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'The most generous garden imaginable'

Europe » United Kingdom » England » East Sussex » Rye - 11 July 2012

all seasons in one day 17 °C

Today we had sunshine, showers and a riot - a riot of colour!

We journeyed, in a coach full of people "of a certain age" (like us), to Northiam, just off the road to Rye in the county of East Sussex - to the remarkable gardens of the late Christopher Lloyd.

If, outside your back door, you enter a jungle, or you have far too many plants stuffed into too small a place, or if you have flowers whose colours clash violently with those next to them, you'd be totally at home here at Great Dixter. It's a quintessentially English garden, gone mad!

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This was the family home of the highly educated, and some might say highly eccentric, gardener and author Christopher Lloyd. He died, aged 84, in January 2006. One of his two beloved dachshunds, appropriately named Dahlia and Canna, lives on and was evident in the plant nursery and a mosaic. Which of the two this was, I know not.

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His medieval house and its fantastic gardens are of such merit that they continue to be preserved and nurtured by his family's Trust and a bevy of gardeners. Although there are resident gardeners, they couldn't cope without the help of horticultural student volunteers. There's a photo below of a very rare sighting of one. Their tools and stuff are seen around the gardens, but the people themselves are usually hidden by foliage!

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Christopher Lloyd was one of the most liked and best-known horticulturalists in Britain - the gardening correspondent of The Guardian newspaper to the day he died and a writer of weekly articles for Country Life for over 40 years (we saw the neatly bound volumes weighing down shelves in his library). He and his gardens appeared frequently on television and he wrote countless books about mixed flower borders, shrubs and trees for small gardens, hardy perennials, gardening on chalk and lime soils, foliage plants, garden flowers from seed, and his favourite plant: the clematis.

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His house is almost as unique as his planting style. It was built in the mid-15th century and has the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country. New domestic quarters were added by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens around 1910, as was another wing made up of a c.1500 hall dismantled bit by bit in nearby Benenden and tacked onto the side of the enlarged house.

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But it's the exuberant gardens surrounding the house, which will delight and amaze the visitor. Just take a look at some of the photos below. Yew topiary is set amid carpets of meadow flowers and grasses. The grass is deliberately left long to permit wild flowers to seed. It's later cut and composted. A tapestry of mixed borders stuns you with crimson against orange against silver. It's a series of 'rooms', each different, each designed to bring a smile to your face. Alarming sometimes, the colours often don't fit the keen gardeners' familiar palette of toning hues. Christopher Lloyd was unconventional in that he mixed colours that you might not normally entertain!

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This is not a neat and tidy display garden. It's positively neglected in places, there are dead or dying trees and shrubs, and the plant nursery seems to be more a place in which to grow plants to put into this garden rather than to sell you to put into yours. The greenhouses seemed quite disorganised - just like anyone's at home .

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Formality hardly exists here - there aren't any neatly mown lawns. Instead, meandering mown paths guide you through an expanse of meadows and narrow paved paths run alongside the borders. Some of these lead to dead-ends, some pass a generous bench seat, others lead you to a horse pond with big fish and red waterlilies or a sunken garden stuffed to overflowing with water weed and pink waterlilies. Some are clearly intended to get you lost in a maze of vegetation. Everywhere are plants by the hundred, all pushed together in unfamiliar mixings and almost invariably with no sign of bare earth between them.

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You won't find labels on plants around the gardens either - the great man disliked them. It was, after all, his personal garden and he knew all the plants' names anyway. His attitude was that, if you wanted to know the name of a particular plant, you only had to ask one of the gardeners (assuming you could find one amid all the foliage). In the tiny shop adjoining the plant nursery, there's a characteristically opinionated, ten point notice in his own words, explaining why there aren't any labels. Not least is his point that it's easier for people to take them out of the ground and put them in their pocket or handbag rather than write down a plant's name in a notebook, thereby negating the point of putting a label there in the first place!

In the preface to his book "In My Garden"*, Christopher Lloyd wrote:

"I find it impossible to take either myself or anyone else too seriously. Gardening, like living, should be fun. It can't be, much of the time, but we can do our best to make it so."

Yes, Christopher, you did do your best at Great Dixter and, yes, your garden is fun!

*Bloomsbury Publishing 1993, ISBN 0 7475 16596

P.S. The title of this blog - a sentiment with which I totally agree - is actually a quote from another gardening writer, Anna Pavord.

Posted by Keep Smiling 03:25 Archived in England Tagged gardens england great_dixter

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