Lloyd above us

Jane Powers remembers the late, great plantsman Christopher Lloyd's ever optimistic approach to gardening

Jane Powers remembers the late, great plantsman Christopher Lloyd's ever optimistic approach to gardening

Twelve years ago Christopher Lloyd and his head gardener, Fergus Garrett, dug up all the roses in the 80-year-old rose garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex. Eyebrows were raised at the cheek of it. After all, the garden had been designed by the great Edwin Lutyens, and who was Lloyd, a mere stripling of about 73 years old, to be desecrating such a treasure?

Alas, the incomparable Christopher Lloyd, the iconoclastic gardener, wise plantsman and sharp-tongued (but always edifying) writer, died two weeks ago at the age of 84. Yet his writings live on, half a century's worth, in the form of numerous books and articles, the latter including more than four decades of weekly offerings in Country Life, and years of weekend columns for the Observer and the Guardian.

Removing the roses, which en masse looked "blobby and without style", was a wicked pleasure for Lloyd: "The noise of tearing old rose roots as they were being exhumed was music to my ears."


Lloyd was a fashion-maker also, trying out ideas at Great Dixter, and bringing them into the mainstream through his writings. The exotic garden that he created where the weary old roses had once resentfully bloomed was responsible for accelerating an entirely new trend. He filled the space with luxuriant, tropical-looking foliage: Japanese banana (Musa basjoo), castor oil plant (Ricinus), canna, phormium. He also used trees such as Paulownia, Ailanthus and eucalyptus, which when pruned hard in spring produce outsized and beautiful leaves. Colour was supplied mainly by masses of hot and brassy dahlias, and lanky Verbena bonariensis, whose purple bobbles sway and shimmer in the breeze.

Christopher Lloyd wasn't the first to embrace this new exotic style (designer Myles Challis had written a book about it, The Exotic Garden, in 1988), but he brought it into the public eye, through his columns and the thousands of visitors to his garden.

Posh gardeners were in a quandary. While bananas and other large-foliaged plants were certainly worth a try, dahlias, on the other hand, were the accepted preserve of the working classes and the salts of the earth. In "good" gardens, they were restricted to the peer-approved, blood-red 'Bishop of Llandaff' and the crimson 'Bednall Beauty'. Both have single flowers with well-controlled petals, and were admitted only in limited numbers, and where they wouldn't make too much noise. But at Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd and his new head gardener planted voluminous swathes of frilly, orange and red, double dahlias, and unruly crowds of scarlet, cactus-flowered dahlias with spiky, punk hair styles. They created a racket that could not be ignored. The re-gentrification of the dahlia had begun.

Now, a dozen years later, dahlias are de rigueur; hot colours are seen as brave and refreshing rather than vulgar; and almost every garden centre sells bananas, cannas and other big-leaf plants. The exotic style is a handsome look, especially for enclosed urban gardens, where the jungly effect is amplified, and where the higher temperatures and relative shelter are kinder to plants that might suffer in cold or wind.

Gardens are smaller than ever now, and require that plants have longer seasons of interest, which is where bold foliage is such a boon. Ornamental grasses, consequently, have become essential components in gardens both great and small. Noble members of the Miscanthus genus, such as the stately 'Roland', and other graceful grasses such as Molinia and Calamagrostis, add vertical yet airy accents, and a kinetic energy as they move in the slightest breath of wind.

Planting has become much looser, with different species leaning against and weaving through each other in a casual and friendly fashion. Tall plants may be dotted here and there in a naturalistic manner that imitates meadows or prairies.

It's a far cry from the pastel-coloured herbaceous borders of 12 years ago with neat tiers of plants: little ones at the front and big boys at the back, just like a school photograph. And the whole lot, if you recall, was cut down in autumn, leaving an empty bed for the entire winter. Now, we favour a less groomed appearance, leaving many of our plants to stand as gaunt skeletons during the chilly months. It's not just that we're lazy or time-pressed, we're also mad for wildlife - and dried seed heads provide food for birds, and roosting places for over-wintering insects.

We're also keen on composting and recycling, and we've espoused organic gardening because we don't like what we hear about chemicals. And nearly every gardener with the space now has vegetables (once the dominion of old men in caps and Protestant ladies) even if it's only a few leaves of rocket for the salad bowl.

There have been vast changes in garden fashion in the past decade or so. Television has helped trends move along faster than ever. And the industrialisation of certain kinds of plant production, through micro-propagation and machinery, means that more plants are available for sale in shorter periods of time.

This is not all good news for gardeners, however, as some larger nurseries tend to concentrate on easy-to-raise plants that look well in pots. But smaller, specialist nurseries (please support them) are filling the gap, with garden-worthy, interesting plants. And the guide, The Plant Finder, first published in 1987, and revised annually since, ensures that any keen gardener can track down a nursery selling whatever plants they crave. Choice plants are no longer the privilege of a small circle of well-connected (and not always generous) gardeners. Today's fashion plants, the aroids, auriculas and Araliaceae, are but a phone call away, and may be obtained with cash, rather than coercion or flattery. And that can only be a good thing.

Speaking of plant fashions, I received an edict recently from the Royal Horticultural Society's press office. The big things in 2006, says Bob Sweet, head of RHS shows development, will be irises, hydrangeas, white flowers and orchids.

But I prefer to leave you with a final thought from Christopher Lloyd, from his Guardian column published the day after his death. As it happens, he's talking about the quest for desirable conifers, but his words encapsulate his ever optimistic and constantly fresh approach to getting the best out of gardening. "There are so many better things," he counsels, "and you should grab at them."


Galway, Sunday, March 5th, 10am-5pm, workshop on growing native trees, with forester Steven Burke, at St Brigit's Garden, Pollagh, Roscahill, Co Galway. €75, with lunch. Booking: 091-550905; www.galwaygarden.com.

Wales, Saturday April 1st, 10am-4.30pm: workshop with internationally acclaimed garden photographer, Andrea Jones, at Crûg Farm, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales. The fee of £125 (€183.5) includes lunch in the home of nursery owners Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones. Just 30 minutes by car from Holyhead ferry. Booking: 00-44-1248-670232