Christopher Lloyd

Gardener who devoted his life to Great Dixter and wrote for 'Country Life' for more than 40 years
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The Independent Online

Christopher Lloyd, gardener and writer: born Northiam, Sussex 2 March 1921; OBE 2000; died Hastings, East Sussex 27 January 2006.

British horticulture is blessed with many inspired plantsmen and elegant writers, but rarely do those qualities combine as seamlessly as in Christopher Lloyd. The inheritor of a classic English garden to which he devoted his entire life, he was uniquely able to transmit his passion to gardeners - and even to those with only a marginal interest in the topic - in numerous compelling books and weekly articles spanning almost half a century.

He was born in 1921, the youngest of six children of the architect Nathaniel Lloyd, who in 1910 had bought a 15th-century house at Great Dixter, near Northiam in East Sussex. He engaged Edwin Lutyens, the fashionable architect of the day, to adapt the house for contemporary family use, incorporating elements from a small medieval hall being demolished nearby. Nathaniel Lloyd was a knowledgeable gardener and he collaborated with Lutyens in designing Great Dixter's five-acre garden, whose essential structure has been maintained to this day.

Christopher's mother, Daisy, was enthusiastic about gardening, too; so it was surprising that he was the only one of her children who inherited the green gene. From a young age he would help her with the seasonal routines of the potting shed and the flowerbeds and soon he decided that he wanted to take up gardening as a full-time occupation.

His careers adviser at Rugby School tried to dissuade him, saying it was no kind of job for someone of his background and education, and that he should instead follow his father into architecture. "I pointed out that I couldn't draw," he told me in an interview in 1993, "but he didn't seem to think that mattered."

Still undecided about his future, he studied French and German at King's College, Cambridge, until the Second World War. On demobilisation from the Army, he found that he was more and more drawn to gardening and gradually he took over responsibility for the Great Dixter estate from his mother. (His father had died when he was 12 and the other children had moved away.)

He then took a degree in horticulture at Wye College in Kent. After graduating he taught there for four years as an assistant lecturer, until in 1954 he returned to Great Dixter full-time and established a plant nursery, which still thrives, specialising in clematis, one of his lasting enthusiasms.

A keen reader and letter-writer, he began contributing to gardening journals in 1952 and in 1957 produced his first book, The Mixed Border. Although The Well-Tempered Garden, published in 1970, is the best-known and best-loved of his works, it can be argued that The Mixed Border was the most influential, advocating placing shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals and bulbs in the same border, rather than segregating them into separate mini-kingdoms. "I like mixing my ingredients - just as I like mixing my colours," he told me. "They all help each other and you get a good succession and variety of shapes."

His mother died in 1972, aged 91. Being unmarried, Lloyd now had sole occupation of the large house. But he was seldom alone, cultivating a large circle of friends who stayed with him, sometimes for extended periods. The house and garden were also open to visitors - nearly 50,000 went last year - who often spotted him pottering around the beds and bushes.

Although he had inherited a traditional English garden, he never felt bound by the practices and assumptions of such gurus as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, whose views prevailed throughout most of the 20th century. He was always questioning orthodoxy and coming up with ideas that startled the horticultural establishment. He was one of the first to react against the 1970s fashion for flowers with subtle pastel shades, interspersed with swathes of pure white. He wrote in favour of bright, bold colours, and visitors to Great Dixter could see that he practised what he preached.

In 1993 he announced to his readers that he was digging up the rose garden that had been a central feature of his father's design, replacing it with a planting of lush, sub-tropical exotics. To those who protested that roses are integral to British gardening traditions, he remained unrepentant. "I got fed up with all the trouble they bring in their train," he explained. "They're quite disagreeable and make a very spotty effect even when they're flowering - a whole series of blobs."

That was also the year when he cemented a partnership that would greatly enrich the last decade of his life. It was in 1988 that he first met Fergus Garrett in 1988, one of a group of students from Wye who had come to visit the garden. The two men formed an immediate rapport, and in 1993 Garrett was appointed head gardener, exerting more and more influence as Lloyd approached his eighties.

Between them they made many changes to individual features and plantings, without sacrificing the essence of a garden that reflects the fashionable design of the early 20th century. The sunken garden, with its octagonal pool, remains in place. So do the spectacular long border, all 100 metres of it, and Lutyens's characteristic circular steps, although the small areas of grass that the steps once enclosed have been replaced by cacti and succulents. The yew topiary, much loved by Lloyd's father, is still there, but today is less surgically clipped.

Although old age limited Lloyd's ability to help with garden chores, he remained a prolific writer who never lost his freshness. In the last 10 years of his life he produced seven books, culminating last year in Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. In one of them, Gardener Cook (1997), he demonstrated that his skills in the kitchen complemented his achievements in the garden. Another was Dear Friend and Gardener (1998), an exchange of letters with Beth Chatto, a longstanding friend and herself one of the leading gardeners of their generation.

It was only last October that he finally gave up his weekly column for Country Life, which he had begun in 1963; but he continued writing for The Guardian until the end. His final Guardian column, published on Saturday, was about conifers, and contained many of the characteristics that made his writing so appealing - its immediacy, its lack of pretension, its attention to detail and its playful wit. "From where I sit at breakfast," it began,

I have a good view of Abies spectabilis var. brevifolia, a stately conifer that I planted perhaps 50 years ago. Its branches are weighed down with snow, but it is well constructed to take the load with equanimity.

He went on to write of "the thuggish habits of the Leyland cypress" that have undeservedly given conifers a bad name.

To invest plants with human feelings and characteristics - a kind of vegetative anthropomorphism - was one of his favourite literary devices. It could easily have become a precious mannerism but in his hands it did not, because it so clearly sprang from a lifetime of day-to-day contact with plants, nurturing them and seeking to provide them with the conditions in which they could flourish.

Some of his most vivid and funniest writing was to do with the gardener's constant battle against predators. In a 1974 Country Life column, despairing about the damage caused by slugs, caterpillars and the rest, he declared:

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.

For years the Country Life column was sub-edited by Anne Wright, who became a close friend and a regular visitor to Great Dixter. He was devastated when she died of cancer last month, aged 56.

Christopher Lloyd was appointed OBE in 2000 and in 1979 awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour. In appearance he was a man of his generation - the vaguely military white moustache harking back half a century at least - and his manners were charming and courtly. But, as I discovered, that did not preclude a degree of sharp impatience when an interviewer displayed palpable ignorance about some aspect of his craft that, to him, was basic.

He spent his last months trying to secure the future of Great Dixter. Because he had no heirs, he formed the Great Dixter Charitable Trust to take over. One of his last acts was to launch a public appeal for £3m to enable the trust to buy the freehold of the 60 per cent of the estate that he did not own.

Introducing the appeal in The Daily Telegraph two weeks ago, he wrote:

I don't want the place to become a museum but it always wants to be respected and every generation must play its role. The garden has changed a lot in my time and so has the house. That's fine, so long as it is appreciated as it deserves . . . If it always remains loved and retains its own identity, everything else will fall into place.

Michael Leapman

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