21 Jan 2014

A Seed Studying Dixter-licious Day

Last Monday I was up at dawn and driving south east out of London towards East Sussex. I was headed towards a Study Day at Great Dixter led by Fergus Garrett and had taken the day off work in order to attend.  Double nice.


It was the first Study Day in the Dixter calendar during which a small group of us would hear what Fergus had to say about Choosing and Using Seeds - drawn from his 20+ years of experience as Head Gardener at Dixter - together with practical hands-on demonstrations.  I hadn't quite appreciated how in-depth the topic would be but at the end of the day my head and notebook were stuffed with information that will change the way I garden.


After a welcoming hot drink, the day started downstairs in the Billiards Room with a roaring log fire at our backs. A lively talk and slides presentation showed us how we could emulate the system that the Dixter gardeners use to produce glorious border displays from spring through to late autumn. Fergus basically revealed the secret of manipulating a plant to be at its best at the time you need it - within reason, obviously.  We also learned of the most reputable seed suppliers, how seed selection can be full of potholes if you want a specific plant, propagation methods suited to different plants, sowing in a way that maximises use of cold frames and greenhouse space, filling the 'June gap' (after bulbs have finished and before the perennials kick in) and sowing to prolong autumn displays.  I've always struggled with the need to maintain the momentum of seed sowing throughout February and March but was pleased to hear that staggered sowing throughout the year is positively encouraged!  I thought back to my first sowing in the veg patch when beetroot and lettuce sown in mid-August provided a late season harvest; in fact some of the smaller pricked out beets were ready for eating in early spring. It was a one-off experiment that I would have done well to repeat.

Fergus' passion for plants shone through the day; as we went through the slides, he extolled the virtues of one plant over another, emphasising the need to get to know how different plants perform, looking at plant combinations that worked well (and the how and why of this) - and the idiosyncrasies of some seed mixture, citing a single packet of Cosmos that produced both early and late flowering plants.  I scribbled notes rapidly and managed the salient points plus the names of several noteworthy plants.

Fergus was generous with his knowledge as members of the group asked questions that related to their own gardening - there was never any sense of interrupting his flow, in fact discussion spurred him on to  offer more advice and we almost missed the coffee break!

There was time, after a generous lunch, for a walk around the gardens. Mild weather has brought the hellebores and iris into flower with perennial lupins waiting to pick up the show.  The crocus are not yet out in the meadow, a sight to look forward to in the spring, but clumps of snowdrops are already sprinkled throughout. Magical.


After summarising all we'd learned in the morning (and throwing in a few more plants for good measure), Fergus led us away from the soporific warmth of the billiards room,  through the gardens to the nursery where we were shown how the cold frames and greenhouses are used at Dixter and plants that had been grown in line with the methods outlined by Fergus that morning.


Hundreds of plants are grown at Dixter, both for their own borders and for sale to the public, so there were lessons in plant care to be learned there; we saw how to create the best environment for seedlings, plants that had been potted on in the autumn and were ready to go into the borders in spring, how hot and cold weather protection is managed and when the greenhouses are used rather than a cold frame.


As the light faded and the air became chill, we headed down to the education room for reviving mugs of tea and home-made fruit cake with a detailed practical lesson in seed sowing, pricking out and potting on given by Fergus.

There was a large box of seeds collected in the wild by plant hunters Jim and Jenny Archibald;  these had been given to Fergus after Jim's death in 2010 and these seeds were used to illustrate lessons in collecting seeds, correct storage and seed viability.  We were told which seeds are best used fresh and of others that will be viable for several years, depending on storage.  The topic of this Study Day ('Choosing and Using Seeds') is clearly a subject close to Fergus' heart; we overran slightly but not before Fergus had checked that was okay with everyone. We were also generously offered an opportunity to return to Dixter in the next few months for a supervised seed sowing day - with pricking out thrown in especially for yours truly!


My mind was whirring as I drove home down pitch black country lanes after this extraordinary day. In garden design we identify 'the spirit of the place', a quality Great Dixter has in abundance. It was great to return for such a fabulous day, meeting fellow gardeners and reacquainting with Dixter (staff, house and gardens) and with a wealth of invaluable knowledge passed on by Fergus - he is a generous and amazing teacher.

