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At Great Dixter, Getting Your Hands Dirty Is the Point

We were well into the sixth hour of another 10-hour day, our small band of gardeners laboring to find the tiny nodules on a plant stem, cut the stem just below them, and place it into the pots of soil in front of us, all under the exacting eye of our teacher, Fergus Garrett.

An inviting fall sun was streaming into the windows of the room where we labored, but we were far from being released. We still had to practice the proper way to germinate new plants from seeds, roots, spores and leaves. And Mr. Garrett was spotting pots with uneven soil, stems with no life-giving nodules attached and soil packed too tightly or loosely.

Some of us were flagging, but Mr. Garrett was tireless. Perhaps, he suggested, we could push dinner back to squeeze in more time? Or repair to the 16th-century house afterward for another round of slides?

Great Dixter’s Long Border is a mixed planting of trees, flowers, ferns, climbers, grasses, shrubs and bulbs against a backdrop of box and yew. Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

It was Day 6 of our weeklong symposium at Great Dixter House & Gardens, a six-acre garden in Northiam, East Sussex, celebrated for decades as a fount of experimentation and creativity. While at first glance Great Dixter might seem to be a typical English cottage garden, it is far bolder and iconoclastic, breaking conventions of color, harmony and symmetry in favor of clashing palettes, unexpected plant combinations and constant change.

Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter’s head gardener, won the English gardening world’s highest accolade, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honor, in 2019.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Mr. Garrett, 55, Great Dixter’s head gardener, has inherited and expanded the work of Christopher Lloyd, the English gardening legend who put Great Dixter on the map. Gardeners, horticulturalists and students from around the world have for years sought out this rural corner of southeast England to explore the ever-varying plantings in the multiple gardens within the grounds. In recognition of his worldwide stature, in 2019 Mr. Garrett won the English gardening world’s highest accolade, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honor. He teaches virtually every hour of the symposia, usually offered four times a year and booked up far in advance.

When Covid-19 struck in the spring of 2020, Great Dixter shut down both its educational programs and public admission to its house and gardens. The gardens reopened in June 2020, operating at reduced capacity with timed-entry tickets and is now fully open, though tours of the house remain limited. The last weeklong symposium was in March 2020. One is scheduled for Oct. 30; dates for next year’s sessions have not been fixed.

I attended in Sept. 2019, and it felt as though I, an amateur gardener who helps tend a small community roof garden in Manhattan, had wandered into a Ph.D. course. My classmates, an exceptionally congenial group, were all far more experienced than I; they had traveled from all corners of England, the United States and New Zealand and included, among others, professional garden and landscape designers, a practicing barrister (and several lawyers-turned-gardeners) and a gardener who spent her spare time accompanying world-renowned horticulturalists on trips like a trek to the mountains of Yunnan to identify plants.

The garden is built on the principle of “succession planting,” meaning there is almost year-round bloom.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times
A yucca plant blooms in the Long Border in the fall.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Many had greenhouses, cold frames, potting sheds, substantial acreage and a daunting ability to identify virtually any plant with its Latin genus name. I had a handful of teak and faux-terra cotta plastic containers, no indoor storage and plant knowledge confined to the few hardy specimens that could survive the strong wind, harsh sun and freezing winters of our co-op’s 16th-story roof — but also a consuming passion for a garden that has proved an oasis.

Our curriculum included succession planting (a core principle of Great Dixter that involves planning a garden that will bloom year-round or close to it); designing with plants and laying out a border; meadows; soil composition; plant propagation; staking and composting; vegetable gardening; and garden scheduling and maintenance. There were two field trips — to Sissinghurst, the noted garden of Vita Sackville-West, the poet, novelist and lover of Virginia Woolf; and the private garden of Charlotte Molesworth, an artist who carves fantastical shapes in her topiary garden in the Kent countryside. While Dixter is in the heart of 1066 country, a short drive from the enticing coastal towns of Hastings and Rye, the symposium’s packed days and nights left no time for local touring.

More than any specific subject matter, Mr. Garrett teaches how to take in a garden with new eyes — looking past flowers to the shapes, color and texture of foliage. Seeing beyond one season to what will bloom in the next. Composing views through tree limbs or under leaf canopies. Searching out contrasts in height, shape and palette. Imagining a garden in layers that rely on a deep knowledge of when plants will bloom and wither. If designing a garden is much like painting, then Mr. Garrett is calling attention to the background as much as the foreground, his anatomy of a garden like a curator’s label in a museum highlighting what might otherwise have been missed.

Our days at Great Dixter began after breakfast at 8:30 a.m. sharp, when we were driven the short distance from a local hotel to the entrance gate. Most mornings, we wandered around the gardens without the crowds, savoring the quiet and the golden light. Then Mr. Garrett would appear and sweep us along on his rounds, explaining his gardening principles as he took stock of the several gardens within Great Dixter.

Japanese anemones in bloom in the Long Border.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times
The Solar Garden showcases Great Dixter’s layered approach.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

One morning, he walked us through Dixter’s famous Long Border, a vibrant “mixed border” of trees, flowers, ferns, climbers, grasses, shrubs and bulbs, against the backdrop of arches carved from box and yew. He stopped, frowning, at a barren spot that had been vibrant in the summer. The next morning, we returned to assess the new planting, one he suspected did not work and might need to be rethought. Each year, he replaces 80 percent of the Exotic Garden, a former rose garden he and Lloyd tore out in favor of an experimental garden that includes plants from the tropics that must be carefully dug up and housed indoors to survive even the moderate winters of England. Another day we trooped to the Wall Garden, where he spotted a void, replaced the next day by what he deemed a success — a variegated pampas grass that would provide structure well into the winter.

