Fergus Garrett first visited Great Dixter as a student, then joined the team in 1992, working closely with garden creator Christopher Lloyd. Now Fergus heads up a small team of gardeners and volunteers as the garden's Creative Director. Here he shares his insights with Melissa Mabbitt
How did you come to work at Great Dixter? Christo was interested in anyone who was interested, and I was keen, there with my notebook, making drawings. I ended up being invited, along with lots of other people, to the house at weekends. Life was centred around the house and there could be anyone there, from musicians to just someone he’d met on the train! Many years, when I was between jobs, Christo offered me the role of head gardener. I turned it down initially as I didn’t want working there to spoil my relationship with it, but Christo told me to stop being childish. He said: “Just say yes and we’ll take it from there”!
How big is your team? We have the equivalent of about three full time gardeners, including a person who grows all the veg and looks after the house. We always have four to six students, who are highly committed and motivated, and they become the catalyst for it all.
What are the main jobs that the gardeners need to do through the seasons? Seed sowing and propagating happens throughout the year - we grow thousands and thousands of plants. Planting in autumn carries on through winter right through to August. In October the meadow cutting is finished and we rip apart the garden to get the tender stuff into the greenhouses. Sometomes we have to lift the whole bed as the plants have become integrated. We replace it with bedding for winter and spring, which takes us right through to December. In the New Year we start at one end of the garden starting pruning and weeding, through to the middle of March when we’ve finished the whole garden. Then we start sowing, pricking out and getting creative with our pot displays.
What’s the main thing you do in August? By then most of our plants are in the ground so we’re watering them. We start cutting the meadows as the common spotted orchids, the last ones to flower, have gone to seed, but we always leave some areas uncut to be a safe haven for insects. We cut the hedges as they won’t grow much after this so they’ll look sharp through winter.
What’s your favourite part of the gardens and why? If I had to choose one thing and take it a way to another world, I would say probably the meadows because they’re slightly out of my control. They’re like being on wild horse than being on something tame, and contain another world within them – a bug world – that’s dark and mysterious and where you never quite know what’s going on.
What’s the most challenging part of your job? There’s a fine balance between keeping something familiar to the family that knows it but also staying dynamic. If I still did the same stuff that Christo did the garden would die a death, so I have to make changes, following my gut feeling, but without being gimmicky either. Always with any place that’s old fashioned, there’s a sense of place about it, but we have to fight to keep it quirky.
Are there any special new planting projects for 2017/2018? I’ve started using more conifers. They’re a material that loads of people are uncomfortable with but there are so many striking looking ones, there’s no good being a snob about them. I’m picking out interesting ones with interesting textures. It’s striking what one plant can do – in the exotic garden they can turn the subtropical into the Jurassic.
What’s the best bit of your job? You’re in a heavenly place that’s alive with wildlife, lovely atmosphere and history, the wood is cracked, the York stone paving is worn down. The people here love it – they’re there to make a difference to the place. The students are bright eyed, making use of a place that you love to be in. And I get to meet inspirational people, whether that person is a national collection holder or a student, I meet extraordinary people, many with a heart of gold, and it’s a privilege to be alongside them.
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