Five years ago I visited Great Dixter and interviewed head gardener Fergus Garrett about the meadows he was creating there. He and his team were at the beginning of a journey. They were ripping up fields and transforming them into species-rich grassland, erecting swift boxes and calling in ecologists to survey wildlife in and around the gardens.
Now, with the help of father and son ecologists Ian and Andy Phillips, they’re about to release a report on the biodiversity at Great Dixter, now in its final stages. I return to see how they’re getting on.
I meet Garrett and the Phillipses on a late-summer’s morning. The first of the meadows has been cut for autumn and the mulberry tree is sagging with ripe fruit. The ornamental borders are still fresh and in full bloom, packed with a dazzling array of flowers.
With every turn there’s something beautiful and interesting to look at: stone planters filled with cacti; sempervivums seemingly growing out of slate roofs, an espalier pear growing up the entire side of the house. We walk through one of the 18th-century barns and there are five recently fledged barn swallow chicks snuggled together on a beam.
“I think that’s their third brood this year,” says Garrett, proudly. “I love them. I just love them!”
Nestled among ancient woodland and farmland in the Sussex Weald, Great Dixter has always been famous for its naturalistic planting and focus on meadows. The former home and garden of Christopher (Christo) Lloyd, meadows are part of its heritage. “They were in Christo’s blood,” says Garrett. “He loved wildlife and was an avid birder – he wouldn’t do anything that might upset the woodpeckers. But he did use chemicals.”
Garrett has been at Great Dixter since the Eighties. At first, the meadows irritated him. “I didn’t understand them, they were brown; I was shocked at all the long grass.” But, with the help of his wife Amanda, an ecologist at London Zoo, he learned to view things differently. “I started to see the value of them,” he says. Garrett wanted to improve on Christo’s work, and set about increasing the number of meadows, as well as creating habitat piles and seeing how else they could make Great Dixter more welcoming to wildlife. “We stopped using chemicals,” says Garrett. “It took a while for the balance to be struck – we had a pest problem for around three years. But we don’t have pests at all now.”
Yet it’s not all meadows. “We’re an ornamental garden,” says Garrett. “Just like other gardens, we cut back and prune, we keep it looking tidy.” It’s not just tidy, it’s picture perfect. The bedding areas are magnificent, with Michaelmas daisies, buddleias, crocosmia, sunflowers, cardoons and salvias growing among the ripening berries of guelder rose and teasel seed heads. “The beds are multilayered communities,” says Garrett, “we have early bulbs followed by late bulbs, early perennials followed by later perennials, other things that come and go. This creates a succession of layers that provides a long season of pollen and nectar.
“On top of that we have cracks in walls and buildings, thatched roofs, muddy areas, mown grass, long grass, mid-length grass. All this is supported by the surrounding countryside.”
As well as not spraying, they leave borders intact in autumn, and they stopped burning a few years ago. Garrett takes me to one of his grand habitat piles, built in the style of a Romanian haystack. It’s made from branches and other non-compostable waste that formerly would have been burned. More than twice my height, it makes quite a statement. “We have blue tits nesting in here,” he says, as a robin disappears inside to prove what a valuable habitat it makes. “I wanted to chuck roadkill on the top of them for buzzards, but my wife told me it wouldn’t work.”
As for the wildlife, Great Dixter has enormous diversity. “Everything here is a habitat,” says Garrett. “We have nationally scarce spiders nesting in the dry stone walls, the thatched roofs are like giant bee hotels.” He tells me about the great crested newts in the pond, the two pairs of swifts that finally arrived after he put up swift boxes all those years ago.
Andy Phillips tells me Great Dixter is very much part of the wider landscape, and that part of the reason the garden has such an abundance of wildlife is because there’s so much in the surrounding woodland and meadows, which comes in and uses the gardens. “That’s not to say the garden isn’t important,” he says. “We’re providing a much longer season of pollen and nectar than the countryside. But by putting them together, these habitats can work hand in hand, they complement each other.”
“It all adds up to something quite amazing,” adds Garrett.
The report now being finalised will be the first of many, as they hope to build on the work already done, and the wildlife they have attracted. Already there are species of spider and bee that are rarely seen nationally, plus brown long-eared bats and other weird and wonderful creatures. “I want to use the information from the survey to tweak and be more creative, to create more habitats,” says Garrett. “Along with that will come new ideas which we can relate to the public. Collectively, all of us could do a little bit more.”
But on six acres, surrounded by ancient woodland and close to nature reserves such as Romney Marsh and Dungeness, what can Great Dixter really teach the home gardener? “Not everyone has a big garden with old tumbledown buildings,” says Garrett. “But it’s about influence. We tell our visitors what we’re doing and we hope they might take some of that away with them, recreate a little bit of Great Dixter at home. There are endless possibilities where gardeners can be creative. Your garden wall could be a habitat. Your bin could be a habitat. Your path into the house, your car park.” He talks, wistfully, about town planners and architects getting together with gardeners and doing something “very important in our towns and cities.”
“It’s starting to happen,” Andy Phillips continues. “More councils are letting grass verges grow long. More people are leaving areas of long grass in their gardens.”
Of course, creating wildlife habitats is about so much more than the wildlife itself. “The garden experience for me has become so much richer because of all this,” enthuses Garrett. “There’s so much extra joy I get from it now. I want all gardeners to get that, too.”
Before I leave, I buy yellow rattle seed for my meadow, and Garrett gives me a eupatorium as a present. “The butterflies absolutely adore it,” he tells me. I return to my tiny town garden, plant the eupatorium and scarify my just-cut mini-meadow before sowing the fresh yellow rattle, a hemiparasite of grass that I hope will encourage more wild flowers to grow. It’s a small piece of Great Dixter but I wish I could have more.
I ponder the practicalities of adding a thatched roof to my shed, and creating a habitat pile large enough to accommodate nesting birds. There’s always more we wildlife gardeners can do. And there’s so much joy to come as a result. I await the survey report with bated breath.
Fergus Garrett’s rules for a plot rich in insect and animal life
- Don’t spray – this is the most important change we have made at Great Dixter. We have so many more insects than we used to.
- Try to be more knowledgeable. Get to know the wildlife and what it needs. Learn your birds, learn your bees. Knowledge is really important.
- Be creative with your individual space. If everyone does the same thing we reduce our biodiversity.
- Build a mosaic of habitats. Talk to your neighbours and get them to do more for wildlife too.
- Embrace the wet ditch. Embrace the dead wood. Everything is a habitat for something.