photography by JONATHAN BUCKLEY
The beds and borders at Great Dixter are magical, filled with dazzling color, texture, and shape. Visitors could find or see something new every time they visited, even if they were to go every day. Best of all, though, Christopher Lloyds writing is as rich and textured as the gardens he created, as he demonstrated throughout his long tenure as a contributor to this magazine. Here we celebrate his life with excerpts of his articles, selected with the help of his friend Thomas C. Cooper, and memories shared by several fellow writer-gardeners.–Eds.
The convention, in any bed or border, of placing the tallest plants farthest from you and the shortest ones nearest to you is based on the commonsense principle of visibility. If a wall of tall plants at the border’s margin prevents you from seeing what lies behind you’ll feel frustrated. So far, so obvious.
But it is highly unadventurous to be always following rules; I find a deadly predictability brooding over the garden where everything is precisely graded. Rules are necessary as guidance to the novice, and every one of us is a novice at some stage in our learning. But once we understand the basics, we can experiment; that is when individuality rears its interesting head.
A spot of bumpiness in a border is fun. Often, if you’ll let them, the plants will accomplish it for you. My favorite mullein is the biennial Verbascum olympicum. (There are other, similar ones.) It forms a large rosette of foliage quite close to the ground in its first year, then in its second year sends up a stately candelabrum that can reach seven feet. “That must go to the back,” you might think to yourself in making your initial plan. So you plant several of them out in the fall at the rear of your border, and the next summer they put on a six-week-long explosion of yellow blossoms. Then, without your having noticed, they seed, and the following year–surprise–there are seedlings coming up all over the border, not just at the back but halfway forward and even at the front.
“Well, why not?” you think. “They look comfortable. Seems a pity to disturb them.” Next year: Wow! Your mulleins will be creating an exciting theme through a large part of your border … – “The Tall and the Short of It,” January 1992
Must-Reads by Chrisopher Lloyd
Christopher Lloyd shared his gardening ideas, advice, and opinions in magazine articles, but he also authored many books. While they are all worth perusing, busy gardeners might start with these favorites.
The Adventurous Gardener (Random House, 1984)
Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers (Timber Press, 2005)
Foliage Plants (Penguin, 1998)
In My Garden (MacMillan Publishing, 1995)
The Well-Tempered Garden (revised; Lyons Press, 1997)
Lloyd and Fergus Garrett replaced an old rose garden with the Exotic Garden, made vivid by red Dahlia ‘Wittemans Suberba’ and purple Verbena bonariensis (above), scarlet Kniphofia linearifolia (below), and other bold choices.
When I see a border ablaze with poppies, peonies, iris, lupines, and columbines in May or June my eyes search between these delightful explosions of color. What, I ask myself, will take over and maintain the interest later in summer and in fall? Generally the answer is precious little.
If a border sits where you see it all the time, you should aim for a longer season. You can say farewell to the low maintenance and the siren voices that pretend that it’s easy to have a scintillating garden for a minimum of effort. There’ll be work to do, fascinating work, and any true gardener becomes a willing slave.
First you must decide on the season at which your border is to reach its peak. Let nothing detract from this big moment. That’s not to say everything must flower simultaneously. Certainly not. The beautiful leaves of such plants as ferns and cannas will set off the flowers. But there must be no moldy-looking plants at your peak moment, no decaying daffodil foliage or mildewed lupines. I say this because most people plant what attracts them regardless of when it flowers. The result is a spotty few blooms from April to October but never any substantial sort of impact.
I’m in favor of a high-to late-summer peak, because that ensures a long buildup from April through June, when all the plants look fresh and full of promise….Of course, your friends will think it all happened by itself. In which case it’s time to make some new friends.– “The Long-Flowering Border” August 1989
Plants with bold structure provide the fiber, the stuffing that any good garden needs if it is not to dissolve into a haze of dots and blobs. More than that, these architectural plants, as they are called, are exciting. They are the tigers of the vegetable kingdom: strong, elegant, and sometimes a little fierce. They quicken the pulse…
Water makes a great setting for architectural plants, as you can see them twice over. Several times during a recent visit to California I was delighted by the sight of cannas planted in water instead of in the usual beds. I’m experimenting with that idea. Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) look wonderful this way, their lush spearlike leaves setting off the white artist’s-palette spathes. These are fairly tender perennials (though I can grow them outside), but pickerel weed (Pontedaria cordata) is not. The blue spikes of one well-selected strain are an impressive sight in August.
Back on dry land, what shall I say of yuccas?… I sometimes find the stiff formality of Yucca gloriosa a bit depressing, and its spiky leaves are far from user friendly, but all is forgiven when it thrusts up those magnificent branching spikes of waxy cream-white bells. You can have these flowers on a more modest plant with Y. flacccida ‘Ivory Tower’. A good feature could be made in the corner of a border with a group of this plant. Its rosettes of foliage are formal without being fierce, and they remain at a low level while the flower spikes rise, in summer, to four feet.–“Bold & Beautiful” November 1991.
MEMORIES OF CHRISTOPHER
OVER MANY YEARS, I became one of the countless people that regarded Great Dixter as a home away from home while in England. During those yean, my gracious host gradually transitioned from Mr. Lloyd to Christopher and then to his preferred endearment Christo. He was a man of undiluted opinion. Some might say his judgments were sometimes too seven and frequently sharp, but from my vantage, they were nearly always spot on. You learned quickly while In his presence to be ready for an ambush after an inviting, softly spoken question. “Do you like cosmos?” he might ask while on a pre-drinks stroll, pausing briefly in front of an expanse of the long Border with a floating wash of white cosmos. At this moment in this particular light and context, how could I possibly say I did not like cosmos, that I had never liked them, that they brought to mind the weedy rounds of white-washed tires that ornament trailer parks. “Yes, I do like them”, I would say to him. “How peculiar. I thought you were a good plantsman,” he would return while resuming his walk.
