Great Dixter: The reissue of a classic tome

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The Independent Online

It must have been fairly intimidating to meet Christopher Lloyd in person. People who actually want to eat the artichokes out of their own flowerbeds? Idiots! The horticultural equivalent of Hugh Laurie's Dr House, Lloyd was witty, acerbic, wickedly clever and ferocious, possibly a bit haughty, and could clearly get a bit cross with anyone who asked even a borderline stupid question. (He occasionally operated a policy of refusing to divulge plant names to visitors not adequately equipped with notebooks.)

Yet reading his books, you find a friend. Suddenly the sharpness is directed at other people, and the voluminous brain is at your service. His Foliage Plants, recently reissued by Frances Lincoln (£12.99), is a case in point. Lloyd begins by wondering what kind of reader you might be. What is your attitude to foliage plants, he ponders out loud. "Unfortunately I cannot hear your replies," he continues, confidingly, "so I shall have to make some up for you."

Most gardeners and designers spend whole careers trying to be tasteful; Lloyd was after something rather more splendid and jarring. So, in Foliage Plants, neighbourly growing hints sit alongside passionate claims for maligned or ignored plants. Ivy, that feared home-wrecker, "nicely furnishes a brick wall". Parks planting is often "peculiarly fidgety and repulsive", but occasionally offers something lovely, such as the Mexican cigar plant. Or what about his clairvoyant suggestion to plant the house plant Tradescantia "Purpurea" as summer bedding alongside a nice row of Swiss chard? (Before you remark that everyone has been doing that this year, recall that this book was written in 1973.)

At Great Dixter in East Sussex, his own garden, Lloyd put his ideas into practice. He ripped out his mother's rose garden, which had come to the end of its natural life, and planted instead an "Exotic Garden", chock-full of foliage. Cannas, bananas and ivy-leaved begonias, yes, but also carefully chosen trees and shrubs from years of gardening experience.

And here, the ideas he presents in Foliage Plants come to life. Fancy trying his idea (chapter five) of growing an exotic tree such as a Paulownia or catalpa, but cutting it down to the ground every spring so that it produces forced gigantic 4ft leaves? Go to Great Dixter first, and see it done for real. Convinced by his argument that Bergenia cordifolia is a loathsome plant (chapter seven), and want to see some alternatives? Ditto.

Towards the end of the season, as we are now, Great Dixter takes on a very particular air, becoming blowsy, with fringing on big leaves where the summer winds have blown them, and autumnal tints on the trees. It's a great time to visit, then to take home the plants you've fallen in love with from the garden's nursery.

Great Dixter ( is open to the public daily, except Monday, until 30 October, when it closes for the winter

Lloyd's lovelies

1. Melianthus

"The foliage plant I dote on more than any is Melianthus major," he writes: gigantic silvery-grey leaves on a plant that can grow up to 2m high.

2. Clematis

"The only clematis any sensible person would grow more for its leaves than its flowers" is Clematis cirrhosa, with bronze leaves in winter and pale-yellow flowers from January to April.

3. Grasses

Combine tasteful grasses with untasteful variegation for true Dixter flavour: Arundo donax "versicolor" was a Christopher Lloyd favourite with "broad and bold" stripes. All £7.50 from the Great Dixter Nursery