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Lessons From a Master

Here are 10 top tips for more exciting gardens from Great Dixter's Fergus Garrett.

Words and pictures: Robin Powell



It’s usually only rock stars who journey to Australia from England and stay just three days. Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, did it late last year. When I suggested such a crazy itinerary made him a gardening rock star, he laughed, readjusted his trademark beanie and insisted he’s just a gardener. But the rush for tickets to his Southern Highland workshop and lecture suggests gardeners think otherwise.

Great Dixer is famous partly for succession planting, a high-skill style of gardening in mixed borders of shrubs, perennials, grasses, bulbs and annuals, that sees maximum change in the same space over the year. Plants follow each other into a place in the sun, from early spring into winter, each one perfectly knitted into schemes of dazzling beauty.

In some parts of the garden there are seven plants cycling through life in just one patch of sunlight. And the light is the key, says Fergus. It’s not about root competition, it’s about how plants compete for light. Working out how to create another level of succession in your own garden, is about knowing the plants you grow intimately so you know just how their growth habits can complement each other.

As well as the injunction to ‘Know your plants!’ and ‘Pay attention!’, I picked up these tips at the lecture.


1. Choose what you like

Narrow down the list of plant loves to those that suit your conditions (be honest with yourself here!) and will grow without much help from you. You won’t find this list in a book, you’ll have to discover for yourself the plants you love that also love your garden.



2.Choose your work level

At Great Dixter, where Fergus works with four full-time gardeners and four full-time assistants “we can throw the kitchen sink at it”, he says. The rest of us have to budget our time and inclinations and plan the garden to suit. Evergreen plantings take the least time to maintain, but also offer the least dynamism and opportunity for experiment. If you have a bit of time for playing with change, allocate part of the garden to plants that die down, or can be cut back. Scale it up or down to your desires - and your time/finance budget.


3. Make a good structure

Ensure your basic structure of evergreens and shrubs is full of foliage contrast and year-round interest.



4. Don’t be a plant snob.

If something performs well, judge it on its merits not on fashion or other people’s opinions.

5. Plan carefully

When laying out a garden bed, use bamboo canes to mark the space on the ground that plants will take up once grown. Leave some alleyways between the plants to run a meandering river of bulbs or annuals through. If you mark out the space first up, you won’t have the problem of some plants out-competing and smothering others. You can fill the gaps before plants mature with annuals so there is no bare soil.



6. Look for opportunities

Pay close attention to the plants in your garden so you know all about the way they grow: when they are growing fastest, when they take a break. Look for opportunities to add another layer of planting when a plant is in its downtime, either because it’s died down or been cut back. What plant would love an opportunity to take the light in that spot, and make the most of it before the original plant bounces back?


7. Use bulbs

Get to know some new bulbs and how they perform in your garden. At its most complex, Dixter has seven levels of succession planting, many of them bulbs that follow one after the other. That level of expertise is beyond most of us, but bulbs that appear before a perennial fills in or that takes advantage of light offered by an annual shrub prune might work.


8. Consider annuals

Annuals are work. They must be planted individually and nurtured into existence - and if you want something interesting you're going to have to start with seed - but they offer fast growth and lots of dynamic change. You could try cosmos this year, and experiment with snapdragons or nasturtium next year.



9. Use climbers

Climbers add an extra level of interest. When in full flower those growing on a support can be permitted to lounge over nearby shrubs to give a sense of fullness and abandon to the picture. When flowering finishes, the climber can be trimmed back to its own space. Annual or deciduous climbers can be trained up trees or shrubs, and then cut back when the foundation plants need their turn at the light.



10. Use pots as trials

At Dixter huge groups of pots are used to assess how plants perform. How does it grow, when does it flower, how tall are the flowers, what's the foliage like and how much room does it take up? Which plants does it look good with? Is the flower the same colour as in the catalogue? Don’t just focus on flower colour, but also on foliage. Fergus insists that students at Great Dixter take a turn designing a pot display using plants not in flower so that they practice working with texture and tone and form, without the distraction of flowers. Experimenting with pots also means you can try a few before you buy a lot - this is an especially astute budget measure when it comes to pricey bulbs.

Come with us

The pictures on this page are of Red Cow Farm, much admired by Fergus Garrett on his visit. See it with us on our tours,Inside NSW tour,30 September - 10 October and Inside Sydney, November 2-7.Details or 1300 233 200.


About this article

Author: Robin Powell