June 9th, 2022 (for May 29th)
I am writing this from Heathrow Airport on the back of an exotic plant list from Dixter and will type it out when I get home – the muscle memory of keystrokes will hopefully release me from any need to think deeply upon its contents. This should be exceptionally freeing after a week of drinking from a firehose at the Great Dixter Spring Symposium.
I have no hope of being concise or focused. This afternoon I am awash in thoughts; and as they are mostly of a horticultural bent, and everyone reachable by text is still asleep in the States on a lazy Sunday morning, and you have expressed such persistent interest in English gardening, I will struggle to capture my profundity with a cheap retractable and six sheets of slightly grubby A4. Thankfully Fergus Garrett’s slide lists aren’t as paltry as the one you handed out when we first met in Youngston, Ohio in 2017. I should have plenty of room.
Plants and their people aside for the smallest of moments, I must first remark on my present surroundings – the main concourse at Terminal 5. The people watching is top-notch – better than it’s ever been – as most people no longer people watch and are thus no longer aware of being observed themselves. Including myself I suppose. T5 is relatively new (in the same way that you and I are relatively young), and is open and light-filled – massive windowed ceilings reach up to the Heavens. There is so much potential here, the air fairly drips of it.
Every single one of these people [and here is where I move to the second sheet of A4] is going somewhere. Heaven or hell, who knows, but for a short moment in time we all share this teeming space, all searching for an empty plug to charge 13 separate devices for the long flight ahead. Perhaps we consider a last meal at Wagamama’s (hopefully not literally) or a glass of something fortifying, or a splurge on a bit of Duty Free. I just met a Canadian couple who have been traveling for 34 hours and still have five more to go before the pleasures of Florence can be laid bare to them. They are firing their travel agent when they get home.
The wide halls smell of expensive perfume and anxiety. Upon arrival two hours ago, I turned up Sidney Bechet on my earbuds and wandered those halls with intent, five hours to kill before boarding a plane for DC.
Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Fortnum & Mason’s. I wonder what it would be like to walk into one of these sparsely furnished stores in my jeans and once expensive, now shabby, work boots, and announce in a strident American accent, “Hey! You! I’ll have that blouse there. Ship it back to the States at once you little underling. And don’t look me in the eyes when you’re about it either.”
Makes me giggle to think of it.
In the end I settled for a cheap liter of fresh Pimms to bring a bit of the Chelsea Flower Show back to Michael. He’d prefer a 16-year-old bottle of Lagavulin I’m sure, but I’m tired of searching for ancient bottles of Pimms on dusty, small town liquor store shelves. His precious aged whiskey is all the better for such treatment.
As Michele will no doubt tell you, Pimms goes off (though the liquor store owner will insist that it doesn’t). And when you go to the trouble of mixing up a pitcher of it and sourcing all the condiments (mint, strawberry, cucumber – lemon if you must), it chafes to find yourself sipping the contents of your Aunt Edna’s medicine cabinet instead.
[And here we move smoothly onto page three of Fergus’ excellent slide list and thoughts of Chaemerops, Eupatorium and Arundo donax.]
There’s a sadness in jazz clarinet, and ashamedly, I indulged in the feeling for the first hour in this cavernous terminal. It’s been too long since I traveled abroad; and though anxious to return home and see my ‘Buff Beauty’ rose against a newly black fence, or the last of my single seedling peonies before they went over, or indeed, relieve a long-suffering Michael of his painful watering duties, I don’t want to leave.
I want to get into a car (the trains were crowded and terrible) and go visit Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes in their glorious Welsh garden – sipping red wine deep into the night as we discuss the ins and outs and ohs of the UK garden scene, and the crowds and kingmakers at Chelsea.
So. Much. Botox. And that was just the men.
I want to see Keith Wiley’s garden, Wildside, in Devon as I am so curious as to whether he has been able to finish his canyon project since I visited four years ago. I want to spend more time contemplating the sedums and mosses and spleenworts that gently bandage a Cornish landscape once flayed alive by copper and tin mining; a soulful place where an old university friend paints epic landscapes and drinks exceptionally fine Burgundies.
One can toss a stone in any direction in Cornwall and hit a decent garden. That sweet Gulf Stream is at its sweetest there. This trip I visited the subtropical collections at Lamorran Gardens for the first time. It’s a 40 year old private garden with Italianate themes that apparently houses the most northernly [outdoor] collection of palms and tree ferns in the world. Four acres and cleverly put together on a fully sloped lot with treasures such as the black stemmed Dicksonia squarrosa. I was extremely impressed by the garden, but I have to admit that the static, solid nature of the collections would make me restless. That probably makes me a terrible person – I’ll have to discuss it with Anne Wareham. Wonderful views of the sea.
