Great British Gardeners II


Great British Gardeners: Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd was one of the most innovative and experimental gardeners of the 20th and early 21st century, and, until his death in 2006, the owner of the wonderful Arts and Crafts-style house, Great Dixter, situated near the village of Northiam in East Sussex. Designed in the early 1900s by his father, Nathaniel, with the assistance of Sir Edwin Lutyens, the imposing manor house was developed from a much earlier building, dating back to the 15th century. Nathaniel Lloyd was keenly interested in architecture and garden design, and created the sunken garden and planted the yew trees, now renowned for their topiary peacocks. Today, the garden is a well-known Mecca for gardeners, who make the pilgrimage to Great Dixter from across the globe.

Lloyd - or Christo as he was known to his friends - was born in 1921, and studied Modern Languages at Cambridge, and, after National Service, studied horticulture at Wye College. Returning to the family home in 1954, he joined his mother - the appropriately named Daisy Field – to run the garden, and also to open a nursery specialising in clematis and unusual plants. Daisy Field was a keen amateur gardener and devotee of William Robinson’s important volume, The English Flower Garden, which advocated a ‘wild’ or ‘naturalised’ style of planting. However, her son was a follower of the ‘painterly’ style of colour scheming advocated by Gertrude Jekyll, whom, as a child, he had been taken by his parents to visit. Her garden at Munstead Wood, near Godalming in Surrey, left a deep impression on the young Lloyd, and an appreciation of the Jekyll planting style is still apparent at Great Dixter. In later years, Lloyd met the writer, Vita Sackville West, another influential gardener of the 20th century, perhaps best remembered for her ‘garden rooms’ at Sissinghurst Castle, which was to also influence the garden design at Great Dixter.

In 1963, Lloyd started writing a weekly column for Country Life, which was to continue without a break for over 40 years. Author of over twenty books, perhaps his best known work is The Well-Tempered Garden, published in 1970, still compelling reading for the plant and garden enthusiast, with its sound advice and innovative ideas. Other popular books were on perennials, clematis, exotic and foliage plants, all expressing ground-breaking ideas in their time, and espousing Lloyd’s provocative opinions. He was also a passionate cook and his impressive volume on country cookery, Gardener Cook, described as a journey from plant to plate, was published to great acclaim in 1997. His love of cooking extended to regular entertaining groups of his friends, and Lloyd was even known to meet a couple of visitors in the garden and invite them in the house for lunch!

Well known for his eccentricity and highly opinionated views, Lloyd was always willing to break through the boundaries of gardening convention, an attribute best epitomised by the Sub-Tropical Garden at Great Dixter, developed in conjunction with his imaginative head gardener, Fergus Garrett, whose collaboration with Lloyd, 40 years his senior, was an example of true empathy and mutual admiration. The area was originally a rose garden - which he announced were ‘miserable and unsatisfactory shrubs’ – but is now packed with exciting exotic plants, with brightly coloured flowers, huge leaves and bold architectural forms, including bananas, cannas, dahlias, agaves and gingers. Since its inception in the 1990s, it has become an inspiration to gardeners seeking new planting concepts.

© Jim Sanctuary

Another article in the series - Great British Gardeners, by Jim Sanctuary

Topiary at Great Dixter.

Christopher Lloyd with his favourite Dachshund.

The Exotic Garden at Great Dixter.