This weekend I read a short interview with James Horner, the 2010 Christopher Lloyd Scholarship trainee, who says, "…the first time I visited Great Dixter … I had a feeling of belonging." It gets me that way too.



  • Winter Open Weekends are being held on the 15th/16th and 21st/22nd of February.
  • Study Days with Fergus Garrett are held throughout the year, more info here
  • The Spring Plant Fair is on the 5th and 6th April, 11-4.


More photos from my day at Great Dixter in a Flickr set: (click link below photo)


38 comments:

  1. Glad to hear you had a wonderful time Caro! We would have attended ourselves had if we managed to book time off work. Ferguson is an amazing speaker, not to mention the wonderful garden that is Great Dixter.

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    1. Oh that would have been so much fun to see you guys again there! It was a superb day, well worth the journey down (with the low winter sun blinding my eyes!) Maybe I'll see you at one of the plant fairs? If not, I really must get over to see your wonderful tropical garden this summer!

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  2. It sounds like an interesting day, I struggle to extend the flowers in my garden.

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    1. The knowledge shared was an inspiration and you would certainly have come away with the info you need to keep your garden thriving well into autumn. I may need to write a bit of a post about this - or email you!

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    1. Ah, that it was, Sue! And certainly an experience I would repeat, given the chance.

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  4. Wow, sounds like you had an amazing day.

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    1. It was great from start to finish - fantastic surroundings, beautiful countryside to drive through, excellent lunch, great company and formidable teacher. What could be better? (Except another Study day!)

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  5. A study day at Great Dixter, wow! It sounds amazing, not really work at all, although I'm sure you were exhausted afterwards. I'm very envious.

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    1. It's the kind of work that I would love to spend all day doing, CJ. It's an inspiration to be part of the community at Great Dixter, if only for a day. I admit I was tired the next day (it's a minimum 2 hour drive to get there, partly through London traffic) but I was also totally energised by the experience!

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  6. What a truly fantastic day Caro! I'm already thinking through the logistics of how I can get to one of these.

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    1. Definitely, do it!! I heartily recommend the Study Days, Jessica - there's a link to Dixter events at the bottom of my post. It may seem a way to come but it's worth an extended stay in the area as there are several world-class gardens in that corner of Sussex/Kent. I'm lucky enough to be "local" (as Fergus would say, ie, within a 3 hour drive!) but would still consider staying locally in order to see other iconic gardens nearby, Sissinghurst for one.

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  7. Wow, sounds like a fantastic day. I've never been to Great Dixter but it's on my wish-list, maybe I'll try the Spring Plant Fair in April.

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    1. That would be a very good first visit as the garden will be waking up - tulips and forget-me-nots. Let me know if you go - I'll be going so come and say hello!

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  8. What a fabulous day. The Study Day itself sounds brilliant, but to have it in those surroundings must have been wonderful. You just need to put everything you learnt in to practice now.

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    1. Yes it was, Jo. I had thought the lectures would take place in the modern purpose built education room so it was an extra thrill to be able to see a bit more of the medieval house. History and gardening - two of my favourite interests!

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  9. What an interesting post, about what was clearly an enjoyable and worthwhile day. Now all you've got to do is put the theory into practise. Flighty xx

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    1. Ah, thanks, Flighty. Yes it was a super day with a lot of information, not least of which was the advice about good seed suppliers. The day has definitely given my gardening mojo a big push!

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  10. Oh wow....my mind is whirling too....I'll have to give a lot more attention to my seed sowing now! What a fab day, I'm MOST envious, the place looks fantastic. I love the little dog at the end and how wonderful to see the snowdrops.....I always enjoy the sight of their pretty little heads. A marvelous post.xxx

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    1. Thank you, Snowbird - I enjoyed writing this post, even if it took a while to sift through all the information I'd been given! Dachshunds are not always good tempered but this little one was so sweet and coped well with the sudden influx of people in the room! It is a magical place to visit - sounds like you'd enjoy it there!

