How often do you feel “passionate” about something? These days, the word gets thrown around with such abandon that it’s lost its meaning. However, it does perfectly describe a group of gardeners in the United States and Canada whose drive and sincerity rings out over the din of social media, whose genuine enthusiasm and authenticity are a tonic for our times. Who are these people? They are all former students of Fergus Garrett, the head gardener at Great Dixter in Sussex, England.
Great Dixter isn’t a college but it has lots of students, and is perhaps the most exciting place to learn about gardening right now. Several stateside alumni run highly-regarded plant nurseries, persevering against long winters and meteorological disasters. Others are gardeners in landscapes with a strongly naturalistic feel, backed up by formidable know-how. We asked some of our favorite members of the Dixter diaspora how the experience of learning amid the famous garden rooms (inside and out) affected their outlook.
Photography by James McGrath.
Attuning the Senses
James McGrath is Head Gardener at a private Dan Pearson-designed landscape in Connecticut. When he was at Great Dixter in 2008, the students stayed in the big house, which remains largely unchanged since Christopher Lloyd’s family lived there for most of the 20th century. “Dixter had a big part in changing how I thought about things in the garden, especially my way of being in tune with the plants and my immediate surroundings within the landscape there,” says James. “And I miss the incredible and deafening dawn chorus that I would wake to in the early mornings, peering out of my window in the Night Nursery [for children, not plants] over the garden and just listening.”
Drew Schuyler was at Great Dixter a few years later. He gardens at Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers, NY. “I loved how a day at Dixter for a student was centered around observation—keen intellectual observation—and pure creative spunk,” he says. “Be a total freak but make it valedictorian.”
“Everyone was so smart,” continues Drew. “The other students helped me focus on things I never paid attention to, and to keep that focus as long as I could. It was a rigorous ensemble, but we had fun. Quite frankly, Dixter changed my life—providing not just a bedrock for practical horticulture but also a wide-reaching social world of brilliant people I’m so drawn to and feel at home around.”
When the individual components of a group are “fiercely independent and intellectual,” there is plenty of room for idiosyncrasy. It is more unusual to be a young gardener than an old one, so this kind of atmosphere offered a new freedom. Amy Sanderson, who runs Stellata Plants on Vancouver Island, recalls: “Even just being able to speak botanical Latin or mention specific gardens in conversation with someone my age, and have them mean something, was new and thrilling.”
Ben Pick co-owns Saturnia Farm nursery in North Carolina. He concurs that the other students changed him as much as anything else, drawing him out of himself and into a collaborative community of eager student-gardeners. “Being there and working and living on the premises for nearly a year was when I first realized what I specifically wanted to do as a vocation,” he recalls. “I wanted to take my experience from that place and have my own garden and nursery and run it in the same sort of creative, artistic and naturalistic way.”
Learning from the Best
Fergus Garrett is a legendary gardener, greatly exceeding the high expectations that even Christopher Lloyd had for his protégé. He is still Head Gardener at Great Dixter, as well as its genius and mentor to an infinite number of people. Of his teaching, James recalls: “Fergus was able to see something in everyone and pushed them in their abilities, whether we were able to see it at first or not.”
Emma Seniuk is gardens at the Farm at Doe Run in Pennsylvania: “I had arrived at Dixter with some nursery and gardening skills already in tow,” she recalls. “Fergus was able to see my threads of knowledge and weave them together, strengthening my weaknesses and helping to show me the full spectrum of what was possible in the garden.”
Helen O’Donnell runs the specialist nursery at Bunker Farm in Vermont, and is a garden designer: “Fergus is an exceptional teacher. One thing that makes him so good is that he notices everything and gives impeccable feedback, and it is always so life changing when you get to work with such an incredible mentor.” She continues: “There was quite a bit of pressure to get it right, and there wasn’t exactly a right way. Fergus gives you a lot of room to work it out, but he wants to see what you can do and he’s pushing you always to see things differently.”
James McGrath says that the responsibility of adjusting the ventilation on seedlings—the garden’s future stock—was “terrifying.” Fergus Garrett’s trust in the students was also an education: “Mark Mosinski [another student] and I worked in the nursery and sowed the seeds for Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’, then potted them up when they germinated; grew them in the cold frames; laid them out on the famed circular steps [designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens] and then planted them out—eventually removing them and taking them to be composted. Being part of that whole process felt like an enormous responsibility for a student, especially with a plant that is so synonymous with Dixter.”
Ben Pick: “One thing Fergus said that always stuck with me was to not be afraid of failing. It was important to experiment and learn from the successes as well as the failures.”
Paying Attention to Details
Helen: “My perspective on what is possible changed completely. I saw what could be achieved if you worked hard enough, were curious and inquisitive enough, and did things at the highest level. It was just such a huge experience to see what was possible with maximum effort.”
Emma: “From sowing seeds, taking cuttings, dividing perennials and ultimately creating layered garden displays, I was energized to be a part of what felt like some type of immaculate construction.”
Amy: “About a month in, after being told to remove all the dead leaves from a bed and then scatter some back (but not too many!), I realized it was so idiosyncratic a place as to verge on the absurd, and some days this resulted in much giggling, and other days intense frustration. I’ve never done a stage at a Michelin-starred restaurant but I imagine it must be a bit like my experience of being a student at Dixter. There’s a great sense of purpose, responsibility and camaraderie that fuels the ongoing creation of something ultimately intended for pleasure.”
Connecting House to Garden
Great Dixter is a mix of Sussex buildings put together by the great British vernacular architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, with Christopher Lloyd’s father, Nathaniel. They were also responsible for the network of distinctive hedging around the garden (Nathaniel Lloyd was an expert on yew) and Lutyens designed the hardscaping around all four sides of the house. “Dixter changed how I view the relationship between house and garden, which is hugely important,” says James. “One is nothing without the other; house and garden are each other’s anchors in the landscape.”
Planting for Successions
Christopher Lloyd was a vocal exponent of successional planting. Visitors to Sussex cannot fail to notice that this happens naturally on the verges and in roadside woodland, enabled by an enviably long growing season. “I miss seeing the wild garlic and Anemone nemorosa carpeting the woodland floor, only to be followed by a haze of bluebells. Or learning of the edible qualities of the cuckoo flower, which coincides with the song of the bird of the same name,” says James.
Drew: I miss England constantly. I liked the phrase “I can’t be bothered” — it nicely sums up a certain attitude that I appreciate.”
Although Dixter students from overseas take a certain spirit home with them, English country life is less translatable. “I miss deciduous hedging, tea time, easy access to unusual plants, exquisite birdsong, playful topiary, walled gardens, and Jaffa Cakes,” says Amy. “I don’t miss English plumbing and heating, absurdly low door frames, steamed vegetables, or the M25.”
Besides student placements, Great Dixter offers week-long symposia, study days, lectures and workshops.
For more on Great Dixter, see: