He dedicated most of his life and his writing to his garden and was widely known for his willingness to experiment and his passion for planting.
Eight years ago I had the opportunity to start a garden from scratch in a neighbourhood where manicured lawns are not the norm and old pine trees are prized and protected. My mentor in making this garden was Christopher Lloyd—or at least his books were. So it was quite an honour to visit Great Dixter, Lloyd’s garden in England.
Lloyd, who died in 2006, was a champion of mixed borders that included trees, shrubs, perennials (both hardy and tender), climbers, biennials, annuals and bulbs. He combined these plants quite spectacularly in his Long Border at Great Dixter. The border is backed by a high yew hedge that provides a sombre backdrop for his brightly coloured plants. In his book Succession Planting for Year-round Pleasure, Lloyd shows how the Long Border changes from early March to early October and when you visit Great Dixter you see just one snapshot of this incredible progression.
Anchor plants provide structure and year-round pleasure and I now incorporate such plants in all my borders. Some of Lloyd’s anchor plants actually flourish in my zone 5 garden such as Pinus mugo (kept at three feet), Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’ (that he says “is not a beautiful shrub in itself but it does beautiful things”) and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (“one of the most valued plants in my garden”).
He was not afraid of colour and didn’t like things being too “samey”. Like me, he loved the brilliant magenta-flower of the Bergenia and associated it with Narcissus ‘Jetfire’, which is a strong yellow. I grow Crocosmias ‘Lucifer’ because of him and its pure shade of red attracts all who pass by. I plant it close to another of his favourites, the annual rudbeckia, R. Horta ‘Indian Summer’, which trumps every perennial rudbeckia growing in my garden.
He loved surprises and taught me to always include a few showstoppers and to change them yearly. He got me to question my prejudices and I now include the odd sub-tropical plant that I once found too garish. He didn’t go for evenly graded heights and would even situate tall plants at the front of a border.
Lloyd used annuals to give splashes of colour, saying that while they lack substance they are flexible and easy to change. He integrated them into the mixed border in a rather informal way and would include everything from flat leaved parsley to dahlias. He sometimes changed annuals in the same space three times a year. To those who thought that extravagant he simply said, “Away with the kill-joys.” He said, “Too many gardeners eliminate from their borders any plant that requires a little extra effort and the result is usually dull”.
Great Dixter is not a garden for the tidy-minded for he preferred the “casually haphazard” look (which is why I particularly love him). Plants such as hardy geraniums are allowed to spread into their neighbours and he had no time for gardeners who spent their time keeping plants separated. He would allow the round heads of the Allium christophii to dry and blow around and didn’t cut down his perennials until spring.
Under-planting perennials with spring bulbs is an important feature of the Dixter border. He used climbers to provide vertical accents, often training them to scramble over shrubs. Plants that self-seed he regarded as the “entertainers”, dancing through the border in an uncontrived manner. He let alliums self-sow freely and often in great drifts and had self-sown poppies for months.
Lloyd was blatantly unconventional and never afraid to try something new. When he grew tired of his rose garden that had been established for more than 70 years, he replaced it with sub-tropical plants, an act that was said to send “shock waves through the gardening world.”
Lloyd was trained in horticulture at Wye College in England. He wrote some 20 books on gardening and a weekly column for Country Life starting in 1963. He also wrote for The Observer and The Guardian. When you visit Great Dixter, take a look at the Great Hall in his 5th century timbered house where you can just picture the man writing at the table that sits on a rather battered oriental carpet.
In an article in The Telegram, Lloyd was quoted as saying, “We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer’s gloaming. Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing.”
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011