Christo came to our new garden In Indianola during his last speaking tour In the States, only three years ago. I asked him if he would help me plant a tree and he reluctantly agreed. He planted the maple and, after setting the shovel aside, rolled his eyes and said in mock exasperation “and he died three weeks later.” And then we all laughed. When Christo laughed, there were no clouds nor rain anywhere in the world. I am so fortunate to have that tree in my garden and will feel forever grateful to have come to know this most remarkable man -Dan Hinkley
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD HAS LONG BEEN one of my horticultural heroes. I’ve read his books over and over, and his crotchety humor and mien of authority have influenced my own smart-alecky, opinionated writing style. He’s the only writer to whom I’ve ever sent a fan letter. Imagine my surprise and delight when I received a reply. “Spring is early but there’s a tediously strong north wind blowing and knocking the tulips for six,” he wrote. “If there is a quiet sunny moment with the feeling of steam rising and everything growing, it needs to be seized and gloated over there and then, dropping everything else… We had one such moment during the evening, two days ago (it seems much longer). There was a new hatch of orange tip butterflies on the wing and feeding on mauve lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) in the damp meadow area close to our horse pond.” I was enchanted.
“Come and visit us if you can get away,” the magical letter ended, so a few years later, when my husband and I made our one and only trip to England, I made arrangements to call on Lloyd. But though we searched Great Dixter high and low, we never found him and were finally told he’d “gone off to look at some churches.” Still, my admiration remains undiminished, and I don’t even hold my disappointment against him (much).-Carol Bishop Miller
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD WAS AN UNFAILINGLY GENEROUS HOST. Almost until his own death, he never dined [or drank] alone. He always did the cooking, which was straightforward British food, and always excellent.
Early in our acquaintance, in an autumn twilight that made Great Dixter glorious, he invited us to walk about it Keen to impress him, one of us noticed a withered clump of foliage and said excitedly, “Is that Paris polyphylla?” “Yes,” he said, looking pensive. After a bit he excused himself, we thought to go in and cook. We walked on, but soon he caught up with us. He extended a dirty palm, and in it were three brown tubers. “What is that?” we asked. “Ha!” he said. “You don’t recognize it now, but it is what you ASKED for!”
Paris polyphylla is a very rare plant kin to the Jack-in-a-pulpits, and called Paris not from the city, but from the fact that all sections of the plant possess an equal number of parts, and so are at parity with one another. It is quite hardy here, but we have grown it in a pot for safety, because it is important to remember that afternoon, and Christo’s bluff generosity.- Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck
AT THE TIME I FIRST MET CHRISTOPHER LLOYD at Wave Hill in the mid 1980s, I had been at Wave Hill perhaps four years and had no idea who he was. Christo had already gained a reputation as an iconoclast and color man. Already somewhat stoop-shouldered and bearing that familiar white crop of wavy hair, he paid brief attention to his hosts at first, quickly surveying our new flower garden. “Ahh, something interesting is going on here,” he said, to the delight of John Nally, who collaborated on the garden’s design with Marco Polo Stufano, the first director of horticulture at Wave Hill.
In the aquatic garden, Christo asked why we had planted three ravenna grasses in a circular lawn bed when one would suffice. Viewing our new monocot garden he questioned why we had limited our garden to mono-cots. Long after Lloyd left we all excitedly debated the results of his visit Marco agreed one ravenna grass would do, so the other two were removed. On the other hand, we disagreed about the limitations of the monocotyledons, and felt Lloyd had been mistaken. We came to learn that Christo relished such debates among his many gardening friends.
He came again twice more in the ’90s, by which time I understood his reputation, having read his books. He intensified our interest in colon he diminished our fears. His compositions are among the finest in the world. What we gardeners loved about Christopher Lloyd, along with this no-holds-barred attitude toward creativity, was his loyalty to his staff, valuing their work the way Marco did ours. Like Fergus Garrett Christo’s right hand man, who now carries on the work of that great gardener with his own team, Christo, despite his greatness, was really one of us.-John Emmanuel
CHRISTO ENJOYED SEEING GARDENS, but he really loved getting out to see plants in the wild. On one of his visits to Minnesota, we headed north to investigate a quaking bog. We teetered along a thin boardwalk where spruce and larch gave way to open sphagnum. At the center, beyond the reach of the boardwalk, was a lake rimmed with a floating mat of sphagnum, dappled with an assortment of plants that Christo was vitally interested in seeing up dose. He was scheduled to give a lecture that evening in St. Paul, and only had one pair of shoes with him. A walk on the mat seemed out of the question, and he was crestfallen. Being a veteran bog walker, I suggested shedding our shoes and socks. He didn’t hesitate a second and started unlacing his shoes. Soon we were standing up to our ankles in cold water, supported by the bobbing mat of moss, stooping to examine tiny sundews and stick our fingers into the mouths of the pitcher plants. Christo was always ready for a new adventure; that s what made it so much fun to travel with him.
We had many great times together, but HI always cherish the image of him, brown pants rolled above his knees, his pale legs covered In muck, standing among the wild plants that fascinated him.-C. Colston BurrellH