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)