Christopher Lloyd

Plants along front walk: orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in bloom; blue Ceanothus blooming in background

In My Garden

I recently rediscovered a book I have no memory of buying. As you can see from the price stickers in the photo, it was a bargain. Especially considering what a fun read it’s been.

My copy of In My Garden by Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd was an eminent British gardener (“horticulturist, ” as he called himself) and writer on gardening. This book is a collection of his essays first published in Country Life between 1964 and 1993. They are arranged by month, a practice that makes sense considering that gardening is an activity governed by the seasons.

Reading the thoughts of this longtime expert gardener who was also a good writer was an informative delight. I must have read this book whenever it was I bought it, but I somehow forgot doing so. That made this re-reading a fresh experience.

Gardening was both passion and profession for Lloyd. He was opinionated, but spoke from knowledge and experience. His garden at Great Dixter was open to the public, which led to opinions about the habits of garden visitors. And on the habits of plants, from trees to tiny alpines. Dogs in the garden. Thefts of plants and cuttings, including confessions of long-ago heists perpetrated by Mr. Lloyd and his mother and fellow gardeners. His thoughts on the sound of certain words — “cultivar” (ugly) or “inflorescence” (delightful). The virtues of rough grass, which made me think I’m on to something with my Boulevard Project. The death of a plant as an opportunity for something new to be added. The essays cover a dizzying variety of garden-related topics, from plant propagation to cooking.

Great Dixter Garden is now managed by a charitable trust as a biodiversity and educational centre and is open to visitors. Its official website may be found here.

As well as enjoying Mr. Lloyd’s thoughts on gardening, I’ve been bustling about in my own patch, so thought it was okay to borrow his book’s title for this post. Deadheading continues, as well as staking, snipping, weeding, lugging watering cans, and fretting about when to activate the soaker hoses and sprinklers.

I can’t really complain about the weather so far this season. We haven’t had unseasonable cold or heat, and there was adequate rainfall from April through June. Today (June 27th), as I write this, however, we have dull clouds and a blustery wind, but without rain. My least favourite kind of weather, since the wind batters plants and tugs on them and dries out the soil. And it’s unpleasant to be in the garden with flying debris whizzing by as branches clash and clank overhead. (Okay, I’m complaining after all, but whining about the weather is a gardener’s prerogative.)

Update: today (June 28th) has been a complete contrast — sunny and clear with a little breeze. And we had a few millimetres of rain overnight; not enough to make much difference, but it was nice to hear its patter on the leaves. Summer rain here is a blessing.

Since this is a Garden post, a few photos are obligatory. About the middle of June I ran around trying to get decent close-ups of flowers. Being a lazy photographer, I didn’t work too hard at it, and my camera isn’t intended for macro work. These are the best of a dubious lot.

Ladybug on rue flower
Ladybug beetle on rue flower
Single flower of Geranium "Ann Folkard" with grey foliage in background
Flower of Geranium “Ann Folkard” with grey foliage of Rose Campion (Silene coronaria, formerly Lychnis coronaria) in the background.
Single flower of orange California poppy Eschscholzia californica
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), one of the best North American native plants for dry, sunny gardens. This is its normal colour.
Pink and cream California poppies Eschscholzia californica
Cream and pink California poppies, results of a packet of seeds of a type called “Thai Silks” I scattered around years ago.
Close-up of white mullein (Verbascum chaixii 'Album' with Hosta "Stained Glass" in background
Close-up of a white form of mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’). Hosta “Stained Glass” in the fuzzy background.

My patch of garden is not comparable to the size, sophistication, and magnificence of the one at Great Dixter, but all gardens and gardeners have something in common.

Two Garden Writers

Garden writing is a sub-genre of nonfiction. It’s not how-to-grow-it manuals, nor lists of plants for different purposes, but essays by gardeners, inspired by their experiences in their own gardens, with observations on gardening in general. Often, these writings are collections of columns or articles originally published over a period of years, arranged by topics or — a very common device — by the months of the year.

Right now I am reading (as well as a dozen other books), Christopher Lloyd’s In My Garden : the garden diaries of Great Dixter. Lloyd, who died in 2006, was well-known for his columns in Country Life and other British publications. His famous garden at Great Dixter, in Northiam, East Sussex, was (and still is) open to the public.

As I read, I find myself unconsciously comparing Lloyd’s quirks and writing style with those of another notable garden writer, the American Henry Mitchell, who until his death in 1993 wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post. Many of these columns have been compiled into three books — The Essential Earthman, One Man’s Garden and Henry Mitchell on Gardening. They are among my favourite books and I return to them regularly.

Superficially, these two gardeners appear to be a study in trans-Atlantic contrasts. Lloyd was a horticulturalist by training and profession; Mitchell was a journalist and amateur gardener. Lloyd attained near-celebrity status in his lifetime, while Mitchell was known mainly to readers of the Washington Post until his collected columns were published. Great Dixter is a large property with a 15th century house and features such as topiary, a meadow, an orchard and a famous long border. Mitchell gardened on a suburban lot, often referring to it as “my cat-run garden.” Their writing styles differ as well — Lloyd strikes me as being a bit acerbic with a touch of gleeful malice at times, but hiding personal feelings behind a British reserve. Mitchell’s writing is folksy and colloquial, and is occasionally quite self-revealing, as in “Budding Romance,” where he speaks of ill-health and the emotional attachments of gardeners to certain plants.

Having read a lot of Mitchell, and now some of Lloyd, I begin to see a few similarities. Both men gardened on clay soil; neither had much use for manicured lawns. Mitchell, I think, had little or no lawn; Lloyd had a meadow of “rough grass,” mowed three times a year, in which various wildflowers flourished. Both gardeners loved exotics and tropicals. Mitchell writes at length of his efforts to get various plants through the winter by bringing them into his house or setting up protective mulches and windbreaks. Mitchell’s house was full of rescued agaves, while Lloyd favoured ferns.

Mitchell loved bearded irises and old roses. Lloyd dismissed bearded irises as too labour-intensive, and disparaged old roses as “a week of glory followed by a diseased mess for eleven months.” Mitchell, for his part, disparaged the English climate: “England has a dreadful climate, hardly any sun and, surprisingly, not enough rain either. Things grow slowly there.” Mitchell liked plants to grow as large and lush as possible, and luxuriated in swags of roses and garlands of clematis.

These differences were superficial. Both men were passionate gardeners who wrote about their passion, and this shows in their writing, which I can’t recommend too heartily. In preparation for a garden-less winter, get hold of their books. They will keep you company through the dormant months and inspire you with plans and intentions for spring.

I will finish with two typical quotations:

Of course gardening is not for enjoyment. No, no, indeed not. It was never intended to be. There is no virtue in enjoyment. The hard grind, the solid slog, these are the character-forming attributes of our — I nearly said hobby — of our mission. Christopher Lloyd, “Discovery and Revelation,” In My Garden.

What the right flower can do, with luck, is heal the gardener, making him fit (more or less) to love, by steps however slow. Growing old, still in awe, still sitting at her feet. Henry Mitchell, “Budding Romance,” Henry Mitchell on Gardening.