Dixter Gardens

At Dixter House and Gardens we saw the work of Christopher Lloyd.  No, not the Back to the Future actor.  This gentleman.  It turns out he was quite a big deal in the gardening world, he broke a lot of design rules I don’t quite yet understand and wrote books. His mother actually started the gardens based on a plan by the architect who refurbished the house, but it was Christopher’s for almost sixty years.

I gather his rebellion has something to do with rejecting the herbaceous border and mixing a riot of dissimilar plants together.  I have to figure out what distinguishes his work from the English Cottage Garden style.

It’s a walled garden, separated like a house off into little rooms.  But they seem like comfy rooms.


Floppy hat and loose blouse rooms, not handbag and pumps rooms.

One of the things that impressed me most is how dense the plantings are.  If it were me, I’d plant a tree over there and call that corner done…plant a vine and call that wall covered.

DSCN0384Here, we have a wisteria vine in a magnolia tree, and even that’s just the start of it.DSCN0383





From this side angle you can see some of the many other layers that are a part of the composition.

Someone who works here, or maybe Mr. Lloyd himself, had a thing for purple.  All of the different varieties of purple tulips I posted in the “Purple Post” are from Dixter.  And there were many types of lilacs, purple wisteria, and it seemed like irises were starting to come on as well as lots of clematis…clemati?

I really liked this little plant, as well.  It looks like some kind of legume.


There were also textures galore. The thatched roof on this outbuilding to one side of the sunken garden was fun to see…DSCN0365






So was this great dried flower…








and the little bird who was having it for lunch.





And green on green…

dixter textures 5

DSCN0418on green on green.

The Stumpery

DSCN0710Yesterday we visited the gardens of a bizarre Italianate villa plopped down in the middle of the English countryside.

We’ve been hearing about how the English like “garden follies.” Little things hidden here and there, optical illusions such as ponds built in an ellipse so as to seem perfectly round when viewed from the balcony of the house, rock mosaics, stairs to nowhere.

This whole place seems a folly, and when we first arrived in the middle of a downpour it struck me as quite ugly. The sun came out and transformed it a bit, but with its tender imported Italian species that can barely live in this climate and its miles of rigorously trimmed formal hedge, it imposes itself on the land rather than being a part of it. Historically interesting, but not my cup of tea.

Then we got to the stumpery. Also very contrived, but this I loved! If you’re thinking “stumps–well, tear them out at plant something!” understand this is not a dumping ground for old wood at the edge somewhere. It’s a well planned, atmospheric garden spot that was lovely and creepy with lots of small details to smell out.  It was romantic and fascinating.


Firstly, for the stumps: Only those of a certain kind of oak will do here, and they have to be left in the ground for 40-50 years for the roots to rot away and fungi to grow on the exterior. When pulled up, the fungi hardens in the air and creates a black coating on the stump.  No sense trying this at home, kids.

The stumps are organic, sculptural forms that are lovely and spooky. Victorians created the stumperies originally, and designed them to reflect their fascination with the morbid, the dark, and the supernatural. (Think of the spiritualism craze.)

An art piece in our stumpery was designed to drive these points home.

DSCN0745This is a kind of spider web of chain, with feathers and crystals and deer bones hung around it. It was at the edge of the trees in dappled light, which caused bones and crystal to flash in the intermittent sunlight.

I don’t know if the Victorians would have done the dream catcherish thing, our guide was a plant man not a cultural historian and he didn’t know.

Don’t worry, I was assured the bones were collected from deer who died naturally on the estate.

The stumpery was visually atmospheric, but again it was the bits you can’t photograph that made it wonderful. The rain had cleared and the sun was out with a vengeance by this part of the day. From a bright, flat, and hot Italianate rock garden you walk through a little break in the severely trimmed hedge and enter a damp, dark, shady underworld. The smell of rosemary and lavender gave way to mold and rotting things.  Scissor clipped order gave way to decay.

DSCN0735Thickly planted trees keep it dark and wet.  The primary ground plants are ferns, our guide told us this stumpery had over fifty varieties.

