Biodiversity at Great Dixter

10. October 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Great Dixter Eingang © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzungauf Deutsch lesen – The travel restrictions may make life difficult for many and be frustrating at times, but there has been a positive outcome: many lectures have been taking place on the internet instead of in front of a live audience. Not only can more people participate, many of these events can be viewed at a later date. One of these gems are a series of fascinating lectures about Great Dixter given by Fergus Garrett.

Fergus came to Great Dixter in 1992 as head gardener to Christopher Lloyd. Although Fergus became Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust after Christo’s death in 2006, he remains very much of a hands-on practical person.

I have visited this fascinating garden at various times of year, and every time it is a great pleasure to watch it change and evolve within its historical framework. It is a garden where boundaries keep being pushed, where different ways of gardening are explored. Fergus leads a young, dynamic team of eager gardeners and students that come to Dixter from all over the world. Besides traditional mixed borders, immaculate lawns, a tropical garden, a productive kitchen garden, razor-sharp hedges and characterful topiary, there is also a nursery and of course its extraordinary meadows. The whole sits in the beautiful Sussex landscape, surrounded by low-intensity grazed meadows and carefully managed woodland.

Although for many visitors, the ornamental garden parts have always been the main attraction of the garden, Dixter is also known for its extraordinary meadows. Started by his mother almost 90 years ago, Christo has continued to maintain and enhance the meadow areas in the garden, adding non-natives to increase the diversity and flowering season. Snowdrops, Crocus and Colchicum are some of the bulbs that prolong the seng ason from late winter to autumn. Outside the garden the meadow areas are treated more carefully, making sure only locally sourced seed from other meadows is used by bringing in hay from neighbouring fields. 

Mowing trials

Madversuche Great Dixter © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Mowing trials

Outside of the garden, a long-term mowing trial area has bene set up to observe the effects of different mowing regimes. Next to plots that have not been cut at all, there are some that are scythed once, twice, three or even four times a year, leaving the hay on site, or removing it. In the long term it will be interesting to see how these different management approaches will affect the diversity of the meadow.

Biodiversity at Great Dixter

In recent years, several audits have taken place to develop a better overview of the general conservation value of the different areas which helps them to assess possible management alterations. An archaeological and historical survey was part of this, as there has been a farm on site since the mid-15th century, and many ponds, humps and bumps in the landscape are remains of much earlier features. The list of specialists that came to survey the place is endless. They were interested in spider, bee, beetle, bird, moss and lichen, butterfly, moth etc. Each reported what they found in which parts of the estate and gave an indication of its status: how rare and endangered the species is.

Audit results

Over 2300 species were recorded during several visits spaced over one year. Over 100 species of lichen, over 100 bees, of which 18 are rare or endangered, 400 moths and 29 butterflies, over 190 spiders. The lead ecologist has in 30 years’ experience neve surveyed such a species-rich site, and completely changed his view on gardens and their ecological role.

The most remarkable of all the information that has come out of the survey is that the two areas with the highest number of species are the two least likely areas: the best is the formal garden, the second best is a somewhat un-remarkable meadow area, which is used for Great Dixter’s annual Plant Fair weekend. Although this is not studded with orchids and other precious plants, it has a huge diversity, as it encompasses various habitats, wetter areas, shadier parts, from woodland edge to tall grassland, short grassland, and quite compacted bare earth.

The most remarkable of all the information that has come out of the survey is that the two areas with the highest number of species are the two least likely areas: the best is the formal garden, the second best is a somewhat un-remarkable meadow area, which is used for Great Dixter’s annual Plant Fair weekend. Although this is not studded with orchids and other precious plants, it has a huge diversity, as it encompasses various habitats, wetter areas, shadier parts, from woodland edge to tall grassland, short grassland, and quite compacted bare earth.

Kentranthus & Erigeron im Mauerwerk © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Kentranthus & Erigeron

What does it tell us?

Pflanzenmarkt Wiese © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Market meadow

It proves how important diversity is, both in the landscape and in the garden. It shows how every garden owner can contribute to the precious environment that we all rely on for our survival and well-being. Much has to do with how and what we plant, how we manage the planting but also the hard structures. Many solitary bees like to nest in sand, which they often find between paving slabs. Others need dead wood into which they can tunnel themselves to lay their eggs. Instead of getting worked up about a hole in the post of the shed, rejoice and wonder who has moved in there. Moss or lichens on a bench, stonework or old gnarled tree branch are beautiful organisms that are an important part of the whole eco-system. They add patina and character. Plants that soften hard surfaces like terraces, steps as well as roofs, are not only optically valuable, they add to the larger green interlinking network that helps to sustain all these varied species.

A garden can have numerous habitats

At great Dixter they have shown that besides the formal structure of crisply cut hedges, short mown-gras and straight paths, the planting in borders also adds greatly to the diversity of the garden. Two types of plant have proven to be particularly valuable: umbels (all the plants belonging to the carrot-family like fennels, cowparsley and dill) and the alliums: the onion relatives. Where possible they allow some of the wildflowers from the surrounding countryside to jump the fence into the garden. Billowing drifts of cowparsley, or cheerful ox-eyed daisies can infiltrate flower beds or populate cracks in the pavement. But exotics are equally valued by many insects. Chelostoma campanularum – the tiny, black Harebell Carpenter Bee- Scherenbiene- is one of the insects that have discovered that garden campanulas are as good a feeding ground as the native wild harebells, which are becoming increasingly rare.

Management

Great Dixter Mixed border © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Mixed border

The management of a garden has of course a huge influence as well. After Christopher Lloyd’s death 14 years ago, Fergus completely stopped using chemicals and artificial fertilisers. After a few years, a good balance established itself in the garden, with numerous predators taking care of most pest problems. If a plant proves to be particularly prone to pest and disease attacks, it is taken out.

Instead of applying herbicide, the carpark edges can be a little wild and woolly, and the odd nettle patch is permitted to stay. In paths ornamentals like Kentranthus ruber or Erigeron karvinskianum will self-seed. If you fill the spaces with desirable plants, the weeds will not have space to grow.

Margeriten Great Dixter © Isabelle Van Groeningen
allowing wilderness

At the end of the season, as many of the dead flower stems can stand as possible. They not only provide a magical winter landscape when snow or frost come, they provide important food and lodging for many small creatures. 

You have all autumn and winter ahead of you to reflect on how you can extend the flowering period in your garden, allow a few areas to be less manicured, enhance different habitats to increase the diversity of visitors.

These lectures can be found on the Vimeo website, where you can “hire” them for a week for €16,60 to watch at your convenience.  https://vimeo.com/greatdixter/vod_pages

They are in English, but a wonderful, thought-provoking way to spend a rainy afternoon!

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