Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter, Sussex
‘”Why don’t you do horticulture?” I didn’t even know what it meant’ says Fergus Garrett, of Great Dixter, as he explains why he switched from agriculture whilst studying at Wye College, Kent. The gardening fraternity has a lot to thank his Director of Studies for.
‘My first class was garden design with Tom Wright, ‘one of those great understated unsung heroes who wants to help people. I got top marks, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was the boost I needed. From then on I lost myself in the world of plants.’
Fergus was born in England to an English father, a chartered quantity surveyor, and a Turkish mother. His parents divorced when he was six months old and he moved with his mother to Istanbul, returning to Brighton aged 11. ‘It never occurred to me to pursue gardening as a career. I enjoyed helping my grandmother because I liked being with her’.
Tom Wright introduced Fergus to Christopher Lloyd, the legendary gardener and garden writer at Great Dixter on a student outing. ‘I thought Dixter was a slightly curious place. The only other gardening I had done apart from my grandmother’s garden was in Brighton parks which were clipped and formal quite unlike the wildness of Dixter. A fellow ‘brilliant’ student Neil Ross began taking me to visit Christo, has he was known by his many friends, at weekends.
There would always be a stimulating collection of people such as an artist or potter, Beth Chatto and perhaps an alpine plant specialist. Christo taught me see the garden as a canvas which you paint on. He was a very giving person and had a brilliant mind. And he was unpredictable – that was the beauty of working with him – and during my time working with him his taste changed.’
After Wye Fergus worked for Rosemary Alexander, founder of The English Garden School, at Stoneacre, the National Trust garden near Maidstone. ‘It was derelict and she kicked it back into shape.’ He then worked for a year as a student in Beth Chatto’s nursery, followed by a spell in the South of France and their winter garden in Gstaad working for the Sackler family on big projects.
‘It was good to get away and I could easily have carried on doing that kind of thing. But I applied for a job to map the floral areas of Turkey. I didn’t even get an interview rightly as I am not a botanist. The garden designer, Ken Rawson, told Christo that I was looking for a job. I had kept in touch with Christo, he visited me in Switzerland and I still went to Dixter for weekends. He offered me the job of Head Gardener. I was only 26 or 27 but had a ferocious work ethic. But I was nervous as I didn’t want to affect those wonderful weekends. Christo said ‘don’t worry we are both grown-ups, friends, and love the place’. I have never looked back. He never disappointed and had the biggest heart.’
‘What we do here is not to make headlines but to experiment. I have strange creative ideas going on in my head the whole time. For instance the exotic garden has had lush green foliage for the past five years or so when it used to be so colourful. This year I feel I am going to strip it out and go back to colour and try to incorporate conifers. It may be absolute nonsense and not work but that is how we approach gardening here. We change the pots outside the front door every two weeks. I use them to play round with strange plants we are trialling and like to allow the students to be creative and have a go.’
Fergus finds it odd when people say ‘Christo never did that’. ‘His taste changed in my time, you couldn’t have pinned down what he was going to do. That was the beauty of it’.
Fergus laughs when I ask how he plans the famous long border. ‘It’s really easy. We don’t do much, just tweak it. It works in a series of compartments, each section has its own combination of plants. I have a gut feeling for what I want to do. I don’t do drawings’.
As anyone who has met Fergus knows he is refreshingly honest and hands on, even supervising the parking at the renowned plant fairs. ‘I do run a bit of a dictatorship here and am not a very good delegator.’
‘When Christo died the place had to take on a new life’ says Fergus. ‘It needed a new raison d’etre, it couldn’t just live on its name. It could have become a commercial dragon but it would be in danger of losing its soul.
We decided to have more students to give the place an injection of energy. There are six or seven at any one time. The Great Dixter Charitable Trust was set up in 2003.’ Christo and Fergus together choose the first trustees.
It is ten years since Christo died but as one strolls round the garden one feels that he is smiling down on Great Dixter from heaven, content that the genius loci is intact and flourishing.
Photos: Carol Casselden and Great Dixter Charitable Trust