Let's Go: Great Dixter Part I

I saved the best for last, a garden with a huge heart, Great Dixter. On paper this is a six-acre garden in Northiam, East Sussex surrounding a historic home. In person? It is pure alchemy.

From the Great Dixter House & Gardens websiteGreat Dixter was the home of gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd (1921 - 2006), who developed it into a hub of ideas and connections that spread out across the world. 

Christopher Lloyd was a generous man with a talent for gardening, teaching and writing. Born at Great Dixter, he was initiated into the world of gardening from a very young age by his mother Daisy, an incredible plantswoman. He gardened and lived at Great Dixter for the majority of his life and used it as a primary source for his writing. He was and is one of the most influential and well-known gardeners of the last century, having freed and encouraged so many of us to garden in a style for ourselves, not necessarily to please others. In 1993, he hired Fergus Garrett as his head gardener and they collaborated together as friends and fellow gardeners until Christopher's death.

Great Dixter and its charitable trust is now in the incredibly capable hands of Fergus Garrett and his team of inspired gardeners from around the world. For more than thirty years Fergus has been at the core of what makes Great Dixter shine as a garden of not only great beauty, but of experimentation, boldness, originality, biodiversity, generosity, education and exploration. He continues on in Christopher's wonderful spirit, that of friend and collaborator. It is a garden that changes more in one year than most do in twenty, and it is not afraid to make mistakes or share its successes. It changes fast and often, so my snapshot of this early October day at Great Dixter is a fleeting one, one I cherish nonetheless.
An iconic image, The Long Border, one of the most photographed of its kind in the UK. It graced the cover of Gardens Illustrated in its September 2023 issue (and indeed countless other publications over the years). 

The original 15th-century home was purchased by Christopher Lloyd's parents Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd in 1910. The original home consists of the porch and everything towards the right. The home (which will be covered in the next post) is made up of three distinct homes from three different eras that were seamlessly combined by the architect Edwin Lutyens. They are the original, yes, and an early 16th-century timber house from the village of Beneden nine miles away that was dismantled and moved piece by piece, and lastly the 20th-century Lutyens wing that combined the three with a unifying tiled roof. The plantings were established by Daisy Lloyd who was very close to her youngest of six children, Christopher. They collaborated closely in the garden up until her death in 1972. 

The house comprises the heart of Great Dixter; from there it radiates outwards into exciting plant combinations all reigned in by Lutyens' original garden bones of which Christopher was most grateful to work with, as he admitted to not having talent for such things. But his talents lie elsewhere, which we shall see. 

Great Dixter is a garden known for its bold use of color. However, it is so much more. If you have ever read any of Christopher Lloyd's 25 books or his 42 years of weekly columns in Country Life magazine (he never missed an issue and kept writing up until October 2005), you can appreciate his contribution to horticulture and gardening as well as his sense of humor and definite opinions on gardening. He loved experimentation, bold combinations as well as subtle nuance and changing seasons. He appreciated, as well as his mother and first garden teacher, Daisy, wildflowers, meadows and wild places in the garden well before their importance to biodiversity surfaced to the forefront of current garden practices. He was also a generous gardener, sharing his home and garden with the public and indeed friends, of whom he had many. He started a small nursery to help supplement the household; it is still going strong today.

Pictured is the hovel or old cow shed fronted by a bed of marigold, amaranth, Plectranthus argentatus and canna. 

This is the Topiary Lawn with the back side of the home in the distance with the 16th-century timber house on the right. The topiaries were created by Christopher's father Nathaniel who was so enthusiastic about topiary that he wrote a book on the subject. 

This is the first photo I took upon arrival at 9 am. We were able to arrive early in the day before they opened to the public due to the generosity of friends. It seems that many of my garden friends here including Maurice, my friend and former boss at Joy Creek Nursery, Sean Hogan who is my current boss at Cistus Nursery, a friend Julie Weiss who is very involved with Great Dixter, all know and love Fergus. In fact, I think if you polled people in the Pacific Northwest, you would find a large Fergus fan club or FOF, "Friends of Fergus." He has been most generous with his time and contributions and speaking events for several horticulture organizations here in the Northwest. I was excited and honored to have met him, even for a brief moment (the man is busy!). In any event, my friend Julie let everyone know we would be two dazed Americans wandering around the gardens before they opened to the public. Lucky us!

