Garden Provacateur


Ah, the wonders of YouTube. It has noticed my interest in gardening and is now serving up all manner of videos on the subject – some dreadful, a few 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 in an upper-middle-class family. The video, “Garden Provocateur,” is definitely not Oscar-worthy, but for anyone who has read a book by Christopher Lloyd, it’s like getting to meet an old friend in a new way. And if you have not read a book he’s written, it’s a charming introduction.

In 1910, Lloyd’s father bought a neglected 15th-century house called Great Dixter and the six acres that surrounded it. He hired famous architect Edwin Lutyens to enlarge and renovate it, and to design gardens to surround it. The garden designs created a network of garden “rooms” set apart by trees and yew and box hedges.

Lloyd’s father filled one of those outdoor rooms with large topiary animals and objects, including two enormous coffee pots. And he wrote a book considered the bible of topiary, called “Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box.”

A taste for topiary is a sure sign of eccentricity, and it’s clear that the young Christopher grew up with his father’s genome.

Christopher had been an uninspired student until he made horticulture his field of study. He then became a professor of the subject but was fired at the age of 31 for insubordination.

For the rest of his life, he made the care of the gardens of Great Dixter – and writing about gardening – his profession. He and his mother Daisy, a devoted gardener, supported the place by opening it for public tours and creating a plant nursery.

His mother died in 1972, and her absence freed Christo from her authoritarian matriarchy to develop his own, independent social life. (The kindest description of her was that she was “a vivid personality.”) Over time, Christo learned to cook, to enjoy the previously forbidden pleasures of wine and spirits, and to experiment in the garden to his heart’s content.

For 42 years, Christopher – known as Christo by his friends – wrote a weekly garden column for Country Life, the quintessential magazine for the rural upper crust of Britain. His final column, published in 2005, was written from his hospital bed following a triple bypass surgery.

He also wrote several books, the most famous called “The Well Tempered Garden.”

His garden tastes and philosophy were bold, unconventional, and wildly at odds with the traditions of his time. He eschewed the color harmonies and rigid schemes of his elders, and embraced brash color contrasts, unconventional combinations of shrubs, flowers, and herbs. He was derided by his detractors as “the king of clash.” And he was described by his friends as “engagingly blunt.”

He claims he never set out to be provocative, but says that “copying the past is a copout.”

Many people were provoked when he dug up an 80-year-old rose garden designed by Edwin Lutyens to install a bold faux-tropical garden. That 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 hadn’t been grown since Victorian times. He said he wanted to create a garden in which you could imagine “there might be a tiger in there.”

He tweaked the noses of the Royal Horticulture Society by describing its famed long perennial border as “boring and municipal.” They were offended, to say the least. But eventually they saw his point, revitalized the border, and later gave him the Victoria Medal of Honor.

He had no patience with “low maintenance” gardening; his books and articles were for people who like to garden – or for those who can hire people to garden. In his own famous border, he set his staff to work digging up and replanting some areas three times a year. He considered this a way to expand his opportunities for self-expression.

Even if you are not interested in spending every spare 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 in a larger cultural and aesthetic frame of reference.

YouTube has other, shorter films about Great Dixter, now held in a charitable trust, and about the firmament of British garden writers such as Beth Chatto and Gertrude Jekyl who either inspired or were inspired by Christopher Lloyd.

In fact, as you surely know, YouTube has videos about everything in the universe. And if you once start watching garden videos, it will keep serving them up to you until the end of time.


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