Friday, February 5, 2010

Fergus Garrett, the gentle keeper of Great Dixter

Fergus Garrett, the Head Gardener of Great Dixter, changing the bedding plants in the huge borders. East Sussex, England, 2006.
Yesterday, I visited Seattle's Northwest Garden & Flower Show mainly for one reason: to listen to Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener of Great Dixter, the house and garden of the late Christopher Lloyd. We were handed out an almost stressfully long list of pictures Fergus was going to show, but there was no need to worry: his presentation was an amazing voyage through the past and the present of Great Dixter, all delivered at an enjoyable pace. The storyline flowed lively from historical black and white pictures of the Lloyd family via glorious garden imagery from different periods of time, to touching, personal details about Christopher Lloyd, the legendary gardener and writer. Seeing Christopher's old, worn out shoes with his note to the housekeeper about getting them mended, or his letter in perfect handwriting, when he as 6 year old thanks politely for the Viburnum carlesii he'd got as a present, are details very seldom seen when these legendary gardens are written or talked about. And yet, they give such an intimate picture of their owners as personalities and human beings, adding an important layer to our understanding of their achievements.
Great Dixter during the hot, late days of June 2006. The ancient house with its steep roof and high chimneys forms an architectural background for almost every view of the gardens.
Fergus Garrett's presentation was a personal and sensitive account about the enormous responsibility of preserving a national cultural treasure like Great Dixter. Fergus gardens, lives and breathes Great Dixter, and he was a close friend of Christopher's, with whom he "gardened in the fast lane" for a long time. All of this I keenly felt when he talked. Preserving an estate as dynamic as Great Dixter, where experimentation always was a defining characteristic calls for a deep understanding of the place; it still needs to be Great Dixter, the garden of the legendary Christopher Lloyd, but at the same time, it can't be preserved in aspic. For not lose its heartbeat and become a living museum, it has to move with the times, keeping its experimental nature. As Fergus mentioned, Christopher Lloyd accepted no rules, no fads and no fashion: he never went for perfection, but for excellence, and there is a significant difference.
Osthouses for drying hops, an important function in the old days of Dixter.
Fergus talk was wonderful, personal and knowledgeable, and the pictures were a joy for the eyes of anybody who loves gardens. Christopher Lloyd's intensive, overblown cottage garden style on the grand scale is not everybody's cup of tea, Fergus said, but everybody who is knowledgeable about gardening must admire the talent and skill needed to create it. As he pointed out, many forget that Great Dixter is not only about the house and gardens so well-known from countless pictures, but also about a carefully balanced natural ecosystem of meadows, ancient woodlands with orchids and other rare native plats, all surrounding the great gardens, and all in need of care and consideration.

One of the long borders in late June 2006, with Allium christophii and Ammi majus in the foreground.
Christopher Lloyd's wonderful, witty and knowledgeable writing had made me love Great Dixter long before I first visited it in 2006. I walked along the paths and admired the scenes, so familiar from his books, but they were different: Christo was not there any more, he had died in January the same year. I felt like I had lost a friend, even if I had never met him. And that is what truly good writing does: it makes the writer and the reader to meet in the text: it is an intimate contact and dialogue between both participants, their thoughts and ideas. Christo was able to do that with his millions of gardening readers. As Fergus gently pointed out at the end of his speech, Great Dixter remains a living testament to Christopher Lloyd's life as a remarkable gardener and writer. And in Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter has a talented and gentle keeper, hopefully for a very long time to come.
My girls wandering through the stone paved paths of Great Dixter in 2006.

See also my previous post about Great Dixter, Meadows, meadows everywhere from July 2008.


Karen said...

You captured Fergus' lecture and garden styles so perfectly, and that picture of your sweeties in their summer whites is timeless - they could be the little girls of Great Dixter from long ago! Sorry you missed out on the second lecture, I wish I could have gone to all three, since he was doing another one today. What a guy. Lucky us!

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Det hade varit oerhört intressant att höra, jag har undrat just över tankar och idéer som föregått planteringarna - de följer inekligen inga inrutade trädgårdsplaner. Jag får hitta någon av CLs böcker, nu när du berättat att han också är en bra skribent. Tänk, jag bor bara en halvtimmes bussfärd ifrån...

Carol said...

I love reading about the lecture and seeing the gardens ... surely they are excellent... but your photo with your girls steals my heart. Precious! I wonder what they think of the topiaries? Beautiful photos!

Margaret Roach said...

I remember hearing Fergus and Christo lecture years ago on visits to the Northeast, and also visited them a couple of times at Dixter -- all good memories. Thanks for this post that brings it all back. What a friendship and collaboration.

Todd said...

Wonderful to come upon your blog! You may be interested in a BBC Garden Garden Illustrated podcast from this past September of Christopher Lloyd. Also of note are a few podcasts which can also be downloaded of Alan Titmarsch interviewing Beth Chatto, speaking lovingly of Lloyd.