The Eclectic Gardener: an interview with Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter
by Pauline LAVAGNE d'ORTIGUE
The gardens at Great Dixter, in East Sussex, are often quoted as the epitome of English plantsmanship. They were originally designed in 1910 by Edwin Lutyens, who started planning New Delhi shortly afterwards. What also makes these gardens very special is that year after year, they have been lovingly re-planted by their original owners, Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd, and then more famously by their son, Christopher Lloyd, in close collaboration with Fergus Garrett, his head gardener.
Each Spring, Summer and Autumn, the bold experiments in colour and form in the topiary, the mixed borders, the exotic garden and the meadows attract horticulture enthusiasts from all over the world.
When the charismatic Christopher Lloyd passed away in January 2006, Fergus Garrett took the helm, with just as much charm and enthusiasm, in order to keep these extraordinary gardens alive and open to the public.
. Why and how did you choose to become a gardener?
It was accidental, I have always enjoyed outdoor life and have been close to the land but I wanted to farm more than anything. I went to college to study agriculture (at Wye College, University of London), became disenchanted with it and swapped courses to study horticulture. My grandmother was a great gardener, so it must have been in my blood.
. What are the most interesting/surprising/influential experiences you have had in your training and your work since?
First of all working for a Local Parks Authority in Brighton, to see green spaces in the landscape coming under real pressure.
And then my fabulous tutor Tom Wright at Wye College, who was an inspirational figure to many a student.
And then the brilliant Beth Chatto, who was so knowledgeable and creative.
And then above all Christopher Lloyd, who not only showed me how to act in and around the garden but also was so free with plants and ideas. He was a free spirit, experimenting all the time and pushing the boundaries.
. How did you first come to work at Great Dixter ?
I was in between jobs and Ken Rawson a garden designer who was a great friend of Christopher Lloyd suggested that I should work for him. I had known Christo for several years and then ‘hey presto' he asked me to become his head gardener. One of the first things Christo and I did together was to rip out the rose garden and plant it up with tropical plants.
. People often say that there can only be one cook in a kitchen. Does this apply to a garden as well ?
Christopher Lloyd and I worked very closely together, and because we had a common goal and a respect and love for each other it worked exceptionally well. Everything was discussed and everything was out in the open. He was a grandfather figure, as well as a father, a teacher, a mentor, best friend, and an employer.
Having said all this I never forgot whose garden it was - he was the boss.
. What is quintessentially British in the gardens at Great Dixter? What is not?
It's difficult to capture what is a British garden because they are so varied. Of course Dixter is romantic, and lovely, and cottagy, and has roses and lavender and meadows and all that but it is also unique and has its own character. It's a very dynamic place that is full of contradiction- it's modern but yet ancient, it's formal but yet very informal. It certainly is dynamic, and experimentative, and exciting. Great Dixter is full of atmosphere and spirit-its own individual spirit.
. How does one relate to continuity and change when working in a garden which has such an outstanding history?
The structure and history has to be respected but, the garden has always been dynamic and has changed and evolved and it is essential that it continues to do so. It shouldn't become a fossilized museum where everything is static but on the other hand it shouldn't change for changes sake. Plants and borders change for improvement sake - just as it has always done.
. How do you preserve a plant collection such as Great Dixter's clematis collection for instance ?
We only keep plants if they are earning their keep and not in order to keep a collection.
. Seeds and plants are one of the oldest items exchanged on a global scale. Where do you get yours?
The Dutch are a main player for mass production but we are not users of mass produced items. Of course we do get plants from wholesalers but they are usually the smaller specialist types. There are new and good plants being discovered or produced all over the place - USA, Holland, Germany, the UK.
These are made available to us through nurseries and inspirational people like Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers in the UK, John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries in the UK, Michael Wickenden of Cally Gardens, Scotland and Dan Hinkley formerly of Heronswood in Seattle.
We not only want these new plants in our garden but we also want to use them well and grow them in the right place.
But on the whole we get plants from absolutely everywhere - from specialists to village sales. You are always on the lookout. The Royal Horticultural Society's Trials which take place at Wisley is a also good place to get ideas.
We also exchange plants and like to share them with people and will continue to do so.
. According to you, what and where are the most interesting specialised plant collections in the world today?
The ones in the wild - we must preserve wild habitats as much as possible. I come from Turkey and find it very sad what has happened there with certain habitats that have been spoiled. The same in England, especially with the wildflower meadows.
. What are the most recent experiments in gardening and landscape design which have attracted your attention?
Although this is not an experiment or a trend or trendy, I have been fascinated by the Royal Horticultural Society's Floral trials at Wisley. It appeals to the stamp collector in me. I enjoy seeing plants side by side and working out which are the best ones. This is one of the most important work the RHS does. Also I have been fascinated by the recent work going on in the meadow gardening world.
. To what extent has global warming changed your work as a gardener ?
It has made me think about wasting resources - not only in the garden but everywhere. Everybody can do something to try and solve this problem and we all can play our part.
. Apart from the weather, what has changed most in your work in the last ten / twenty years?
I have been interrupted more since I have become better known. I have become slower as I have become older and I hope that I have become wiser. Certainly as I have learned more I have been able to pass on more - which is something I truly believe in.
For details, pictures, Great Dixter nursery's wondrous catalogue, articles by Christopher Lloyd & more, please visit: http://www.greatdixter.co.uk/