Fergus introduced us to a gardener who had recently come on board with Great Dixter, Naciim Benkreira, a Ruth Borun Scholar from Washington, D.C. He is especially interested in regenerative food production and I really enjoyed chatting with him. He shared with me that the meadow in the Topiary Lawn that is rich in biodiversity and layers of plantings had recently been cut and the dried grasses and seeds spread about.

The Topiary Lawn a little later in the day when the sun was out. You can just make out the dried grasses and wildflowers spread across the lawn.

An old brick cattle tank with a new life as a planter, currently for Plectranthus argentatus, on the edge of the Topiary Lawn.

The hovel with surrounding yew topiaries that are clipped once a year. The darker green grass is where it is mowed while the meadow is tall to give a contrast and a place to traverse.

A cozy refuge within the hovel that I can imagine in use when the weather turns inclement.

Wider image of the hovel with the Exotic Garden behind.

Within the Exotic Garden, one is swallowed up by foliage. Once a formal rose garden designed by Lutyens, it was taken out upon Fergus' arrival in 1993 and replaced with exotic looking foliage plants. While perhaps shocking to some in the gardening community at the time, it demonstrates Christopher's desire to experiment and his willingness to toss out old ideas in favor of exciting new ones. 

Circular steps by Lutyens connect the Long Border with the orchard are a fine example of the stone structure at Great Dixter. In the upper right is one of what was a pair of mulberry trees. The plantings here, as in most areas at Great Dixter, change regularly. While now taken over with amaranth, I have seen photographs of it planted seasonally with cacti and succulents, an interesting juxtaposition with fluffy Erigeron karvinskianus that is allowed to seed in the cracks and visually soften the stone. Experimentation and learning are ongoing at Great Dixter as exiting new ideas are embraced, keeping the place from becoming stale and frozen in time.

The Long Border and the eastern side of the house. It is a mixed border of shrubs, perennials, biennials, bulbs, annuals in an ever-changing tapestry of foliage and texture with a clipped yew and boxwood hedge as a backdrop. Many see-through plants are allowed at the front of the border such as Verbena bonariensis to great effect.

Salvia confertiflora, a rather large patch of one of my favorite in this genus, impressed. This tender salvia must surely be propagated by the nursery crew. But if it can indeed survive in East Sussex without being lifted I'm moving there.

More salvia mixed with yellows and tawny colors of fading perennials.

Persicaria orientalis rises and falls in many garden beds at Great Dixter, its vibrant color working especially well with autumnal shades of red and gold.

The stone path on one edge of the Long Border and the clipped hedges on the other edge contain its bountiful plantings. The orchard begins here on what looks to be lawn but is in fact a meadow filled with layers of succession plantings and allowed to grow tall most of the year. It too had recently been mowed as these things require. During the year when it is left long a path is mowed along the edge of the stone path adding interesting tension between mowed and unmowed, a look I love. It says, "I'm supposed to be wild, it's intentional, but here's a path for you to safely walk through me."

There is a lot of color, a lot of texture, a lot going on even in early October. As the garden ages in winter many plants are left for their interesting forms, seeds, textures and value to wildlife.

Pulled back view with the Lutyens staircase straight ahead and the top end of the orchard, a view that changes throughout the year. Here it seems like a simple lawn because of its recent mowing. If you do a search of photographs of the meadows at Great Dixter especially in spring, it's pretty mind-blowing with native orchids and a vast array of plant material including spring flowering bulbs.

Wandering through the orchard, taking in the autumnal colors.

A dead tree is left where it is. I found it interesting and freeing that most trees in the orchard are left with minimal pruning. Perhaps I'll take a similar approach to our own orchard.

A path through the orchard, the Lower Moat on the left with large leaves of Gunnera manicata standing out and a few autumn crocus blooming in the grass.

The path continues on past the wooden gate where you find yourself in the nursery. 

Biodiversity audits have recently put Great Dixter into the spotlight. While it is indeed a garden where plants are the priority, Christopher celebrated wildlife. Fergus continued with this ethic and although they did not spray nor use pesticides much while Christopher was alive, he thought they could do better after Christopher's death. Fergus stopped the practice all together. 

Knowing that wildlife is abundant here, eventually Fergus invited ecologists to do proper audits to determine who was calling this garden home. What they discovered was startling even for Fergus. The audits revealed large populations of some of the country's most threatened species - not just in the outlying areas - but in the borders themselves, the Sunk and Barn Gardens among the richest. Pictured is one of the many habitats created for wildlife, though wildlife was already present well before this was built. 

