Great DixterThe Measure of Freedom
Contained within walls of yew, seas of starry asters, teasels, and fennels are encouraged to rise against their confines.
Walking the garden paths of Great Dixter in late summer gives rise to sudden hilarity, a dizzy hysteria – the sky-ladder verbascums, the clashing phlox, the spiky cardoons – each plant overreaches its species in height and bloom, provoking the type of reckless laughter typically confined to childhood. Enclosed by the high yew hedges, all is permitted: the maverick planting, the dissident secret of abundance. And on the other side of the hedge, two horticulturalists can be heard grumbling about an eye-aching combination of pink cosmos and yellow evening primrose.
Great Dixter is a garden of broken rules and well-turned compost. Initially laid out by Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century, the lattice of asymmetrical outdoor rooms became the playground of the gardener Christopher (Christo) Lloyd, master of strong color contrasts and arch defier of horticultural decorum. The vertiginous arrangement of over-scaled planting was the first garden Christo knew – he grew up at Great Dixter, the youngest of six children, a childhood measured against the dimensions of giant moon daisies, flowering grasses, and looming topiary peacocks and teapots. The topiary was his father’s area of expertise – having made a fortune producing colour prints for advertisements, chocolate boxes, and biscuit tins, Nathaniel Lloyd redirected his energy towards golf, gardening, and architecture. The meadows were the vision of Christo’s mother, Daisy, who imagined the front lawn as a mosaic of wildflowers. The house itself is a composite of a medieval manor, a relocated 16th century timber structure, and a 20th century extension by Lutyens – the perfect house for a non-purist.
Rules are not worth breaking just for the sake of ruffling a few horticulturalist feathers. “Of course, there were certain rules that Christo wouldn’t dream of breaking – the rules of ecology,” says head gardener Fergus Garrett, who was entrusted with maintaining the legacy of Great Dixter after Christo passed away. “He said to me – garden it with freedom. That’s what I learnt from him; the confidence to garden naturally, as I would for myself, to follow what pleases me and to share it with like-minded people.”
The garden is a puzzle, negotiating between limit and freedom. Contained within walls of yew, seas of starry asters, teasels, and fennels are encouraged to rise against their confines. Between the Long Border and the orchard, a sandstone path is the only line of resistance between high grassland and carefully organized planting, and under the mulberry tree the paving stones are splattered with purple and crimson. Steps lead towards the Exotic Garden, Christo’s most notorious performance of creative liberation: in the early 1990s, he decided to tear out the rose garden originally designed by Lutyens, making way for a jungle of banana plants, ferns, and shrieking red cannas.
The gleefully theatrical planting might be interpreted as a direct assault on English garden etiquette. Then again, the roses were sickly, the area was sheltered; the Exotic Garden was created simply because it was possible to do so. The task of removing Lutyens’ roses was one of Fergus’ first assignments, and it set the tone for an ethic of gardening which seeks neither to shock nor to confirm expectations. “You do what feels right for the place,” he explains. “And you have to allow yourself to be surprised – you can’t predict a decision.”
Some of these decisions might seem counterintuitive. A path in the Exotic Garden is suddenly and intentionally blocked off by ferns, obliging the visitor to retrace their steps; it’s an arrangement which refocuses attention and calls to consciousness, but it also provokes a degree of unease. Moments such as these are a reminder of the fragility of human order, scheduled to spin into disintegration. At Great Dixter, nothing is wholly stable; the levels of the garden sink and rise, the upper floors of the house slope like a ship, and the topiary peacocks have long since devolved from their original forms as blackbirds, roosters, and pheasants.
With each season, the rules of the garden are unwritten and rebroken; among the signs of Great Dixter’s continued dynamism are the occasional complaint letters, duly received since Christo’s day. A visitor is concerned by apparent negligence in the Exotic Garden; the path should be cleared. Another claims that certain color combinations are too harmonious; a failure to maintain Christo’s legacy of iconoclasm. Fergus is unfazed; it would be wrong to mimic Christo’s vision, just as it would be inappropriate to impose his own aesthetic preferences. “Over the years, you absorb the history of the place, the characters, the structures, the experiments, and changes across time. There’s nothing written down – it’s just passed on through brain, and gut, and heart. And that makes it easy, actually – there’s sense of freedom that I garden with, here.”
That feeling of ease is the measure of freedom; a momentary alignment of effort and grace, when actions are subsumed within a larger order. Right and wrong become absurdist terms, to be uprooted like roses when they have served their purpose. The garden is defined by limit and sustained by labour; and behind a high hedge there is the unmistakable sound of laughter.