Gardening: Thinking outside the box at Great Dixter

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
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As a gardener with a passion for English cottage gardening, I just completed the trip of a lifetime, a weeklong gardening symposium at Great Dixter, the iconic 15th century estate of the late Christopher Lloyd, in East Sussex, England

The first day, our instructor, Dixter’s longtime head gardener and world-famous plantsman, Fergus Garrett, asked what we hoped to accomplish during our stay, and my agenda was to develop a road map for the new flower gardens I and other volunteers at the Rochester Older Persons Commission (OPC) will be planting this summer. And we spent the week learning the Dixter method of laying out a border for season-long color.

Tiny forget-me-nots are allowed to self-sow to form a thick carpet of soft blue from which tulips, such as the bright red, lily-shaped ‘Ballerina’ and alliums emerge to strut their stuff in spring.

Annuals and tender bedding plants, featured prominently throughout the gardens, are used to tie permanent plantings of perennials, trees and shrubs together. They fill in bare spaces and add color without competing with overwintering inhabitants — early blooming, short lived perennials, such as lupines and foxgloves, started in the nursery in summer are planted out in the gardens in early fall, so they become established and are ready burst into bloom at the end of May when the tulips finish their show. When their show is over, they are removed and the stars of the next act take the stage. Dahlias are a summer to fall favorite at Great Dixter.

Flowers you may have considered passe, such as marigolds, cosmos and bachelor buttons, are trailed among the flowering perennials, trees, grasses and shrubs to tie the look together and add color where needed. Christopher Lloyd eschewed traditional color blocking and planting in straight lines decades ago in favor of a more relaxed look that allowed for experimentation with texture as well as color.

The key element in the gardens of Great Dixter is contrast — size, shape, form and color are all part of the mix. And, instead of following the classic design of tall at the back, medium height in the middle and low in front in a border, Fergus Garrett mixes heights to create movement and added excitement. Gardens are often viewed from several angles and every position is taken into consideration. Fergus and Christo agreed, when it comes to interest, contrast of shapes rules over color. I got it and am ready to dig.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question, go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at

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