The Wisley September Flower Show is a distant memory, Malvern Autumn Show has been and gone, the nights are drawing in and Strictly’s on the telly. But for die-hard plantaholics like me and Louise there is one last hurrah – and what a special one it is – The Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair.
Dixter’s location deep in the East Sussex countryside means your pilgrimage needs careful planning, but you can be safe in the knowledge that you will not have travelled the furthest. Billy Carruthers of Binny Plants will have journeyed down from Scottish West Lothian, Derry Watkins of Special Plants from deepest Wiltshire, and the Beth Chatto’s Garden Team from Norfolk. So this really is a gathering of the great and the good nursery owners from around the country.
At this plant fair you literally smile from the moment you arrive, as having negotiated your way down the quaint East Sussex lanes, you will be personally parked by Fergus Garrett himself, who has the humility to spend the entire weekend with the car-parking team.
The friendliness continues as your entrance fee is taken at one of the many makeshift stalls made from a combination of hay bales, rustic poles and corrugated tin roofs.
You really feel you are stepping back in time to the age of Arts and Crafts Movement and glorious aristocratic gardeners and artists. You almost expect to bump into Vita Sackville West or a member of the Bloomsbury Group at any moment. How Christopher Lloyd must have enjoyed these occasions!
There is a timeless rural artistry about the whole event:
Every now and then a bell is rung, and it’s time for one of the nurserymen or women to step forward and give a talk about their plants. Chatting to the stall holders it became evident why this particular plant fair had such a draw. One of our new Growbag subscribers told me recently that she always thought of the Great Dixter Plant Fair as a sort of school reunion; and this observation was borne out when I heard that Fergus Garrett always cooks supper on the Saturday night for the 70 or so plantsmen and women who have brought plants to the fair.
Taking place so late in the year the weather can be anything from autumn storms to a balmy Indian Summer. The communal supper is held outdoors on hay bales, and Marina Christopher (of Phoenix Perennial Plants) told me that some years this will be under twinkling stars, and others in pouring rain, but this doesn’t seem to make a jot of difference to the enjoyment of the evening.
I seem to have got this far without even mentioning the range of plants on offer, and Dixter is a great place to see those which are flowering their socks off in October, and these are precisely what we need to extend the flowering season in our gardens. Here you get the chance to compare the different asters, chrysanthemums and grasses while they are actually doing their thing. There’s also a great selection of ferns, shrubs, bulbs and alpines. But as well as the mainstream species, this is THE place to find all those little gems that you have read about but never seen for sale.
And the nurserymen are so knowledgeable and generous with their advice. I was toying with the idea of purchasing a Shortia soldanelloides although I knew little about it. The wonderful owner of Potterton nurseries was completely honest about the challenges of getting this little plant to succeed. He actually gave me the label and told me to go off and look it up over lunch, and he would keep one to the side for me if I was still determined to give it a go. Of course I’ve risen to the challenge …
Louise recounted buying a bergenia from Edulis at the fair a couple of years ago, and reminded Paul Barney of it this year. He remembered exactly being given it by an ancient inhabitant of Manipur in North East India where it had been more or less chopped out of a ditch. It’s stories like these from the nurserymen that bring not only appreciation of the beauty of the plant but the priceless mental picture of its origins.
All in all it was the most uplifting day out, and as Tim and I ended our day with a home-made ice cream, (apricot flavour, which Tim announced was the nicest ice cream he had ever eaten)
a kind gentleman in the car park offered to take our photo as we looked ‘so happy’. Hardly surprising after such a wonderful day, thank you Great Dixter, you pulled it off again.
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