New Zealand-born Aaron Bertelsen is now responsible for the edible crops at this most quintessentially English country garden.
The Kiwi gardener growing edibles at the very English Great Dixter garden
“Every day I draw on what I learned from my grandfather in New Zealand, whether I am planting out seedlings a trowel’s length apart or striving for a perfectly straight row.”
Mention the great English garden of Great Dixter and most people think of the bold and exuberant ornamental borders in which the garden’s owner, great horticultural writer Christopher Lloyd, tried out his (at the time) revolutionary ideas about combining shrubbery and herbaceous plants.
“But Christopher grew vegetables too,” says Aaron Bertelsen, who grew up gardening with his grandfather at home on the west coast of Auckland, but who has worked at Great Dixter on and off for more than 20 years.
After seeing a story on Christopher in the British magazine Gardens
Illustrated, Aaron wrote to him from New Zealand to ask if he could come and work at Great Dixter as a volunteer. Christopher wrote back to say yes.
“I arrived in 1996 planning to stay for three months, but it turned into three years,” Aaron says.
Aaron then went on to train as a horticulturist at the famous Kew Gardens, before spending a few years working at the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens.
But in 2005 he returned to Great Dixter, becoming the official “vegetable gardener and cook” in 2007, responsible for growing edible crops in the vege plot first started by Christopher’s parents Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd who bought the 180ha Great Dixter estate in 1910 and raised their six children there.
“It’s pretty much as it was,” Aaron says. “The rhubarb here has been in the same spot since 1912.”
Daisy’s notebooks and diaries show that homegrown produce formed a major part of the Lloyd family’s diet. Christopher, who taught himself to cook after his cook died in the 1970s and who was famously hospitable, used to delight in producing meals featuring homegrown fruit and vegetables for himself and guests.
“He was a passionate cook,” Aaron says. “The vegetable garden was probably the only part of the garden he visited every single day.”
The kitchen garden at Great Dixter is open to visitors, but it is a working garden too, Aaron says. The beds might look suspiciously immaculate, with their perfectly straight rows (Aaron likes old-fashioned straight rows partly for practical reasons – he feels it lets you see where things are and so keep on top of the weeds – but mainly, he admits, because he prefers it aesthetically), but you can stroll through a hole in the hedge to see the less glamorous working end, with soft fruit growing in chicken wire cages and vast steaming compost heaps, smothered in pumpkin and squash vines.
Aaron has a list of 16 fruit and vegetable crops he wouldn’t be without, based on both his own experience and Christopher’s extensive notes, but he tries new things too. This year he is trialling a range of vegetables from Australian heirloom seed specialists The Diggers Club, and a sweet pea from New Zealand plant breeder Dr Keith Hammett (“which is absolutely charming”).
Harvest from the vege garden is used to feed visitors who attend one of the regular study days or public symposiums held at Great Dixter. After Christopher died in 2006, aged 84, such events began to be held as a way to cover the costs of the garden’s upkeep, Aaron says.
That means visitors are likely to see gaps here and there, as crops are harvested and eaten, Aaron says.
“But I think people would rather see a vegetable garden with half the rows eaten, than a perfect-looking one where the crops end up being composted.”
Aaron’s first book, The Great Dixter Cookbook, has just been released and is a collection of simple seasonal recipes – including some of Christopher and Daisy’s own – and practical gardening tips.
While growing and producing produce on the scale of Great Dixter takes space, energy and time, Aaron believes there are useful lessons here for every home gardener.
“You do not need a large plot or a lot of money to experience the pleasure of growing your own.”
Great Dixter’s Kiwi-born gardener Aaron Bertelsen: “My style of gardening is quite structural. I like good clean lines and straight rows of vegetables”.
Aaron as a boy at Agricultural Day at Waimauku School.