The Great Dixter Plant Fairs – at the heart of the garden community

October 13th, 2019
Posted In: Garden trends & design, Gardening know how

The Great Dixter Plant Fairs are a brilliant place to buy the best and most unusual plants.

And they are also where professional horticulturalists and amateur garden lovers connect.

Even the car park attendants exchange jokes about plants, as they point out where to park with their pitchforks. (And they’re lovely pitchforks with handles of polished wood).

Great Dixter House & Gardens during the autumn plant fair

Great Dixter House & Gardens in East Sussex is one of the most famous gardens in the world. The Great Dixter plant fairs are held in spring and autumn, plus a Christmas Fair.

I went to the Autumn Great Dixter Plant Fair to talk to Linda Jones from the Great Dixter team. ‘The fairs started because Fergus Garrett, head gardener and CEO of Great Dixter, wanted the horticultural community to give back,’ she says. ‘They’re fund raisers for the Christopher Lloyd bursary scheme.’

Stall holders at the Great Dixter Plant Fair

The Laurels Nursery is based quite near Great Dixter but other nurseries come as far away as the Netherlands or France.

‘And they’re a way for smaller nurseries – who couldn’t afford the big shows – to connect with the public.’

Gingko biloba from Limes Cross Nurseries

Gingko bilobas from Limes Cross Nurseries. They are pine and conifer specialists and I’ve seen them several times at the Great Dixter Plant Fairs. They’re now exhibiting at the big shows.

How the Great Dixter Fairs happen…

The stands are charmingly made of poles and corrugated iron. And Great Dixter keep the charges to stall holders low.

Stall at the Great Dixter Plant Fair

The stalls are made with chestnut poles, corrugated iron and hessian sacking. They’re delightful. And everything can be re-used or recycled (or even composted in the case of the hessian).

And Great Dixter also asks that the nurseries contribute 10% of their takings to the Bursary Fund. There’s also a raffle.

The Great Dixter horticulture fund

The Christopher Lloyd bursary fund helps horticulture students travel and study. Bursary winners also come back from their studies or travels and give talks about their experiences.

The Great Dixter Plant Fair is run almost entirely by volunteers. ‘Horticulture students volunteer from Kew Gardens, RHS gardens and all around the country,’ said Linda. ‘They sleep on the floor in the main house on Saturday night. And Fergus cooks for them on Saturday evening. Everyone sits on straw bales to eat.’

No wonder you often find a horticulturalist with a connection to ‘Dixter’ in so many great gardens around the world. And it explains the car park attendants.

Fergus, who has taken Great Dixter forward in the spirit of the late great Christopher Lloyd, is one of the best-known names in horticulture. He helps out in the car park himself. I met him directing cars into a field, personally welcoming slightly surprised plant lovers against the backdrop of the stunning Sussex countryside. ‘Was that Fergus Garrett in the car park?’ I heard one bemused visitor asking another.

Car parked at Great Dixter autumn fair

A plant enthusiast parked in the field that serves as the Great Dixter Plant Fairs car park.

Who goes to the Great Dixter plant fairs?

One stall holder described the Great Dixter plant buyers as ‘either experienced gardeners looking for something unusual or plant nerds who want that special plant that no-one else has.’

But he added that some people just enjoy gardening.  The atmosphere is friendly and approachable – everyone seems to be generally cheerful and smiling.

More people are buying plants with interesting foliage, said Bob Folz from the Dutch plant nursery Tuingoed Foltz: ‘Men buy foliage,’ he added. ‘Women buy flowers.’

Plant nurseries, volunteers and plant shoppers come from as far away as Scotland, France and The Netherlands. There is a general sense that everyone is welcome, regardless of how little you may know about plants.

Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Plants

Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers and his father at the Great Dixter plant fair.

I had read that the plant nurseries at the Great Dixter plant fairs were specially selected. But Linda said this isn’t the case. ‘Great Dixter is very open and informal so we’d welcome any nursery that wants to apply. But Fergus does want the fairs to be about plants so there’s a very limited number of non-plant stalls.’

How to buy plants at the Great Dixter Plant Fairs

I don’t regard myself as a plant expert. I’m an amateur gardener, and I’m still learning alongside the readers of this blog.

