T+L learns how to tend an English garden.
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.
Lutyens joined the two buildings and added bedroom wings built of brick and a kitchen and pantries. Also on the grounds is a large and beautiful medieval barn, with its old threshing floor, attached to an ancient oasthouse for drying hops; its ventilation hoods, silhouetted against the gray skies, turn with the wind.
Life in the house continues to follow the same patterns laid down decades ago: cocktails include Christo’s favorite 12-year-old Scotch, Syndicate; every evening, our dinner is prepared by the genial manager of house and garden, Aaron Bertelsen, who uses the same handwritten recipes that Daisy served her guests a hundred years earlier. The house is so well-loved and so full of living that I half expect Christo himself to join us for a cocktail.
We take ours during a lecture called “Tools of the Trade.” That may sound rather basic, but even experienced gardeners come upon things they have never seen before. (Luckily, the Dixter gift shop has a treasure trove of unusual, distinctive offerings.) Garrett demonstrates the proper way to divide the root ball of a perennial, plunging two forks, back to back, into the tangle and gently but firmly thrusting them apart. The “tickling fork,” with its long handle and stubby fingers, ideal for fluffing the soil after planting, turns out to be a group favorite. I order one immediately. My six “classmates” are a varied lot. A doctor from New Hampshire, a brilliant woman with a prodigious horticultural memory, contends with short growing seasons and thin, sandy soil, while the philanthropist from Tennessee has a long, moist, hot summer ahead of her. The soil in my own garden is of such heavy clay that I am sure I could make pottery of it. No question—and there is a constant stream of them throughout every day—catches Garrett off guard.
We move into the billiard room for the first of several slideshows that will introduce us to the gardens. We get a vivid picture of the various mixed borders full of trees, shrubs, perennials, biannuals, and annuals; Dixter’s gardens are models of “succession planting,” in which beds are constantly added to throughout the growing season as flowers are spent and plants go dormant. Garrett points out which plants are self-sowers, popping up wherever their seeds have drifted; he shows us how climbing plants such as clematis and some roses are encouraged to clamber through the larger shrubs and trees. He asks us to pay attention to the contrasting shapes and textures of plants, noting how there is a good undulation in their heights. The colors of the garden in full summer are inebriating. “But turn these pictures into black and white,” Garrett emphasizes, “and the compositions still work.”
The youngest of six children and a very shy boy, Christo had been profoundly attached to his mother, Daisy, and it was from her that he learned to garden. All of Daisy’s children were also experts at needlepoint and embroidery; their bright handiwork is on pillows and seat cushions all over the house. Christo was always drawn to colors, and wore shirts as splendidly hued as the dahlias in his garden. “I don’t understand the color wheel,” Garrett once told him. “Good. Keep it like that,” was his mentor’s response.
Garrett tells stories about his early days in training at Dixter, how Christo would move about with his notebook, recording color combinations, heights of plants, their fragrance, the health of the beds. He wrote a weekly column for Country Life for an astonishing 42 years. “But there was always laughter in the garden,” Garrett says. “ ‘You’ve got to enjoy it,’ he would tell the young people working with him.” Christo taught Garrett that gardening was like painting a picture, one that changed every month. “Dixter is all about spirit—and atmosphere,” Garrett says.
On the morning of our second lecture, “The Basics of Soil Composition,” we are ushered into the Great Hall, where the fire is again roaring. Nearly 40 plates of compost and various types and components of soil have been laid out in rows on the floor. We are encouraged to grab fistfuls of the materials, squeeze them, sniff them. Soil with a healthy tilth actually does smell delicious.
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.
Many of England’s top gardens are open to the public. Here are five of our favorites.
Alnwick Garden Recently restored complex of formal gardens with lots of child-friendly activities. Alnwick, Northumberland; 44-1665/511-350; alnwickgarden.com; open 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Friday–Sunday November–March; open daily April–October.
Beth Chatto Gardens Eco-gardeners Beth and Andrew Chatto restored this once-barren land; each month the garden holds one-day workshops on site. Colchester, Essex; 44-1206/822-007; bethchatto.co.uk; open year-round 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sunday; workshops from $79.
Great Dixter house & Gardens Northiam, East Sussex; 44-1797/252-878; greatdixter.co.uk; open 11 a.m.–5 p.m. April–October; weeklong classes from $4,289 per person, including meals and lodging.
Hidcote Manor Garden Famous for its enchanting outdoor “rooms” designed by naturalist and exotic-plant hunter Major Lawrence Johnston. Hidcote Bartrim, Gloucestershire; 44-1386/438-333; nationaltrust.org.uk; see website for opening hours.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden Designed by Bloomsbury habitué Vita Sackville-West in 1930; renowned for its roses and striking White Garden. Cranbrook, Kent; 44-1580/710-701; nationaltrust.org.uk; open 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m. March 12–October 30.