He taught through repetition, first taking us through the physical garden, then showing slides that illustrated his commitment to succession planting: how the same area could be designed to provide visual interest in every season. He begins with focal points like yuccas, conifers or elders — plants that will survive as long as possible throughout the year. Then he adds layers — a planting of snowdrops blooms in February in England, primroses flower in spring, and smallspike false nettle lasts through the fall, with the browned remnants of teasels providing shapes even under a dusting of snow. He prizes movement, contrast and emotion, designing for undulation by wielding the brush of color, shape and height.

This kind of design requires meticulous planning and a thorough knowledge of individual plants — how fast, wide and tall they grow; which ones will provide shade so another layer will thrive beneath them; which will make room or smother surrounding plants; how deeply or widely their roots will spread. Mr. Garrett likens garden design and maintenance to plotting a dinner party — what tasks need to be done ahead and what are last minute, how many hours required for prep (weeding, pruning, planting annuals) what ingredients you need and how well they will combine.

When inside, class convened in the Yeoman’s Hall in the main house, designed by the noted architect Sir Edwin Lutyens by combining two 15th and 16th-century structures with a new addition completed in 1912. The Yeoman’s had a fireplace, couches and a long table with hard chairs (the better for paying attention during the long days, we groused), decorated with simple bouquets from the gardens, including my introduction to a lovely cerise-pink droopy bloom colloquially known as kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

The long days of study were broken up by morning and afternoon tea breaks, lunch and dinner, with food largely grown or raised on the grounds, ample bottles of red and white wine, and desserts I failed to resist, including a cake studded with mulberries from Great Dixter trees.

Great Dixter resembled a bustling mix of garden laboratory and commune, centered around the charismatic, benign leadership of Mr. Garrett. In addition to a few students and the garden staff, there were young people, some formerly homeless or otherwise challenged, who have been taken under his wing to learn gardening or traditional woodworking.

The oast house, with its distinctive white chimneys, was used to dry hops for brewing beer. Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times
Looking towards the Great Barn. The estate was built starting in the 15th century.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times
A draw knife and shaving horse in the woodworking barn, where young people, some formerly homeless, learn traditional skills.Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

The woodworkers gather in a thatched 15th-century barn and wield hand tools to produce ladders, garden benches and hurdles, which are barriers strewn around the garden to keep out badgers and other pests. Great Dixter has its own nursery, meadows, woodland and farmland, and composts its waste in towering stacks, later sterilized in-house to prevent weed growth. Visiting scientists conduct biodiversity audits and have counseled Mr. Garrett not to clear away some decaying tree stumps because they serve as nesting grounds for the rare solitary bee.

The camaraderie was infectious, and we students often ended our long days with late-night talks over drinks, where we hashed over what we’d learned, swapped pictures of gardens as others do of children, and began plotting how to tear up and reimagine our own plantings. Then we collapsed into bed to rise early enough to savor the full English breakfast and embark on the next topic.

There was staking: Garrett demonstrated the proper way to stake plants for support, essential in a public garden like Dixter that is always on display and extremely useful in environments like mine, buffeted by heavy wind. We practiced clove hitches to connect bamboo stakes and learned to position them under leaves and behind stems, the better to hide them.

There was soil analysis: Consulting our multipage handouts, we watched as Mr. Garrett mixed Dixter soil with additions like bark, grit and organic matter to maximize drainage and spur growth. We followed along as he decoded the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium optimal for which plants.

Those in the group with land to spare wanted to create meadows scattered with wildflowers. So Mr. Garrett and a senior gardener, Graham Hodgson, explained the need to first blanket them with hay or black plastic for two years to kill weeds, then put off mowing long enough so that the flower seed heads spill into the earth. It was mowing season, and the gardeners were cutting the flowers and grass “down to the knuckle,” as Mr. Garrett put it, to allow new growth.

On our last day, our knowledge was put to the test. Garrett divided us into two teams to design borders in a full sun environment. We nominated and eliminated plants to serve as the anchors and the under-layers, sorting through which needed sun, the length of their growing seasons, how many we needed in each segment, and whether our design provided enough contrast in height, foliage and color.

Mr. Garrett approved our attention to contrast and seasonality, but noted that both group’s borders were over-packed with plants and did not deploy enough movement or strategic use of color or shape to pull the eye through them. Then it was off to a friendly pub for a farewell dinner, where many from Great Dixter’s staff joined us for a laden table of roast beef, roast lamb, chicken with dressing, Yorkshire pudding and enormous portions of sticky toffee pudding, apple crumble or ice cream.

We rose the next morning, bracing for a return to our real lives. But first, a few of us drove back to Dixter for an early meander through the gardens before they opened to the public. There I gravitated to one of my favorite spots, the Barn and Sunk gardens, set against the distinctive white chimneys of the oast house, where hops were dried in preparation for brewing beer.

In the soft light, I tried to look with my newly trained eyes, noting the outline of the espaliered pear trees against the whitish spots on brick; the deep burgundy of the dahlias Christopher Lloyd championed; the wide, bold reddish-green banana leaves next to the delicate purple asters (known in England as Michaelmas daisies). I closed my eyes and savored the sound of birds; I opened them to watch butterflies alighting on the riot of flowers. And then I turned to leave.

Susan Chira is the editor in chief of The Marshall Project and a former New York Times reporter and editor.

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