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  11. Sadly I couldn't make it, but lovely to be there courtesy of your words and lens, Caro :)

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    1. Thanks, Michelle - I had hoped to see you there as it was a day right up your street! You'd have loved it! Hopefully we'll meet up during the course of the year at some event or other and enjoy a coffee together, would be great to see you again!

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  12. Oh Caro now that sort of day sounds like my idea of prefect bliss! Delighted to hear that you had such a brilliant time. I hope that you will drip feed us some of the invaluable gems of information and advice that you picked up on the day. Don't know whether it will actually come about but I'm hoping to get to the autumn plant fair :)

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    1. Oh do let me know nearer the time if you're going, Anna - I'd love to meet you in the real world! I'll certainly be putting the lessons learned into practise and imparting some of that here - just as soon as I've finished my college work! Fergus concentrated on teaching us about using annuals but the advice was just as relevant to veg. It's going to be an exciting growing year!

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  13. A great lesson on seedling. Thanks for sharing

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    1. Thank you, Endah - this was an overview of a hugely informative day but there will be more seed advice to come in future posts - I'll have to share!

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  14. Sounds lovely, glad you had such a good day. x

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    1. As it followed so closely on from Jen's wedding, it was a bit tiring but I'm SO glad I made the effort to go - and would do it all again! 4 hours on the road gives my inner racing driver a good outing too!

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  15. Sounds a super day, he is a good speaker isn't he, a couple of years ago Fergus came to speak to our gardening group at the AGM and he was so enthusiastic.

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    1. I think he's an inspirational speaker, Pauline, and I feel very privileged to have shared conversation with him. Awesome. I'm amazed at the amount of public speaking he does - where does he get his energy from!!

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  16. Sounds like a fabulous day. Fergus Garrett is incredibly inspiring I just wish we lived closer. Hope you get to put what you've learnt into practice. :)

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    1. Sounds like you've been to one of his lectures or workshops before, Welly? It was an incredible treat to be able to attend the Study Day and not too bad on the travelling front either - I'm beginning to know my way to Dixter in my sleep! All the good advice will definitely be put into practise as being able to grow my own plants from seed will save a lot of money! I have a lot of border to fill up as I want to put in a lot more flowers this year!

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  17. Oh that's so tantalising - "...wil change the way I garden". I hope you plan to say how and why?! And when do they use a coldframe rather than a greenhouse, something I have been pondering recently. Sounds well worth the trek, what a brilliant way to spend a day.

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  18. Oh it was marvellous, Janet! I love a whole day of being immersed in gardening - a treat I can rarely give myself with a busy work/college/garden/blog/housework timetable (notice how housework comes lowest in my list of priorities!). I hope to put a post together about some of the advice learned on the day - seems quite a few folk are interested in knowing more!!

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    1. Hurrah! Will look forward to that - not as good as being there in person, but definitely something to look forward to!

      As for housework, I am amazed you ever get any done at all with your busy life. Mil gave me a mug with the legend "A mind is a terrible thing to waste on housework". Not entirely sure about the phrasing, but the sentiment is definitely one I can echo. Not a fan, always so many much more interesting things to do!!

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    2. Hahahaha - Brilliant! You have a very astute mil! Unfortunately a LOT of my housework is created by my teenage son so has to be tackled!! But you're right, there's SO much more interesting things to be doing, mostly gardening, reading, writing… perhaps a bit of crochet thrown in! Have a brilliant weekend!! C xx

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  19. It is a remarkable place isn't it? And my favourite garden. Whenever I visit, I hate that I'm not part of its gardening team. I took the successional planting course a few years ago and learnt so much. I don't know really know why I haven't been back for another day's study. Dave

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    1. Sounds as though you're a regular visitor, Dave? Lucky you! I'd do more study days if they weren't on a Monday, always a day when I'm working. I'm amazed at the hard work that goes into running the place and ensuring its survival, nevertheless everyone always looks like they're enjoying themselves. I'm intending to go back for the plant fair - you never know, I might spot you there! Thanks for commenting!

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Caro x

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