Many know of the garden author Christopher Lloyd and his famous ‘Great Dixter‘. Christopher Lloyd passed on from this earthly garden in 2006, but his achievement in creating one of the great gardens of the world continues. An interview with its head gardener, Fergus Garrett, presents some history and insights into how the garden was made, and from this comes three questions for our home gardens:

The Three Questions

‘We asked: is it worth it? Does it grow well? Does it stand on its own?'”
3 questions
During daily walks around the garden, these questions helped to produce new ideas and a list of tasks for accomplishing them. We can easily borrow this to bring excitement into our own landscape planning.

Is it worth it?
This isn’t just the initial financial cost, but the cost in terms of care, work required by the plant cultivation… such as, does it require lifting and division more than it might be worth for its inclusion in the garden plan? Is it worth it in terms of preparing or keeping the conditions it likes. An acid loving plant in an alkaline pH soil is almost never worth it, no matter how gorgeous the plant might be. Is the proposed plant or plan worth it in terms of time, effort, and cost?

This book does the research for you. These plants will make your garden look good with less work.

Does it grow well?

Even when conditions are to a plants liking, some plants are just not “thrifty” They are lank or weak, or don’t bloom well. A good starter resource for understanding plants that answer this question is found in Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s 50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants, plants chosen for their high value in the garden. Experience in your own climate area will dictate which plants will thrive, advice from the Master gardener association or the county extension are other good sources of information.

Does it stand on its own?
These are plants which I call “Stalwarts“. Plants that have a presence in the garden due to strong form and good foliage, Plants that give good bloom in a particular season, shrubs that have more than one season of interest and have a good habit of growth.

A view of the house and the pond

Which plants do I deem to be stalwarts in the garden? Iris, peony, daylilies, Asiatic lilies, coreopsis, and a few others. They bloom for long periods of time, look good when out of bloom, and are generally healthy. They hold their own visually with strong form.

An example of how to identify a worthwhile plant can be found in the choice of roses. Not all roses are the same, some hybrid teas bred for exceptional flower form are weak and ungainly plants, prone to blackspot and insect problems; while others such as shrub roses, bred for landscape use, offer healthy foliage and good form. Those would be the roses that stand on their own, while the hybrids would require much support, efforts at disease control, and companions to make them look good. That set of facts would make most hybrid tea roses a negative answer to all three questions.

Such examples are constrained by the desire for an overall garden planting that looks good through out the growing seasons, when there are other considerations, like the beauty of a bloom for cutting or just because it is your favorite flower, then these considerations might take a back seat. It seems that the longer one gardens, though, the more this advice, to ask these three questions, is welcomed.

The three questions, “Is it worth it? Does it grow well? Does it stand on its own?“, are guides that a famous and wonderfully creative plantsman used in order to focus his garden planning. We can benefit from his wisdom and expertise, using the same questions to guide our choices in what is best for our own gardens.

There are plenty of opportunities to use supporting actors on the garden stage, and many of those create texture and interest in the overall picture, but the way an outdoor environment best shapes up is with choices that can answer the questions that gave direction to at least one of the great gardens of the twentieth century.[1]

Great Dixter