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English garden tour continues with Dixter, Sissinghurst Castle

English garden tour continues with Dixter, Sissinghurst Castle

Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 8:02 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

“Of course your friends will all think it happened by itself. In which case it is time to make new friends.”
— Christopher Lloyd on gardening
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After a night’s rest at the luxurious Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells southeast of London, we (28 members of the U.S. Perennial Plant Association) boarded our coach for Day 2 of our English garden tour.
A light rain greeted us but did not dampen our enthusiasm, for we were to visit two of the most notable (formerly) private gardens in the British Isles.
Great Dixter is in the high weald of Kent a few miles off the English Channel. (No place in England is more than 70 miles from the sea.) The semi-maritime climate contributes to excellent growing conditions.
The magnificent timber-frame manor house at Great Dixter was built circa 1460. The great room in its center originally had no fireplace and was “heated” by an open fire in the middle of a dirt floor and smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.
The house and adjacent farm buildings, including an oast house for drying hops, fell into disrepair over the centuries, until they were rescued by Nathaniel Lloyd in the early 20th century. Noted architect Edwin Lutyens (lutch-ens) was engaged to design an addition. A similar ruined house was found some miles away, disassembled with all the framing marked, and it was worked so cleverly into the Dixter house that the whole appears all original. Lutyens also designed much of the hardscape around the home.
Along came Nathaniel’s son, Christopher Lloyd, who was destined to become one of the most famous gardeners and garden writers of the 20th century, while he lived as a bachelor at Dixter. I have long collected most of his books and this was our third visit to Dixter.
Alas, Christopher Lloyd died since our last visit, but his acumen lives on with Fergus Garrett, who keeps the garden going. The house and garden is administered under a private trust and open to the public on designated days.
We had a guided tour of both house and grounds, the latter led by Graham Hodgson, one of the gardeners, whose plant knowledge and expertise, particularly on the garden’s succession planting for year-long performance, was of interest to anyone who loathes color lapses.
Dixter was as magnificent as ever, maybe more so, and maintenance was precise. The famous long border was in fine fettle, even late in the season. Garrett’s mission is not to keep the garden static, but to continue to evolve it as Lloyd did, never hesitating to make changes but maintaining the character. It is almost as if Lloyd is still there.
Only a few miles away is Sissinghurst, administered by the British National Trust, and once the private garden of poet Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicholson. Both died in the 1960s.
The two teamed up at about the same time Lloyd was creating the Dixter gardens. They took a dilapidated small castle with its tall tower, refurbished it and built acres of gardens surrounding.
They were a perfect pair for the assignment. Nicholson was a capable draftsman and Vita a gardener extraordinaire. The property had all sorts of acute angles and no symmetry and Nicholson worked out hedges, avenues, walks and focal points so articulately that the obtuseness is almost unnoticable.
Meanwhile, Vita worked on the plant palette, including the most noted feature, the white garden, where no flower of any other color is allowed. Near it, we identified a few plants of Paris podophylla, the only ones we saw on the trip.
Since our last visit, 10 years ago, the maintenance seemed less ordered and a lot of bare soil was evident, a no-no in late August. I am not sure why, unless the National Trust has budgeting problems. I would not be surprised, given the sorry state of the socialist economy in Great Britain at the moment.
In the event, as the British say, the garden remains one of the premier horticultural attractions in England, particularly from the standpoint of garden design. The castle tower is open to the public and is just as the Nicholsons left it, including Vita’s writing room that overlooks her precious garden.
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(Re: the Lloyd quote above. Some years ago I had just finished a horrendous day of weeding. The temperature was in the high 90s and I was giddy from the heat by the time I had laborously hoicked some two truckloads of tree sprouts and other weeds. After a shower, some refreshment and rest, I was relaxing when a long-time friend of my mother’s and a sometime gardener showed up at the door and wanted a walk around the garden. I must admit it was pretty good in the late evening gloam, and she offered the obligatory oohs and aahs. As she left, she made one of the most astounding statements I have ever heard. Quoth she: “Well, you are so lucky here. You just don’t have weeds.” She was serious.)
Next: And the show goes on.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 9.27.11

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