There were not many flowers, it was all about green and black, sunshine and shade.  You had to work to see the few blooms that were there, which were hidden under leaves or tiny like this one.DSCN0731 DSCN0733

This gives you a sense of its size.





I’m not a gardener, I just like pretty places. In spite of myself, though, I’m learning a few things about garden design and am starting to be able to see a garden as an artistic expression in a way I’ve not appreciated before. I’ve always loved the beauty, and marveled at the physical labor of “keeping” a large garden, but thought about garden design as mostly a practical skill:  how tall this gets so it must go here, one plant needs full sun another lots of water, and so on.

I’ve been trained to tell a Degas from a Renoir, but never learned to appreciate gardens as art in quite the same way. This trip is serving a bit like Garden Appreciation 101 for me. I’m beginning to see choices and techniques and understand they aren’t any more accidental or “lucky” than paint off the end of a brush. Gardens that are the life’s work of one gardener are making the biggest impression on me, I guess because for the novice that makes seeing some of these choices easier.  And of course, gardens like the stumpery which takes a dramatic theme and runs with it are just an awful lot of fun.

I know what you’re thinking–let’s see more stumps!

DSCN0737 DSCN0716 DSCN0720DSCN0713


Salomons Estate

Our first hotel in England is also a museum!  Salomons Estate preserves the the country home of Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London and the first Jew to speak in the House of Commons.  IMG_0376

His nephew who also lived here was an inventor and engineer, which means there are some interesting machines lying about–the gearheads in my family would love it here!

The grounds are lovely.  We’ve been going away from here to visit some beautiful gardens, but this estate is also worthy of a good look.  I walked down to the water yesterday to see the “Roman Ruins.

DSCN0337I put quotations around that, but they very well could be…we were talking to a woman in the coffee shop who was saying that every time they dig they come up with Roman coins.  Western cultural history goes very deep here, literally.

DSCN0335While hanging out by the water this fine goose greeted me.  I like to think this is the same fellow who brought his family around to visit a bit later.DSCN0355

After breakfast, it’s off to Dixter House Garden and Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West.  I’m ready Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s homage to Vita.  Hopefully I’ll get a little further on in it while sitting in Vita’s garden!

Wisley Gardens


rhodisAfter landing at Heathrow we beat a path to Surrey for Wisely Gardens and there spent an afternoon trying to convince ourselves that jet lag is overcome by sunshine and exercise.  As it turns out, that works pretty well, at least for a while.

Overall, things are at a typical late spring phase.  Bulbs are peaking to just about finished. The azalea and rhododendrons are beautiful.


I wish I could blog the smells for you. The dampness of the overcast day made for a lovely scentscape which led me down one path for a plant I recognized with my nose before it with my eyes: honeysuckle! People at home still cultivate it, but I am used to considering it a noxious weed and was surprised to find it here.

Someone later said to me this was “honeysuckle azalea.”  Sounded like a pretty lie to me, but I looked it up and by gum it’s true.

Gorgeous wisteria.  It seems to do much better here than at home where I think of it as one of those heartbreak plants that people adore but rarely have much success with in central Illinois.  Somehow I managed to come away without a a single picture of it.

Instead of flowers I found myself staring at the bark of trees.shaggyShaggy and smoothSmooth.

eucalyptus2The rhythm of these eucalyptus trees seemed especially beautiful.

I wandered until my feet were sore and won’t say I exactly got lost, but there was a moment I was not sure of the way out.  But I found it, and a cup of tea at the end of the path.  Right now I am dead tired and can’t even try to write more but will tack on a few more random pictures…


Self-Portrait with Fish Face






I call this one RaeDodendron.  RaeDodendron






Our first hotel is in Tunbridge Wells and seems like it will be interesting all in itself.  A nice dinner and a few hours sleep is all I need to appreciate it!

Plans for England

It’s exciting to be making plans to travel to England again!  This time I’m taking my first ever “tour,” with friends and colleagues from Parkland College.  We’re being leengland 2015d by the fabulous Kaizad Irani on a Garden Tour of southeast England.  We have destination around Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and London.  It all culminates in a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. More itinerary and reading list to come.

england stuff