There is a book I pick up when I totally need to relax. It’s ‘The Year at Great Dixter’, one of Christopher Lloyd’s out-of-print titles from the 80s. I read a few pages at a time this winter when I was pumping milk for my baby, just about the only time I had to recharge while he was tiny and we were coping with his health issues.
Like a lot of ‘famous gardener’ books, it’s full of personal observations of a garden and its plants – who they are from, what looks good together, what didn’t work, what surprises came along. It’s organized by month and I imagine it would be boring to someone who’s not a ‘plant person’. But I find the minutiae soothing and like the feeling of getting into a gardener’s head. It’s wonderful to read on a grey day and be transported to the bright summer of East Sussex where they ‘sit out’ in the evenings and enjoy the fragrant flowers near the terrace.
I suppose it also appeals to me so much because I visited Great Dixter and met Christopher Lloyd and his dogs. It reminds me of a really nice, magical time touring all kinds of gardens as a botanical garden intern and the wonderful, crazy people I met.
I love Dixter and the gardens like it. When I explain my influences to people I say there were early 20th century gardens in England that had organized, geometric structure – derived in concept or literally built from earlier formal European gardens – but very loose, flowing, color-aware plantings that changed with the seasons. That is what I love. It appeals to our very human desire for order and also our love of breaking rules. In Sissinghurst Castle Garden or Hidcot Manor you will see this contrast everywhere: dark, sharply pruned box hedges barely containing waves of frilly foliage, ruffled blooms, swooning grasses and wild vines. The verges of the whole arrangement usually give way to bucolic countryside. Sometimes a ha-ha keeps a flock of sheep just out of the frame or, as at Dixter, a ribbon of brick leads to an old orchard. The 18th century meets the Victorian age, and the carpet bedding has been ripped out to make way for the 20th century.
What I am doing in my own garden – and I sometimes make a point of explaining that it’s not what you’d often see in my work for clients – is to marry this sensibility with the ideas of permaculture and food forests. It’s an experiment. It’s an homage to the Edwardian English gardeners as well as a reaction against the junk-yard aesthetics of so many permaculture plots. Can a garden be as useful and productive as is it beautiful and organized?