And in terms of staying, of course I want to stay studying at Dixter for at least the next year, hiding myself amongst the international cadre of young interns and Dixter/Chanticleer scholars. Perhaps I could pass as the cool aunt figure in the corner with a mysterious past?
[Fergus’ list continues onto page four — Ailanthus altissimma (!), Acer negundo and Paulownia tomentosa stooled for foliage and color. (Three of my least favorite trees.)]
I say “of course,” but of course there is no of course about it for you, so I will endeavor to explain – which is why I started this rambling chicken-scratched note before I was distracted by Sidney Bechet and a bottle of Pimms.
As I mentioned in my last letter to you, I spontaneously grabbed a cancellation spot on one of the four seasonal symposia that are held and have been held at Great Dixter for just under two decades now. As you stubbornly refuse to commit to memory the achievements of Beth Chatto and other great British garden writers – or see any relevance to your gardening – I cannot expect you to remember that Great Dixter was the Sussex home and garden of Christopher Lloyd – a writer, lecturer, and gardener whose work made a huge impression upon me fairly early in the game. After his death in 2006, the symposia were continued by his Head Gardener Fergus Garrett, who now oversees the charity established at Dixter, about an hour and a half south of London.
In any case, for 10-12 lucky attendees, symposia are intensive study weeks, and no two are alike. Depending on the time of year you may find yourself covered in waterproofs, clenching a pair of pruners between frozen fingers, and facing off with a precious heirloom shrub, having been carefully instructed in Dixter pruning techniques how not to screw it up. Or you may find yourself sitting in a 15th century Yeomans’ hall with a blazing fire listening to nine hours of lectures frequently interrupted by trips outside to witness Slides 235-259 happening in real time.
[Speaking of slides, it’s about time to move to page five. Phormiums featuring heavily here.]
There is wine involved. And gorgeous food. And that fire. And more lectures and tours of other gardens such as Prospect Cottage, and Sissinghurst (ah the new Delos design by Dan Pearson!) — and there is a day at the Chelsea Flower Show. I’m actually feeling uncomfortable relating the full raptures of this trip as I am not a cruel woman and you can be ridiculously fragile sometimes.
“Ah, but!” you say, regaining your composure. “But!”
I can hear the deep Midwestern cynicism, and your righteous protestations. “How,” think you, “can feasting on such English ambrosia possibly be relevant to me, Scott Beuerlein, a creature of Cincinnati, battling a climate that wants to kill me at least twice a year? What use have I for medieval fireplaces, much less their fires, and 343 slides on laying out a border that will only beg for sweet death in August?”
Because it’s not about the WHAT Scott. It’s about the HOW. A way of planting. A way of approaching design – of playing with plants and creating garden within nature. And not just the plants featuring on the back of this letter, bathed in Gulf Stream currents and spoiled beyond measure. It’s your plants. It’s my plants. It’s the creatures we live with and the regional cycles we can observe, unlock, and in which we can participate.
It’s a way of seeing the world. And it has long since morphed from Christopher Lloyd’s vision to one that is uniquely and playfully Garrett’s. Pray God I bring this energy and awareness and deep love of place back to my little bit of this beautiful planet tomorrow morning. I thought I knew what Dixter was, but I didn’t.
[You will be happy to know I have moved onto the last sheet of A4 at this point. Page five was a complete disaster of cross-outs, but I got there in the end. Meanwhile, Pinus patula, Fatsia japonica, Daphniphyllum macropodum, Trochodendron araliodes all making an appearance on page six…]
There is so much more of course, but I will leave it for now and send you on to [fellow attendee] Leslie Harris’ podcast in a couple weeks’ time when we’ll be debriefing whoever has the stomach to listen to us ramble on over the minutiae of it all. We tend to laugh a lot, so there’s that to be stomached too.
Besides, after six pages of writing, and scratching out, and re-writing, I can’t imagine I have made any sense at all. How on earth Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle wrote 4,354,323 letters to each other over their lifetimes armed only with quill and courage I do not know. I’ve only written six pages and I feel like I have climbed Everest. It’s more precious than my passport at this point.
Speaking of which, I nearly missed my plane right there, messing around in the main concourse with pen and paper and jazz clarinet when I should have been on an underground train being whisked to my gate. Made it by a gnat’s whisker. Time for a well-deserved gin and tonic with my terrible airline meal and then back to the wilds of my stream valley and all the little demons and angels that await me. Will I manage to bring Dixter with me? God I hope so.
Tell Michele she was thought of often by the fire. She would have loved it.
P.S. I highly recommend a laptop-less existence occasionally. Definitely the right thing to do on this trip, even if the scope and integrity of this letter suffered deeply by it.