Fergus states this is a garden that was not necessarily planted to attract wildlife. It was planted for the love of plants. The fact is that it is so dense and richly planted with succession planting and layers that wildlife naturally arrived. The whole place seems to be habitat, from logs and crumbling stones to fields and marshy areas, grasses and densely planted beds. Rooftops, trees, benches - it all counts. For a deeper dive into the biodiversity at Great Dixter, Fergus recently spoke at the Beth Chatto Symposium for 2023 on this subject, here is a link. In fact, the entire symposium is free to watch online and is so worthwhile. Great Dixter strikes an important balance between completely wild places and manipulated landscapes and goes to show that what we as gardeners do, matters.

The edge of the Upper Moat that once contained water. It was drained decades ago and is now home to water-loving meadow plants. The stone walls drip with plants and frankly, romance. I've seen photographs of this in spring and it is enchanting.

At the end of the stone wall above the Upper Moat, we reach the Loggia, a former chicken house with tile pillars is now a functional part of the garden. Lutyens retained as many of the outbuildings as possible to incorporate into the design of the gardens.

Continuing around the corner we come towards the Blue Garden through the steps on the right.

Peeking through topiary.

The Blue Garden opens up to the side of the house with an espaliered pear tree growing against the chimney.
Mixed border plantings in early October still evoke feelings of summer.  

Espaliered pear tree detail. I remember reading about this tree in Christopher's The Well Tempered Garden.

Looking back past topiaries.

Into the Wall Garden where FM takes it all in. At his feet is a mosaic of two dachshunds, Christopher's constant companions. The pot displays in this courtyard change throughout the year, sometimes several times. In October it was filled with fiery colors and a few choice agaves.

Fergus and his crew are constantly playing with color and texture, new plants and old favorites, bulbs and annuals, evergreens and trees. In other words, it is all worthy. Admittedly it doesn't always work (this does!), however you won't know until you try and Great Dixter is quite brave in this regard. These displays are also never repeated, Great Dixter is a place of high energy gardening, exploration and interesting and complex plant combinations. While there are indeed many permanent plantings throughout the gardens, much of it is given over to inspired experimentation.

Looking back through the arch, you can just make out the edge of the mosaic in the corner.

What a joy to view a 15th-century manor house in the background as the centerpiece of this garden.

As you walk past the Wall Garden you come through to the Barn Garden and at its heart, the Sunk Garden. Plantings through here and indeed much of Great Dixter envelop you, feel exuberant and comforting.

The Barn Garden with the White Barn straight ahead. A mix of perennials, shrubs, grasses, bulbs, biennials and annuals leaves no patch of soil bare. This part of the garden was documented as being the richest in biodiversity by recent audits.

Fascinating color combinations everywhere. For example, the pale yellow of the oenothera, perhaps a volunteer, paired with rich, dark reds of the dahlia and its dark foliage are not colors I would necessarily pair, but the pale yellow draws me in.

The Sunk Garden in the center of the surrounding Barn Garden, was originally a lawn. This favorite garden for many was designed by Nathaniel Lloyd rather than Edwin Lutyens.

With a little more dramatic lighting.

The White Barn in the background.

The Great Barn on the west side of the Sunk and Barn Gardens, with the Oast House in the background. Oast houses are for drying hops.

From the Barn Garden looking southwest towards the manor house where plants greet you right up to the edge of the path.

 To end this post, a picture of FM who found a friend. This is Neil, a kitty who was brought back to Great Dixter from Kabul. She wasted no time finding a warm lap on a cool autumn morning and they became fast friends. She is reason enough to return to Great Dixter someday as I sincerely hope we do.

With its incredible education programs, scholarships and adult learning programs, Great Dixter continues to excel in the field of horticulture. It is sending out gardeners from all walks of life into the world with an appreciation for horticulture and wild things; it makes me a little teary to have hope for the future of something I love so dearly. This place is all heart, it is a place that makes gardeners. It teaches people how to garden. Not how to copy Great Dixter, rather how to apply what is learned and make your own interpretation. It teaches how to bend the rules and challenge you to really look at plants, just as Christopher did in his day. Fergus carries on in this spirit with vibrant enthusiasm, energy and great skill. While Daisy was the original heart of the garden, Christopher then took the reigns and drove it in a new direction while continuing to embrace much of what she championed. Fergus has the reigns now. With his focus on education and biodiversity, he has championed not only Christo's vision, but also what the gardens of this century can and indeed should become - vital in every sense of the word. As Christopher said a year before his death in 2005, "If Dixter remains loved and retains its own identity, everything else will fall into place." It certainly has.

