Over to Brighton in the evening of the first day of April – the grey morning mist had given way to bright sunshine for what promised to be a lively evening: Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener at Great Dixter, in conversation with garden writer, author and journalist Anna Pavord.

With all of his usual verve and enthusiasm, Fergus gave us a ‘guided tour’ of Great Dixter, accompanied by slides, rapidly firing off plant names (which we hastily scribbled down), sharing with us precious memories of gardening with the late Christopher Lloyd.  Memorable slides: gourds grown on the towering compost heaps then stored in the bath, the emphasis on ‘change’, both throughout the year (the soft colours of the spring borders giving way to the later, vivid colours; the pot displays by the porch) and from year to year (the ‘experiments’ with different plants in the Exotic Garden); the slide of Christopher Lloyd’s neatly folded richly-coloured shirts echoed in the next slide of the vibrant colours of the Long Border!  He explained that, rather than opening the whole house up to the public in the years since Christopher Lloyds death, instead part is still kept private so that garden students can live there – “going to bed and getting up with the garden” – what a great picture that conjures up of going out early into the garden on a misty morning before anyone else is up and about.

Anna Pavord reminded us not to lose that feeling of pure joy in our gardening – not to be too tied to the “jobs that we need to bedoing this month” school of thought (a format which many articles in magazines and TV programmes seem to use).  She is absolutely right, of course – we can get so bogged down with what we are told we should be doing that we can forget to simply stop, look and enjoy all the sights, scents and sounds of our garden.  As she also observed , gardening is a fantastic way for us to express ourselves creatively and to, literally, make a better place, both for ourselves and to share with others.

Movingly, Anna spoke of the garden she had restored and created over 40 years in a  Dorset rectory and how hard it was to leave, finally, her family having grown up and it being time to move on.  As she said, it is neither the house nor one’s garden which is so desparately hard to leave but rather the wonderful memories of family life over the years – as those of us who have moved on and left our beloved gardens behind will testify to!

Anna urged us to think carefully about subsequent seasons when planning our planting (and quoted Christopher Lloyd, who said, scathingly but truthfully “any fool can make a spring garden!”)  Good foliage is of paramount importance and we should ask ourselves the question: What does it look like the rest of the year when it is not flowering?  For example, colombines have great foliage whereas tulips don’t!   It is almost like keeping a kind of relay race of growing, Anna continued, listing peonies and euphorbias as having good foliage – with any colours working very well against the lime green of the euphorbias.  She mentioned Dicentra ‘Stuart Boothman’ as having interesting foliage – similar to artemesia but stronger.  The beautiful leaves of Cyclamen hederifolium (which starts flowering in July) last year round.

Questions were taken from the audience and Fergus explained, in response to one, how it was Christopher’s mother, Daisy, who was instrumental in starting the ‘Dixter style’, such as bedding out annuals.  Christopher developed this further with his own unique, creative and free-thinking approach – juxtaposing wildly clashing colours, taking out Daisy Lloyd’s rose garden and replacing it with the glorious Exotic Garden.  Fergus spoke of how excited he is at present with meadow gardening and often takes a ‘detour’ via the meadow – just as he remembers Christopher doing via the Exotic Garden.  Anna was asked what she had underplanted her beloved ferns with – she recommended wood anemones, cyclamen and scillas.  To finish, Anna left us with a positive, still on the theme of leaving one garden and starting another,  namely that we should see the ‘loss’ of the one garden being offset by the opportunities presented by the new garden.  Interesting if the underlying soil is completely different, as in her case where she has moved from heavy clay to greensand – both nutritious and free-draining.  Finally, Fergus reminded us that we should try to use the landscape around the garden and merge the edges of the garden into that landscape – ‘so that the two shake hands’ – wonderful imagery!

Friends for over 20 years, they both spoke with such obvious passion – it was incredibly infectious and inspirational.

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