HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

WHEN A LEG­ENDARY GAR­DENER DIES, WHAT BE­COMES OF HIS OR HER GARDEN? ASK FER­GUS GAR­RETT, THE GUEST SPEAKER AT NOVEM­BER’S NELMAC GARDEN MARL­BOR­OUGH

NZ Life & Leisure - - News - WORDS LYNDA HAL L INAN PHOTOGR APHS C AROL C A S S E LDEN & AN­DREW MONTGOME RY

Lynda Hal­li­nan cel­e­brates Great Dix­ter, one of the great English coun­try gar­dens

“THERE ARE TWO last­ing be­quests we can give our gar­dens,” wrote the Ger­man poet and philoso­pher Jo­hann Wolf­gang von Goethe. “One is roots; the other, wings.”

Okay, I ad­mit to tak­ing lib­er­ties with Goethe’s quo­ta­tion, which orig­i­nally ap­plied to rais­ing chil­dren, for gar­den­ing has many par­al­lels with par­ent­hood. Some gar­dens, like some chil­dren, do as they are told. They’re well-be­haved and re­spect­ful, their shoeshine never scuffed, their hair neatly brushed. But oth­ers are rau­cous and re­bel­lious, caus­ing their par­ents qui­etly to rue their cre­ation. When it’s your own garden – or child – you can for­give them for showing off or oc­ca­sion­ally step­ping out of line. But what if you’re awarded full cus­tody of some­one else’s lit­tle dar­ling? What then?

Ask Fer­gus Gar­rett, head gar­dener at Great Dix­ter in East Sus­sex, home of the late, leg­endary Christo­pher Lloyd, and he’ll tell you to keep calm and carry on ex­per­i­ment­ing.

Christo­pher Lloyd, known to his friends and the hor­ti­cul­tural cognoscenti as “Christo”, was the orig­i­nal en­fant ter­ri­ble of English cot­tage gar­den­ing, a man who en­cour­aged hedgerow weeds such as cow pars­ley to rub shoulders with shrubs in herba­ceous bor­ders, but who, by his death in 2006, had evolved into an elder states­man, or at least a kindly ec­cen­tric un­cle, with Fer­gus as his pro­tégé.

Fer­gus, this year’s guest of hon­our at Nelmac Garden Marl­bor­ough, has now spent more than half his life at Great Dix­ter. He’s ac­cepted his late men­tor’s man­tle and is now fa­mous in his own right as an ad­ven­tur­ous plants­man, lec­turer and Chelsea Flower Show judge.

Fer­gus was a teenage hor­ti­cul­ture stu­dent when he first vis­ited Great Dix­ter, note­book in hand. He was in­vited back for one of Christo’s leg­endary week­end-long par­ties (imag­ine the Blooms­bury Set ar­gu­ing over bulbs and peren­ni­als rather than books and pol­i­tics) and their friend­ship mor­phed into a sym­bi­otic part­ner­ship.

There was never any doubt that he’d con­tinue at Great Dix­ter af­ter Christo’s death. “The garden isn’t the same, of course. But I think it has the same spirit and at­mos­phere and joie de vivre. There’s a fa­mil­iar­ity but it’s dif­fer­ent. Great Dix­ter was al­ways fluid, even when Christo was still alive. No garden should be set in as­pic.”

In high sum­mer, when the long bor­der – all 64 me­tres of it – is at its glo­ri­ous peak, it’s not unusual for vis­i­tors to burst into tears at first sight of it. “That seems to hap­pen when the garden is at its wildest,” says Fer­gus.

“It’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily mov­ing. But then oth­ers come here and say, ‘Oh my god, this is a mess.’”

He’s not ex­ag­ger­at­ing; flam­boy­ant gar­dens of­ten po­lar­ize the pub­lic. I took a tour group to Great Dix­ter in the early 2000s and, be­cause it’s within driv­ing dis­tance, we stopped at an­other of the UK’s finest gar­dens, Vita Sackville-West’s Siss­inghurst Cas­tle, on the way.

Siss­inghurst looked pretty enough that day but Great Dix­ter was fan­tas­tic, with a trop­i­cal bor­der of bold fo­liage and vi­brant flow­ers. I loved it, but some on our tour were openly hos­tile to its clash­ing colours, es­pe­cially when they spot­ted the caster oil plant ( Rici­nus com­mu­nis, a nox­ious weed in New Zealand) sidling up to golden-striped can­nas. “We’re al­ways do­ing things peo­ple don’t ap­prove of,” ad­mits Fer­gus. “And, if any­thing, the garden has an even wilder look to it now.”

An equal-op­por­tu­nity plan­ta­holic, Fer­gus has a fetish for all things great and small. “I like plants with char­ac­ter and any­thing um­bel­lif­er­ous, but I don’t just like big, butch mus­cu­lar plants. I like soft lit­tle things too. If I gar­dened on a rock, I’d love to grow lit­tle alpines in the crevices.”

Are there any plants he just can’t stand? “In­deed,” he says, adding a sly aside, “and some peo­ple, too.”

The long bor­der at Great Dix­ter in June with the house as the back­drop.

Al­li­ums and Pa­paver com­mu­ta­tum ‘ Lady­bird’ run­ning through a bor­der.

CLOCK­WISE: A pot dis­play in Great Dix­ter’s walled garden, which changes once ev­ery three to four weeks; high­oc­tane au­tumn plant­ing in the high garden; the fa­mous porch of the 15th­cen­tury Great Dix­ter House; Fer­gus Gar­rett in front of a bed of Ammi ma­jus.

TH­ESE PAGES, CLOCK­WISE: Ammi ma­jus and Rosa ‘ Florence Mary Morse’ in the long bor­der; Fer­gus stak­ing on the long bor­der; the long bor­der in au­tumn with Rud­beckia fulgida deamii and Dahlia ‘ Fas­ci­na­tion’.

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