At Great Dixter in the golden light of a brilliant morning, three little boys traveled along the meadow path. A sweet summer mix of native grasses, yellow rattle, hawks bit and purple spotted orchids rose nearly as tall as the boys.
Suddenly, the red-capped chap in front set off toward parts unknown. “Come with me! Come with me!” Above the buzz of insects and birdsong, he yelled to his friends, “I’ve found a secret way!”
It was a beautiful moment at Great Dixter, as so many moments are.
Once upon a time…
Another boy roamed these paths, one who loved these flowery rooms so much that he spent the better part of his life within them. That boy was Christopher Lloyd, the effervescent son of Daisy and Nathaniel. He took an early shine to gardening, which his mother encouraged, and thank the Lord she did. As her precious Christopher grew into a worldly plantsman, his passion and skill inspired millions of keen gardeners to come and brighten the Dixter doorstep.
Allen Bush was one of those who came to call at Christo’s creaky gate.
To Allen, and to many others, Great Dixter is “hallowed ground,”one of “a few essential places in the world that anyone who holds a trowel must see.”
I could not go when Lloyd was there. I found him later in the library. His books are joyful things. In them, I can hear his voice. If you haven’t read these books, go on and buy them now—all you can afford. Begin with The Well-Tempered Garden (1970). Then go boldly through The Adventurous Gardener (1983). And then, take a deep dive into Foliage (1973). Keep reading until you’ve read them all. You’ll never lack something to do over winter while you wait for snowdrops.
Christopher Lloyd was a former college lecturer. He was also a vociferous advocate for the proper training of gardeners. Thus, it seems appropriate that Fergus Garrett, who rose to be Lloyd’s longtime head gardener, first met Lloyd during a visit to Dixter with his Wye College professor.
Once the student, Fergus Garrett is now the Jedi master of multi-layered succession gardening.
No matter how many accolades Fergus receives, he remains a rare gem, a mission-driven servant leader. Go to Dixter yourself and you may see, as I did when I was there, Fergus lugging hoses, herding sheep, sweeping paths and charming cats. Speaking of cats, Fergus stars in The Journey of Neil the Great Dixter Cat, a delightful children’s book based on a true story. Life at Great Dixter is rich material for storybooks.
Since 2006, with support from the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, Fergus and his giant mind maps have navigated Great Dixter through perilous times, yet Fergus still blushes when you pay him a compliment. He never fails to give Christopher Lloyd his proper due. During a Zoom call with the North American Friends of Great Dixter Fergus remarked, “Christo gave us the leg up to do what we do at a high level.”
One of Lloyd’s dearest hopes was for plants always to come first at Great Dixter and for people who love plants to come next. His wish has been fulfilled, and then some.
Great Dixter is, as Fergus says, “brimming with life and teaching and creativity.” But, the plants must and do come first. They drive everything, as does change. An ingrained proclivity toward playing with plants ensures that Dixter will always be the dynamic vibrant place it was in Lloyd’s day. The team’s willingness to completely re-think parts of the garden every season and year to year is exactly what enables students to learn how to achieve the exuberant Great Dixter aesthetic.
In essence, Great Dixter is a school for creative artists.
Each garden room is like a performance hall, where everyone is invited to step into the light and learn, even those of us who can manage only a very small trowel.
Let’s return to the adventurous preschoolers romping by the meadow.
They are Dixter’s early learners, participants in a Garden Explorers program, which Great Dixter’s Education Officer Catherine Haydock says is meant to “help young children and their parents and carers understand better about the natural world, biodiversity and gardening.”
On Thursday and Friday mornings, Garden Explorers and their grownups march through the gate well before the garden opens to the public. Catherine guides the children through a variety of creative activities that she hopes will inspire a deep love of the outdoors. You can keep up with their exploits through their Facebook page.
The first meeting of the Garden Explorers took place 13 years ago. Since then, Catherine has tried to guide the program in a way that “echoes the ethos of the garden and passes on the messages about biodiversity and sustainability going hand in hand with the beauty and creativity that are central to the way we work.”
A community has sprouted around the program, with five dedicated volunteers helping Catherine nurture the Garden Explorers. Catherine says, “It’s a wonderful thing to see the same people come back week after week and see the children learn and develop.”
Forward-thinking Fergus and his team are in full support of the program, which is no surprise. Fifty years from now, Great Dixter Charitable Trust officers may look back and see the Garden Explorers as Great Dixter’s most consequential educational program. How many gardeners will it exponentially grow? Might some future Charitable Trust officers be former Garden Explorers or parents of participants? Only time will tell.
Were you once, as I was, a Garden Explorer in everything but name?
I spent my early years toddling through Grandmother’s Kentucky garden. I remember when her orange daylilies were taller than me. I remember Aunt Mary teaching me to pinch petunias when I was three.
I’m still an explorer. At the age of 57 and a half, I participated in the week-long June Symposia course at Great Dixter. Every moment was pure gold, yet it was seeing those little guys running around like they owned the place that made me fully realize the gift I’d been given so many years ago.
This Rant is more than well-earned praise for Great Dixter.
It is a call for more gardeners to step up and start these weekly programs wherever they are lacking. You don’t have to have a preschooler in your life to support or start a program. Curriculum like Great Dixter’s is available through the International Junior Master Gardener® Program.
At the very least, invite a young family over to see your butterflies or help you harvest snap peas. Or donate some money to an appropriate non-profit and be sure to direct your donation toward early childhood gardening programs. As for me, I’m planning to volunteer to help the public preschools in my area get growing their own explorers.
The vision of children in a garden is indeed a wonderful thing.