Take a Tour of the Prolific Vegetable Plot at Great Dixter, a Legendary Garden in the United Kingdom
There's always something to learn at Great Dixter. The renowned estate, located in southeastern England, was the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd, a revered gardener who wrote no fewer than 25 beloved books. The grounds were first planted in the early 20th century and have evolved over the decades, but at its core Great Dixter is a beacon of innovation, experimentation, and education that's run today by Fergus Garrett, head gardener since 1992. Every year, countless horticulturists make pilgrimages there to walk the grounds and attend classes, workshops, and symposia.
The vegetable garden might not be the estate's splashiest attraction, but it is absolutely vital, supplying Dixter's kitchen and offering soul and sustenance to hundreds of visitors, students, and staff. For 14 years, until he departed last fall, Aaron Bertelsen was its steward and cook. To ensure a productive harvest, the Kew Gardens-trained horticulturist enriched the soil with compost each winter. A few weeks later, he'd plant produce in successive waves—beets, lettuces, and other salad greens—sowing approximately every month so there would always be something to harvest.
During his tenure, he developed tricks to keep the plot prosperous, such as always planting chives or onions with carrots to deter carrot flies, and under planting tomatoes with marigolds to prevent diseases like blight. He also holds off on sowing arugulas and mustards until after July 4 to avoid the pesky flea beetle, which loves to munch holes through the leaves in spring.
Several years ago, Bertelsen began filling pots in the small courtyard outside the property's kitchen with herbs, vegetables, and fruits; he relished being able to step outside to snip a bit of this or a handful of that as he cooked. This approach also allowed him to try plants that don't work in Dixter's clay soil, like blueberries. "Soon it began to mirror the larger garden," he says. "What I love is that pots allow anyone to grow produce at home, no matter the size of your space."
Bertelsen's next chapter is a venture called A.K.B. Grow Something, in nearby Hampshire; its mission is to inspire more people to cultivate their own food. There, he'll continue to share everything he learned on the East Sussex estate. "Christopher taught me that there is a difference between looking and seeing," he says. "Plants talk to you if you're open to them. They'll tell you what they need."
A Fabulous Flock
In the iconic Peacock Garden, above, 18 clipped yew topiaries hold court over a sea of soft, informal blooms: yellow Meconopsiscambrica, oxeye daisies, purple lupines, pops of 'Purple Sensation' allium, and low-growing Erigeron karvinskianus. In late summer, low hedges of Aster lateriflorus 'Horizontalis' connect the topiaries and frame the pathways.
In the High Garden, produce like lettuces, curly and flat-leaf parsley, beetroot, fennel, Swiss chard, and parsnips grows in neat, tightly planted rows that get rotated every year. Bertelsen sows densely and intensively to thwart weeds, or "pioneer plants," as he half-affectionately calls them. This method also keeps the soil from drying out.
For hydration, sprinklers are set to run once a week, for about an hour in the early morning, to give the area a good soak. "One of the biggest mistakes you can do is to water just a little bit frequently," Bertelsen says. When it's time for harvesting cut-and-come-again varieties like chard and lettuces, he snips the entire plant (leaving about an inch or two of foliage to encourage new growth), rather than just clipping the best leaves. This way, the whole plant is rejuvenated at the same time, and he's not left with a mess of tattered foliage. Just over the surrounding yew hedge, steam rises off compost heaps.
In the courtyard just outside Dixter's kitchen door, visitors find containers packed with edibles, such as scented geraniums, flowering chives, violas, figs, and fava beans. To learn more about growing your own produce from Aaron Bertelsen, check out his latest venture, A.K.B. Grow Something, or pick up his books: Growing Fruit and Vegetables in Pots and The Great Dixter Cookbook.
Cilantro and Violas
Bertelsen loves to combine violas, his favorite edible flower, with vegetables and herbs. Here, they are incorporated with cilantro—a versatile herb with edible leaves, flowers, seeds (aka coriander), and even roots, which he adds to soups and curries. It will bolt (go to seed) quickly in hot weather—for a continuous harvest, plant successively.
Don't let the size of this perennial deter you. Choose a deep, frost-proof container that is at least 16 inches in diameter, to allow for the large root system to expand. Fill it with well-draining potting mix that has been enriched with nutrient-rich compost. Hydrate regularly through the summer, as the large leaves will lose water quickly in the heat.
This cold-hardy berry doesn't require full sun to proliferate. The shrub is thorny, so prune it into an open goblet form, which will allow for easy picking, and always do the job wearing thick gloves and long sleeves. You can harvest two crops: one before they're fully ripe to use in cooking, and another when the berries peak, to eat raw like grapes.
Bertelsen always wanted to grow blueberries at Dixter, but they never thrived in the property's heavy clay earth. He succeeded when he planted a shrub in a pot, though. He top-dressed the soil every spring with pine needles or crushed pine bark to acidify it, and fed it weekly with liquid seaweed. Now it bursts with plump fruit in summer.
"If you're new to gardening and want an easy entry plant, grow herbs," Bertelsen says. Low-maintenance Mediterranean varieties like sage, rosemary, basil, and thyme don't need a lot of water. In fact, their oils intensify with some benign neglect. Just give them warm temperatures, bright sun, and well-drained soil.
With bright-crimson stems and vivid-green leaves, this tasty vegetable, also known as ruby chard, is a standout. Since it is a vigorous grower, Bertelsen suggests sowing it in a large pot. Place it in part-shade and keep it watered. To harvest the cut-and-come-again green, clip the leaves; they will sprout new ones until the frost.