Great Dixter in October was amazing. Yes, the meadows had been mown and generally it was not at its height of summer flower color. I found it enchanting and vibrant and appreciated its warmth. A garden isn't all flower color, after all. I love all seasons in the garden. Great Dixter with its amazing bones and gentle approach to cleaning up the garden must be beautiful even in January. To experience this place regularly is a lucky individual indeed. I am so honored to have been able to see such a dynamic working garden that continues to evolve and is full of friendly and wonderful staff, volunteers and gardeners. These are some of the hardest working people in horticulture, who seem to be having all the fun. A special mention to another Facilities Manager, Ashley, who took time out of his busy day to visit with us. Julie, a volunteer and garden designer, so generously gave us a ride to our hotel in nearby Cranbrook, we thank you as well. Thank you to you all. It's the people that make a place, after all and I'll say it again, Dixter is all heart.

Join me next time as we explore the nursery, the interior of some of that fabulous manor home and more borders at Great Dixter for Part II of what is a garden that has enriched my heart. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you! Happy Gardening!


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Tamara. Great Dixter is a garden I'd love to see one day but your post almost makes me feel as if I've been there.

    1. That's wonderful, Kris. I'm glad you got that feeling, that was the goal. :)

  2. Wow, what a wonderful visit. It's not very often that a garden moves you emotionally. One day would love to visit but for now I do enjoy listening to Fergus talk about it. What was your favourite part? (I know, tough question).

    1. It absolutely moves so many people emotionally, you are right. Fergus is an inspiration and I really enjoy learning from him and his team. Favorite part? Gosh, that is tough. As far as garden rooms go, like so many others, the Sunk Garden has a special charm, I had a distinct feeling of being at peace. Also the habitat piles on the periphery speak to my wild side.

  3. The last time I visited GD was a few years ago to check out their October plant sale with an incredible array of participating plant nurseries. Fergus was directing visitors into parking spaces...that about says it all! Wonderful tour of GD, one of the best I've read -- thank you!

    1. Gosh Denise, I am not surprised to hear that about Fergus. And thank you for your comments, you made my day :)

  4. Anonymous8:24 PM PST

    What I find most extraordinary is the house! It was built when William Shakespeare was writing his plays. To think parts of that house survives to present day is remarkable.
    I'm blown away by the orange marigolds. I don't think I've ever seen any as tall.
    I love the planting around the espaliered pear tree; less exuberant, more subtle, definitely more my style.
    The only thing that would make me forget about the garden is a friendly kitty! I'd be parked on the bench, with the cat, purring.

    1. That home is extraordinary and historically special. More on it for the next post, so stay tuned. The plant material at GD is wonderful, I plan to borrow a few ideas for my own garden. And yes, FM was parked on that bench for a long time with Neil.

  5. Anonymous2:04 PM PST

    Kudos to you, my friend, for performing the duties of tour guide and historian flawlessly.

  6. Wow! This was a delight to read and stare at, your photos were so beautiful. I'm glad you got special privileges to tour early! (Salvia confertiflora is such a gorgeous bloom... I wish it were hardy here)

    1. Thank you, Danger! Isn't that salvia dreamy? I mean there were huge patches of it. Kind of took my breath away. cheers!

  7. Oh... October. So gorgeous. I was there in June and had less than 3 hours. I could have stayed for 3 days.

    1. Yes, October....so lovely! I read your posts on GD and Sissinghurst with much interest - such a treat! Glad you were able to have seen them (and so many other great gardens you got to visit!). Three days, three years, a lifetime....I could do it.

  8. Beautiful. I am impressed by the amount of color late in the season. I like the emphasis on experimentation. It takes some of the pressure off of having a perfect garden and refocuses it on the excitement of trying new things. The generosity of the horticultural community really shines at Great Dixter. Glad you got to go.

    1. The color late in the season was fantastic - I didn't even capture half of what was out there. I tried to put the camera down from time to time though it was difficult. The generosity is huge at GD, I too am so happy I got to go.


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