Gardening: DIA lecture has Great Dixter head gardener

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

It’s been two years since I, along with my small but hardy band of enthusiastic volunteers, broke new ground in the Stone House Garden at the Rochester OPC senior citizens’ center. The gardens that surround the back patio and water garden were in need of a facelift and I was in search of a new place to dig. For me, it was a marriage made in heaven.

Having spent 20 years doing my own thing in my garden in the country, taking on a display in the city was a challenge. The grounds would be open daily for all to see so it needed to be weeded, watered and manicured throughout the season. But more important was coming up with a design that would be inspiring to those who view it through the third-floor windows of the building as well as those enjoying their lunch on the patio.

To learn the basics of developing a public garden with panache, I attended “The Art of Gardening,” a weeklong symposium with Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter in East Sussex, England.

When Christopher Lloyd passed away in 2006 and handed the reins of his world-renowned house and gardens of Great Dixter over to head gardener Fergus Garrett, he also gifted his legacy of change. While many of the famous gardens of England look much the same from year to year, the plantings of Dixter are in a constant state of flux, and change is the name of the game.

The key element in the gardens is contrast: Size, shape and form as well as color are all part of the mix. Rather than use the classic placement of tall at the back, medium height in the middle and low in front in a border, Garrett mixes heights to create movement and added excitement. And Garrett and Lloyd agreed that when it comes to interest, contrast of shapes rules over color.

To see the ever-changing gardens at Great Dixter and learn how to artfully update the design of your garden, don’t miss Garrett’s lecture at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

At 2 p.m. Oct. 15 at the DIA, the Friends of Art and Flowers will present the “Betsy Campbell Lecture: Great Dixter and Designing With Plants” by Garrett. The lecture is free with museum admission. To guarantee a seat, reserve your free ticket online at or through the DIA box office (313) 833-4005. General admission to the DIA is free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

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