Fergus Garrett and his infectious enthusiasm

On Monday, during coffee break at Wimpole, it was noticeable that three people couldn’t stop talking. The conversation was fast and tumbling, with one person after another jump-starting from the last point. The topic under discussion was the talk given by Fergus Garrett at Girton College, Cambridge, for the Plant Heritage 4th annual Max Walters Memorial Lecture. And what a brilliant and inspiring talk is was. The reason for the subsequent energetic coffee conversation was because three people’s brains were still full to overflowing with new ideas and questions about the high maintainance garden that is Great Dixter and, of course, Christopher Lloyd’s legacy.

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The Long Border at Great Dixter. Photo credit: Carol Casselden

I’ve never been to Great Dixter in East Sussex, but I have promoted it to top slot for a visit next year. So I have no photos of my own of Great Dixter or even from the talk (it seemed rude to use a phone camera). There were several slides from the presentation that I’d really like to get my hands, like the hand-drawn diagrams Fergus used to illustrate border maintenance plans, sowing schedules and samples of real plants in a photo demonstrating the importance of plant canopy in successional planning. I spent Sunday googling images to see if I could find them anywhere, since I am sure that they are regularly used, but I draw a blank. I am fairly certain that Fergus spoke faster as the talk progressed, as his enthusiasm lead the way. His laser pointer moved so quickly that we only managed to catch up with it for brief periods. So Monday was also an opportunity to fill in the gaps for each other.

I’ve been wondering what to write about the talk, because I am sure that many keen gardeners out there have already read the books, visited the garden and know more about Great Dixter than me. But if you are lucky enough to have heard Fergus Garret speak, then I am sure that you will understand my current desire to discuss ‘intensive but comfortable gardening’ and to evangelise about colour combinations, bold forms, strong bones. In fact, the Dixter website is pretty extensive in its descriptions of the house, history, garden development and philosophy. There are also good online articles covering similar territory by Noel Kingsbury and Phil Clayton in The Garden. Plus there are some interesting blogs by some of the students who have trained there over the years, including Maggie Tran and Ben Pick.

Perhaps the best thing to do it to reproduce my scant jottings from the talk, which practically amounts to a plant list of some Dixter classics.

  • Dahlia ‘Moonfire’ – As seen in the Exotic garden against melianthus, cannas and banana (orange form of ‘Happy Wink’)
  • Photo of Christo’s brothers and sister – such long legs (except for Christopher).
  • Verbascum olympicum – mullein (which I love) with bells on … multiple branching candelabrums of yellow blossom. Allowed to seed around.
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The impressive forms of Verbascum olympicum. Photo from the Dixter website

  • Ferula glauca – Exciting plant! Giant fennel (3m), a glaucous-leaved version of F. communis. Distinctive yellow umbels. Great drama.
  • Slide of a stack Christo’s brightly coloured shirts contrasted against same colours laid out in plants about the border.
  • Erigeron annuus – Froth of white daisies … great slide of this with Amarathus ‘Autumn Palette’ (where it definitely enhances the look of the amaranthus)
  • Brilliant Yew ‘rooms’ – slide making them look like Great Wall of China lumbering up hills and round corners. (50 (8hr) man days of clipping – apparently still on-going)
  • Ladybird poppies – classic zingy poppy (Papaver commutatum)/Gladiolus communis byzantinus combination in the Barn garden
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Sorry to say I don’t know where I got this from. Apologies.

  • Bedding changed in Solar garden up to 3 times a year!
  • Geranium ‘Russell Pritchard’ – recommended for edge of border … seen flowering for >4 months on edge of Long border photos. Always looks good, if not the most interesting geranium.
  • Fergus chose not to live in the wonderful house at Great Dixter, but lets the students stay there instead.
  • Artemisia lactiflora – Tall froths of small white flowers seen with red orach, also with kniphofia and various other things … looks useful plant
  • Pot Display – constantly changing to allow different combos to be tested.
  • Dahlia Ann Breckenfelder – simple orange red with inner yellow collar (looks similar to D. Chimbarazo) again seen in the Exotic garden.

In conclusion, if you get a chance to hear Fergus Garrett speak, then grab it. You won’t regret it.

The Great Dixter plant catalogue provides great reading material. It is available online and as a paper copy.

Everyone I’ve spoken to since the talk says that they would fight for an apprenticeship at Dixter, no matter the hours and work, or even current commitments. That is some recommendation!

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About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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19 Responses to Fergus Garrett and his infectious enthusiasm

  1. I would love to visit. I have it on my wish list! The colour combinations are simply stunning. Thank you for a really enjoyable post.

  2. Sam says:

    My Christmas present a few years ago from my husband was a day at Great Dixter (a talk by Fergus, a lunch and a garden tour) which was the Best Present Ever. I absolutely loved it and have been a huge fan of Mr Garrett ever since 🙂 I’ve been back a couple of times and it never fails to inspire me. You must go as soon as possible!

  3. I went to a Gardens Illustrated reader event in July with Fergus and Anna Pavord. It was a little gift to myself. It was one of the best I have ever received. I regret that I never found the time to write about the day, but I recall it quite vividly …. and our notes would bear a startling similarity. You should go, and make a proper day of it. The pleasure of going on a day when the garden is normally closed is that I could really immerse self in it and think about what was planted where. It was a rainy day, but somehow that didn’t matter.

    • Ah yes, I imagine that it is rarely quiet, so that was a brilliant choice of present. One thing that struck me from the talk was the sheer volume of stuff that must get propagated there. Did you see those areas too, because that would really interest me?

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    Love your enthusiasm, Allison. It’s infectious – wish I lived closer!

  5. susurrus says:

    It’s on my to visit list too. Charleston is not that far away – I’d love to see both.

  6. lyart says:

    I’d love to be able to create anything nearly as beutiful as this garden seems to be.

  7. Great post and thanks for the links, I enjoyed a read through Ben Pick’s blog. The continuing story and success of Great Dixter is fascinating, thanks to Fergus Garret the gardens go from strength to strength. Maybe that’s because unlike many historically great gardens, GD enjoys the status/freedom of being an independent trust?

    • It is interesting to read the grassroot information and the students all seem to go on to do good things. Fergus has such energy and holds the core values safe. Long may that continue!

  8. Chloris says:

    I have heard Fergus speak on a couple of occasions, he is always inspiring. I went to Great Dixter in September and it looked wonderful. To be honest I think it looks better now than it did in Christopher Lloyds’ time.

  9. cavershamjj says:

    Am reading Well Tempered Garden at the moment. Would love to see the garden at some point. Enjoyed your post.

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