By Jill Severn
Ah, the wonders of YouTube. He noticed my interest in gardening and now has all kinds of videos on the subject – some dreadful, some divine.
Among the divine is a biopic about Christopher Lloyd – the eccentric English gardener, not the actor. He was born in 1921, the youngest of six children to an upper-middle-class family. The video, “Garden Provocateur,” certainly isn’t Oscar-worthy, but for anyone who’s read a Christopher Lloyd book, it’s like meeting an old friend in a new way. And if you haven’t read a book he wrote, it’s a lovely introduction.
In 1910, Lloyd’s father bought a 15e-century called Great Dixter and the six acres surrounding it. He hired the famous architect Edwin Lutyens to extend and renovate it, and to design gardens to surround it. The garden designs created a network of garden ‘rooms’ separated by trees and hedges of yew and boxwood.
Lloyd’s father filled one of these outdoor rooms with large animals and topiary objects, including two enormous coffee pots. And he wrote a book considered the bible of topiary, titled “Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box.”
The taste for topiary art is a sure sign of eccentricity, and it is clear that young Christophe grew up with his father’s genome.
Christopher had been an uninspired student until he took up horticulture as his field of study. He then became a teacher of the subject but was dismissed at the age of 31 for insubordination.
For the rest of his life he made tending the gardens of Great Dixter – and writing about gardening – his profession. He and his mother Daisy, a dedicated gardener, supported the place by opening it to public tours and creating a plant nursery.
His mother died in 1972 and her absence freed Christo from his authoritarian matriarchy to develop his own independent social life. (The kindest description of her was that she was “a living personality.”) Over time, Christo learned to cook, to enjoy the previously forbidden pleasures of wine and spirits, and to experiment in the garden at its own way.
For 42 years, Christopher – known as Christo to his friends – wrote a weekly garden column for Country Life, the quintessential magazine for Britain’s rural high society. His last column, published in 2005, was written from his hospital bed following a triple bypass.
He also wrote several books, the most famous of which is called “The Well Tempered Garden”.
His gardening tastes and philosophy were bold, unconventional and at odds with the traditions of his time. He eschewed the rigid color harmonies and schemes of his elders and embraced brash color contrasts, unconventional combinations of shrubs, flowers and grasses. He was ridiculed by his detractors as “the king of clash”. And he was described by his friends as “engagingly frank”.
He claims he never intended to be provocative, but says “copying the past is a cop-out”.
Many people were provoked when he dug up an 80-year-old rose garden designed by Edwin Lutyens to set up a bold faux tropical garden. It was the English equivalent of wearing a Hawaiian shirt to a royal luncheon. In this transgressive garden, he revived the popularity of plants such as dahlias and canna lilies that had not been cultivated since Victorian times. He said he wanted to create a garden that you could imagine “there might be a tiger in there”.
He modified the nose of the Royal Horticulture Society by describing his famous long border of perennials as “boring and municipal”. They were offended, to say the least. But eventually they understood his point, revitalized the frontier and then awarded him the Victorian Medal of Honor.
He had no patience with “low maintenance” gardening; his books and articles were for people who love to garden – or those who can hire people to garden. In his famous border, he put his staff to work digging and replanting certain areas three times a year. He saw it as a way to expand his possibilities for self-expression.
Even if you’re not interested in spending every free hour in the garden, his books are full of witty observations and surprising connections between gardening, music, art and architecture that will place your garden within a broader cultural and aesthetic frame of reference.
YouTube has other shorter films about Great Dixter, now owned by a charity, and about the firmament of British garden writers such as Beth Chatto and Gertrude Jekyl who inspired or were inspired by Christopher Lloyd.
In fact, as you surely know, YouTube has videos about everything in the universe. And if you start watching garden videos once, it will keep serving them to you until the end of time.