I'm always acutely aware of the shortcomings inherent to being a prairie gardener - our knowledge of trees, shrubs and perennials is warped and limited by a harsh climate. Visiting English and East Coast gardens made me desperate for an impossible plant palette and a temperate winter. So I decided to pursue winter plans elsewhere - truthfully I only applied to one garden because I was so set on going there. For in the plant world, Great Dixter looms large for its innovative use of unusual plants and its support for students of all stripes. Perfect.
When you arrive at Great Dixter, in rural East Sussex, UK, there’s an overwhelming number of people you’re introduced to and they’re seemingly all curious to know how you found them and how you ended up living amongst them. In my jetlagged state, I could barely muster a coherent response – I would bashfully mumble about reading plant catalogues online as stress relief, and garden blogs, and eventually Christopher Lloyd, and then sending a few naïve emails into the void. Everyone hums knowingly. And then after a few weeks you hardly ever encounter anyone who asks you, and you’re just another student, enfolded into the Dixter family, and it’s easy to forget the rest of the world exists.
I'd never worked in a garden, so every day seemed slightly miraculous. Yes, everyone did know more about plants than me and didn't mind talking about them all the time. Yes, I did prune an 80 year old hydrangea. Yes, we did weed under a hedge while it rained/hailed on us, for a week. Yes, yes, I was surrounded by all the snowdrops, crocuses, primulas and fritillarias my spring-loving heart could desire. Succession planting is no joke.
Gardening practice at Dixter is idiosyncratic, as one would expect at a garden created by intense individuals living in the middle of nowhere, England. Four months in the garden has infused me with a new confidence in plants. There are so many forces acting against them – clay soil and poor drainage, clumsy students, neglect, badgers, competitive neighbors and rampant self-sowers, etc., that some days we joke about how they have to really want to live to make it at Dixter. Fergus also emphasizes being patient when coming up with new planting combinations and to take the time to trial plants, to just try things.
Leaving a place where I've been more happy than I thought possible, and that will soon sink into a dreamy haze of memory, has me melancholic but optimistic for the next few months. I'm still a few weeks out from coming home, but I'm getting excited about trying new things in the garden this year and using my knowledge to grow better flowers and foliage for cutting. Cheers to surviving another winter and all the best for the growing season!