Pacific Northwest | August 24, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 24, home
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In the Garden, Let Go
An English patriarch gives us permission to get a little wild
Christopher Lloyd, who has lived and gardened at England's famed Great Dixter for all of his 84 years, is not the least traditional in his garden style or color combinations.
THE DAPPER OLD MAN sitting up on the stage in a plush armchair was introduced to the crowd as "the patriarch of Western horticulture." As he rose to his feet he seemed frail, but his voice grew in strength, his accent ever-so-British, his humor so bitingly sharp it cut a famed contemporary European horticulturist to ribbons in just a few sentences. Christopher Lloyd held forth for nearly two hours without notes — full of tales from his eight decades at Great Dixter, the internationally acclaimed garden in East Sussex, 50 miles southeast of London.

It was an exciting day for the hundreds of gardeners spending a May morning at the Museum of History & Industry listening to Christopher Lloyd and his head gardener, Fergus Garrett. The Northwest Horticultural Society brought the two men to Seattle as the first stop on a five-city speaking tour. Those of us crowding the auditorium were grateful to be present at what we suspected was the last tour for Lloyd, beset by health problems and now in his mid-80s.

I'd been at a lunch for Lloyd a couple of days before and tried to get him talking about writing for Country Life magazine for 44 years. He's never missed a single one of those 2,288 weekly columns. He wondered how garden writers without a garden presume to write on the subject, explaining, "I go outside and garden and then know what to write about." He laughed about some of the visitors to his garden who "walk right past the best bit and never notice it." I bite and make the mistake of asking what the best bit is. "Come in July," replied Lloyd testily, "and you won't have to ask."
Illustration Now In Bloom
Hydrangeas are one of Lloyd's favorite plants, especially what he calls the "bun-headed ones" and lacecaps, which he uses in mixed borders. H. arborescens 'Annabelle' is a particularly showy hydrangea that blooms early with near-basketball-sized heads made up of hundreds of tiny flowerets. The round flower heads begin a soft apple green, fade to white and then turn to a warm ivory as summer progresses.
Attending the lecture was almost as good as a visit to Great Dixter. For those of us who buy plants in pots and soil in bags, the traditional way of running a garden was a revelation. At Great Dixter they run a nursery, pump water from their own well, sterilize and mix their own soil. The heritage of it all was brought home by a photo of mustachioed men in white shirts, vests and Trilby hats using string and levels to precisely trim the hedges. Every summer one gardener spends 45 eight-hour days trimming these same hedges. And that doesn't include all the topiary.

"You don't need a 15th-century manor house to make a good garden, but it certainly helps," said Garrett. Great Dixter is in a Zone 8 gardening climate (similar to our warmer areas). Despite all the history, you can't imagine a more personal garden, as Lloyd is an innovator, one of the first to grow tropicals after he ripped out the rose garden. "I hate to preach restraint," said Lloyd, "because I so rarely practice it myself."

Here are some highlights from the morning with Garrett and Lloyd:

• Throughout the gardens they encourage and manage self-seeders such as the Mexican daisies and red valerian growing out of the old walls; these, they say, are "the final layering of the garden, the element that brings a smile to your face."

• Lloyd urged his listeners not to be "sniffy" about common plants like acuba and skimmia.

• Great Dixter's front lawn has been remade into a meadow — "a flowering tapestry within a grass matrix," through which they mow paths. Visitors often don't understand the meadow's wildness. One man asked, "Has Mr. Lloyd died recently? Because the grass doesn't seem to be cut."

• Bedding plants "aren't planted in stodgy groups" but used as an integral part of the borders, in color combinations described by Lloyd as "perhaps garish, but it is what we enjoy."

• All the borders are mixed plantings combining trees, vines, bulbs, annuals, shrubs and perennials. The borders are big and bold because, Lloyd explains, "compact and dwarf are swear words in my vocabulary."

Lloyd concluded by telling the audience that gardening has to be fun, otherwise it is nothing. "We're so restricted in so many areas of our lives — have fun with gardening."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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