As a student gardener on the Historic and Botanical Garden Training Programme (HBGTP), I’m very fortunate, not only because I get to work in such a beautiful and inspiring garden as Sissinghurst, with a wealth of extremely skilled and knowledgeable gardeners, but also because I get to visit, and sometimes work in, lots of other beautiful and inspiring gardens too, meeting and working alongside a hugely varied pool of students, gardeners, volunteers and, of course, head gardeners.
Since starting the programme in September 2014, I’ve worked at Hidcote in Gloucestershire, Great Dixter in East Sussex and Parham House in West Sussex as well as visiting a whole host of other gardens during my residential study blocks, based at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. These include Rousham House and Garden (my favourite so far), Waterperry, (where Vita’s Head Gardeners, Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger, trained), Oxford Botanical Garden, Beth Chatto’s Garden, Kew Gardens, Audley End… the list goes on! As you can imagine, choosing one to focus on is a tough call. So I’ve decided to focus on our neighbouring garden, Great Dixter, where I was kindly allowed me to work alongside the gardening team earlier this year.
To have one great garden relatively close to where I live in Hastings is pretty good luck, I think. To have two could be seen as greedy! Great Dixter is just 12 miles from Sissinghurst and like Sissinghurst is a high maintenance, show stopper of a garden. Home to Christopher Lloyd and now under the stewardship of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust and Christopher’s friend and head gardener, Fergus Garrett. With tall yew hedges, garden rooms with mixed herbaceous and woody plantings and nearly all the plants in the garden being propagated and raised on site, there are many similarities between the two gardens. But there are also many differences. While Sissinghurst’s garden rooms have a restrained colour palette and an understated elegance, Dixter is, by contrast, a riot of colour and exoticism.
Arriving at Dixter on a misty Tuesday morning in early April, I’m greeted by Rachel and Graham – two of the more senior gardeners. Fergus, the head gardener, is away in Turkey and will be returning later in the week. I’m introduced to Maria, one of the newer gardeners who will take me under her wing, and quickly slip in to the daily Dixter routine – sweeping the paths before opening. I meet many students from all over the world – Japan, China, the Netherlands – all sweeping and contemplating the day ahead.
After sweeping, Maria and I are joined by some volunteers and together we weed under the yew hedges at the front of the house, being careful not to walk on the long grassy meadows either side of the main path. We thin the cow parsley that has self-seeded under the hedges and try to decipher wanted and unwanted seedlings. I quickly realise that weeding at Dixter is a much slower process than at Sissinghurst. Every seedling has the potential to be something. Crocus tommasinianus, which is considered a weed at Sissinghurst due to its quest for world domination, is, at Dixter, allowed. I learn this after pulling out a few, but console myself in the knowledge that it will replenish its little army in the blink of an eye. Some weeds are universal enemies, at least when it comes to being sited under a hedge – ivy and brambles are a definite no-no and are yanked out, no questions asked. Others are little treasures that take me by surprise – a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) has decided that the foot of the hedge offers perfect growing conditions. Who am I to argue?
The following day, I have a treat in store. A lunchtime trip to a nearby secret location to view wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in a clearing in the woods. We bundle into a car and scoff our sandwiches on the way, full of horticultural anticipation. A short car journey and walk through the woods later and I’m standing in a recently coppiced clearing absolutely chock-a-block with wild daffodils and wood anemones. It’s a breath-taking sight that my photographs do not do justice to.
It’s Thursday and Fergus is back. In a way that is difficult to describe, the energy changes and things feel suddenly urgent and exciting. After the daily sweep, Fergus allocates us all with jobs. Maria and I are planting Papaver somniferum (Opium Poppy) ‘Danish Flag’ in the Peacock Garden and Consolida (Larkspur) ‘Sublime Lilac’ in the Orchard Garden. After a quick lesson in good planting technique and layout, we get to work on the poppies. ‘Danish Flag’ is bright red with a white cross centre (no surprise there) and fringed petals. It’s a bold look, to say the least. To achieve a natural planting style, we run the poppies through the existing planting, concentrating the plants in one large corner of the bed and then gradually planting thinner and thinner as they radiate out diagonally across the bed. A piece of bamboo cane is used to jack the cell tray up allowing easy access to the plants with a second piece of cane to poke them out and decant them into a seed tray. A good method for quick bulk planting.
Consolida ‘Sublime Lilac’ goes in next in the Orchard Garden where it runs around past Phlox paniculata ‘Norah Leigh’ – a striking variegated leaved phlox with pale pink flowers – and bold, architectural Cynara cardunculus. I imagine the bed at full height in the summer awash with pale pinks, purples and lilacs, all held in by fat box and yew hedging. It’s quite a scene.
Later in the day I help in the nursery, making space in the cold frames for the young plants raised under glass that will soon need hardening off. I’m amazed by the amount of plants produced given the very limited glasshouse space and still don’t quite understand how they manage it.
The next day is my last and I finish by spending time in the nursery, this time pricking out seedlings and potting them on into Dixter’s home-made potting compost. The compost is based on the John Innes formula. Sterilised loam, grit, composted bark, peat and fertilizer are the ingredients used. Turf is collected from surrounding fields which are cut, stacked and left to mature, before being tilled, graded and sterilised in the ‘Terraforce’ – a machine which looks as scary as it sounds. It’s a lengthy process and is certainly not the cheap option, but the compost produced is black and crumbly with very good moisture retentive qualities, good drainage and is easy to re-wet. I find myself harbouring compost envy.
And so the time comes to say farewell. I’ve met some truly wonderful people while I’ve been at Dixter and have learnt so much about their gardening methods. It’s difficult to leave a place this inspiring, but then I remember… Sissinghurst!