Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Exotic day at Great Dixter

It's been a busy weekend. First, I spent Friday in Oxford with my daughter. It was the university's open day, so we were looking at colleges and going to various presentations on a preliminary fact-finding mission - she won't apply until next year.
Saturday, having dropped daughter at home, I went back to Oxfordshire, to Woodstock to have lunch with friends and see their garden. (Gorgeous, but I forgot my camera.)
Sunday, I was at the Woodstock Literary Festival, held at Blenheim Palace, where I was interviewing Helena Attlee about her new book, Italy's Private Gardens. I'd been a bit nervous about it, but in retrospect, that seems silly because it was a dream assignment. The book is absolutely mouth-watering and Helena has an endless supply of stories and anecdotes, all equally fascinating, about her experiences and the people she met along the way. VP was there, and you can read all about it on her blog.
I hadn't intended to have such a busy time, because months ago I had signed up to do a study day at Great Dixter on exotic plants. Monday was the day, and here I was - knackered! I'd driven home down the M40 on Sunday in the usual bumper-to-bumper Sunday night traffic, and then set off for East Sussex (another two-hour drive) first thing Monday morning.
It is a huge tribute to Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett's lecturing skills that I did not fall asleep during the first session.
I arrived at Dixter at about 9.45am. It was a chilly, misty morning so I was delighted to be welcomed with a cup of tea in the Great Hall. Outside, the air smelt of autumn - damp leaves, wet earth and the seductive scent of woodsmoke.
We were ushered into the Benenden Hall, where the source of the woodsmoke turned out to be a truly baronial fire. Packs were provided for each student which included a list of slides and - hurray - a pencil. (Like most journalists, I never seem to have a pen when I need one.)
Fergus ran through the day's events. There would be slides and a lecture all morning, with a break for coffee, then lunch. After lunch, there would be a tour of the garden, including the glasshouses and cellars, followed by a detailed look at the Exotic Garden, and a practical demonstration. This would be followed by tea and a chance to buy plants.
I loved Fergus's lecture. He told us about the beginning of exotic planting at Dixter, and how he and Christopher Lloyd had been inspired by a range of influences, including the work of Dan Benarcik at the Chanticleer gardens near Philadelphia. Another inspiration was Ray Waite, the former superintendent of glasshouses at RHS Wisley, in Surrey.
Christo, said Fergus, wanted to take people "closer to the Equator", while he liked the idea of leading people into a Rousseau painting.
Next came the plants. Slide after slide of alluring specimens appeared, while my pencil raced across the page, ringing names and scribbling notes. If I tell you there were 326 slides in total, I'll probably put you off going on a study day at Dixter. But the lecture was so carefully structured that it didn't seem at all indigestible.
Fergus seemed to speak without notes (I didn't see any, anyway) and in a very informal manner, so while there was a definite logic to the sequence of slides (inspiration, plants, design philosophy, how to focus on a particular season, pruning, winter care and so on), these were sprinkled, like a glorious pot-pourri, with nuggets of advice.
In my notebook, there are instructions such as "Stool pawlonia in spring" and "Grasses don't like autumn disturbance" and "Never split dahlias and cannas in autumn" alongside observations such as "Christo thought Dahlia 'David Howard' was the best dahlia ever produced" (I agree!).
Supplementing these are comments such as: "'David Howard' looks good with white cosmos and Eupatorium capillifolium*" and "Label dahlias and cannas before the frosts hit the leaves, or you'll never remember which is which."
Fergus's design philosophy was wonderfully unpompous. All he was trying to do, he said, was to create a sub-tropical scene and if that meant including dwarf conifers, whose quirky character, he felt, fitted that space, then that was fine.
His major concerns were scale, and texture, and shape. Broad leaves should be balanced by feathery fronds and tall fountains of grasses and palms. Dark foliage should contrast with light, bright colours and vice versa. Plants should be "connected", so that tall specimens such as cannas should be the grand finale above a crescendo of planting, rather than suddenly erupting from a low carpet of bedding such as you see in the conventional public park-style designs.
It was wonderful to hear all this set out in a lecture. This is exactly the sort of thing that I try to do in my garden, and I found myself constantly nodding in agreement, much to the amusement of the man sitting next to me.
As someone who has a semi-sub-tropical garden, I was quite familiar with some of the plants. There were many others, however, I'd never seen before, and lots that I don't grow.
Here's a list of the plants I coveted. Many are tender, which means they're impractical for me as I don't have a greenhouse. I'm determined to get my hands on anything that's hardy, though!

Senecio petasitis - low-growing shrub (pictured left) with wonderful, big, round, green-grey woolly leaves. Tender.

Euphorbia cotinifolia - a euphorbia that looks like a cotinus, but without the height and width issues. Tender.

Manihot grahamii - tropical shrub that looks a bit like a schefflera, but with more exotically shaped leaves. Tender, tricky and rare.

Salvia confertifolia - wonderful big shrubby salvia (left) with red, velvety flower spikes the colour and texture of antique theatre curtains. Tender, which is sad because I absolutely love it. I'm tempted to push the envelope with this one. What is it they call it in the States? "Zonal denial"? I know just how that feels.

Arundo donax versicolor - a yellow variegated version of arundo. Looks fantastic popping up between cannas. Hardy. Yay!

Begonia luxurians - I have only ever seen this begonia, also known as the Palm Leaf Begonia, on sale at Dixter. It grows quite big, about 6ft, with leaves like slender green hands, and bears small white flowers.

Amicia zygomeris - hardy perennial, left, with dramatic leaves in a kind of notched shape. Clusters of strange pea-like flowers from August to November. Cotswold Garden Flowers stock it, I see...

Euphorbia x pasteurii - glossy green euphorbia a bit like E. mellifera, with small honey-scented flowers. According to CGF, it has spectacular autumn colour as well.

Pennisetum glaucum 'Jade Princess' - fabulous ornamental millet with really exaggerated fluffy seed heads, like a group of brown cats' tails rising above broad, chartreuse leaves. I think Fergus said this was tender but a quick sleuth around the internet shows that it's on sale in the UK, with no warnings about frost protection. Hmm.

Will I buy all these plants? Probably not, but it's great to be inspired by so many things I've never seen before. I shall certainly pay the Great Dixter nursery a visit at the end of June, when they've planted out the exotic garden and have "leftovers" for sale.

A view of the Exotic Garden at Great Dixter. The plant with orange flowers in the foreground is a busy lizzie, similar to the jewelweed impatiens. On the right is an alocasia, sheltered by hardy bananas, and on the left, a yucca flower spike rises up in front of a clump of variegated arundo and a canna.

Here you can clearly see Fergus's layered effect, with dahlias, palms and taros (I think) growing beneath cannas and bananas. Through them, like coloured threads, scramble Verbena bonariensis and the firecracker flowers of Mina lobata. At ground level, there might be chlorophyum (spider plants) or glossy farfugium, or begonias or even dwarf conifers.
Phew. I think that's enough for now, don't you? I'll do a second post, in which I have a delicious lunch and learn how to split dahlias.

*I understand that Eupatorium capillifolium, or dog fennel, is a pernicious weed in some parts of America. In England, we grow it as an annual, and propagate it by cuttings. I love it as it gives height, but not bulk. But then there's absolutely no chance of it running amok in London...