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`This blessed plot, this England'. - Shakespeare. Three gardens - Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, and Hidcote - English landscape architecture at its best

By Patricia A. TaylorSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 1988



Northiam, E. Sussex, England

IT'S encouraging to know that three of England's greatest gardens were created largely by amateurs. Great Dixter in E. Sussex, Sissinghurst in Kent, and Hidcote in Gloucestershire consist of a series of outdoor ``rooms.'' These are relatively small spaces enclosed by green hedges or rustic stone walls and filled with groupings of colorful flowers and shrubs - which will begin blooming soon.

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The overall settings are spectacular. But because the gardens consist of manageable divisions, they offer practical suggestions for those with even the tiniest of flower beds. All provide sumptuous scenery for gardeners and nongardeners alike.

GREAT Dixter, eight miles north of Rye, is still being fashioned by Christopher Lloyd, one of its creators. Mr. Lloyd is a connoisseur collector of plants who loves to test new hybrids and play with color combinations. This gardener is also a premier writer, describing his garden's triumphs and failures in books, columns, and articles.

Great Dixter's design was laid out almost 80 years ago by Edwin Lutyens, a turn-of-the-century architect whose influence on garden structure is still felt today. At the time Sir Edwin began to practice, garden style dictated vast panoramas of field and woodland.

He proceeded to reduce this scope and reintroduced the concept of formal design, using the roomlike divisions that had been popular from Roman through Tudor times. In doing so, he made it possible for those with smaller plots of land to aspire to artistic achievement in the garden.

At Great Dixter, Lutyens laid out 18 distinct compartments. These were filled with topiary, a typical accompaniment to a ``room garden,'' and then planted by Lloyd's mother. It was she who filled one ``room'' with antique roses and who had young Christopher help her plant the meadow garden with a splash of bulbs and wildflowers.

While Lloyd has left some of his mother's plantings intact, other ``garden rooms'' at Great Dixter form a hot house of horticultural experimentation. This laboratory aspect can best be appreciated in the famous Long Border, a brilliant tapestry of plants measuring 70 yards in length and five in depth.

Best seen from the month of June on through the summer months, this magnificent garden planting is an ever-changing, riotous color mixture of perennials, annuals, bulbs, small shrubs, and even trees - something to be seen!

IN contrast to the evolving plantings at Great Dixter, those at Sissinghurst - less than an hour's drive to the northwest - are a static but living monument to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.

The diaries and letters of this couple (particularly as depicted in the book ``Portrait of a Marriage'') have chronicled their nontraditional, but highly cultured and literate lives. However, their petty affairs can be boring and make one wonder what was so special about this man and woman.

A visit to Sissinghurst supplies the answer. It is a stunning work of art, created by two individuals who had no formal horticultural training.

They acquired Sissinghurst in 1930. It consisted of some ruined buildings and rubbish-strewn fields. ``I saw what might be made of it,'' Sackville-West wrote. ``It was Sleeping Beauty's garden ... a garden crying out for rescue.'' The two were to spend the next 30 years answering that cry.

Harold Nicolson designed the garden, and she planted it. He favored the formal approach advocated by Edwin Lutyens (a close friend of his mother-in-law), and created an austere geometric layout. He extended the concept of ``room gardens'' and used borders of clipped boxwood hedges to create ``rooms'' within ``rooms'' in many of the nine garden spaces.

Sackville-West then gave full play to her romantic impulses in planting her husband's design. She copied the old cottage garden style - lush, crowded arrangements of many different flowers - and added the idea of themes. Thus, she created the White Garden, described as ``the most beautiful garden at Sissinghurst, and indeed of all England.'' Every flower in this garden - fragrant roses, woolly lambs' ears, dusty millers, and many more - is either white or gray.