So I find that the best way to shop at at the Great Dixter Plant Fairs is to ask the stall holders what they recommend for the site I want to plant up. At the moment, I am trying to rescue my dry shade border.

So I asked several stall holders for ‘plants for dry shade.’ I came away an Epimedium which has autumn colour and pale yellow spring flowers (Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’), an unusual ‘Upright Wild Ginger’ (Saruma henryii), an interesting variegated hellebore (Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Winter Moonbeam’) and three False Sinningias.

Plants for dry shade

The various leaves of my haul of plants for dry shade.

And I bet you’ve never heard of False Sinningias before. Its botanic name is Hemiboea subcapitata, which would be very useful if you were playing Scrabble and had a lot of vowels to use up. Worryingly, I later found it described online in one of the big plant directories as a ‘rare plant for moist, well drained shade.’

Or is ‘well drained’ the horticultural code for ‘dry’? Online descriptions for plants tend towards the weaselly, I find. There is perhaps a desire to cover backs by describing every plant as needing ‘moist, well-drained soil’. Or am I being unfair?

But if I’m looking for a plant which will do well in a difficult garden corner, then I think I would trust the nurseries that grow plants to advise me more than the online listings.

Great Dixter style

Great Dixter has a wonderfully English country style. Many of the stall holders wear tweed ties or cloth caps, although others are just muffled up against the East Sussex wind. There is no plastic anywhere. Even the fast food stands have a home-made country chic about them.

Cakes at the Great Dixter Plant Fair

I love the homemade look of the signage at the Great Dixter Plant Fairs. Gardeners will be interested to know that there is excellent cake available.

Watering cans in the Great Dixter nursery shop

Watering cans ready for use in the nursery attached to the Great Dixter shop. The nursery is open for plant sales all year round.

Then take a stroll around the famous gardens…

The entry fee for the fairs includes access to Great Dixter House & Gardens. It’s a treat to go round the Great Dixter garden at any time of year.

Christopher Lloyd created Great Dixter as a garden for experimentation, enjoyment – and even to shock – was very much a pioneer of succession gardening. He was an expert at making sure that a border looks good for as long as possible.

His book Succession Gardening for Adventurous Gardeners is mainly only available second-hand, but it’s a must for anyone who wants long season interest in their borders. It’s one of my 10 most inspiring and useful gardening books. Please note that, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.

The Long Border at Great Dixter in October

The Long Border at Great Dixter in October.

Pots for sale at the Great Dixter shop

Pots for sale at the Great Dixter shop. I love the roofs at Great Dixter – they are all so ancient and English-country.

Rustic five bar gate plant support

Having had plants flopping over the lawn this summer, I was interested to see this rustic five-bar-gate style of plant support. Would it work in my garden? There are always tips and ideas at Dixter.

Or if you can’t get there, see more of the Great Dixter Plant Fairs in video

Take a stroll around the Great Dixter house, gardens and autumn fair in video to soak up the atmosphere:

The next fairs at Great Dixter

There are two plant fairs a year – spring and in autumn. You can find out their dates on the Great Dixter House & Gardens website. There is also a Christmas Fair, which is different from the plant fairs as it’s not plant-orientated although there are always plants for sale at the Great Dixter nursery.

The Christmas Fair, however, maintains the hand-crafted and sustainable ethos of the plant fairs, so it is a refreshing change from garden centre tat. (My apologies to any garden centre that has made a huge effort to create a natural and sustainable Christmas area – do leave a comment below, if so.)

The Great Dixter Christmas Fair

A simple unadorned Christmas tree in a bucket welcomes visitors to the pop-up cafe in the barn at the Great Dixter Christmas Fair.

Pin to remember Great Dixter Plant Fairs

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Great Dixter Plant Fairs

4 comments on "The Great Dixter Plant Fairs – at the heart of the garden community"

  1. Libby says:

    I went to Great Dixter just a year ago: a dream day come true!! It was everything and more of what I had hoped (and perfect weather!) Would love to go to the plant fair but, as I cannot drive over there, would be a problem… but have loved seeing your images and tour.

    1. Thank you. It really is such an interesting and also life-affirming place, I think.

  2. Marianne says:

    Totally jealous!!! One day I hope to make the trip to this garden. Thank you for your art9icle

    1. Hope you manage it, it is really worth it. Thank you.

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