The following newsletter was originally published on January 31, 2006 and corresponded with the obituary I was asked to write for the New York Times.
On Friday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Tom Fischer, the editor of Timber Press books in Portland, Oregon, telling me that the great English gardener and author, Christopher Lloyd, had died at the age of 84. I called my editor at the New York Times, and I should have known, I was given the assignment to write the obituary -- with a three-hour deadline.
I hardly felt qualified for the task. For one thing, the deadline was frightening. Here it was Friday, 10:00 pm in England, and I knew that I would not be able to reach anyone for comments over the weekend. (I urged the Times to assign it to Mr. Fischer at least since he was on the West Coast, he would have a three-hour jump on the job.)
When I explained to the Deputy Editor that this was indeed a very important artist, she checked her bosses and agreed that it should not run on a Saturday, but during the week when there was more of a chance it would get space, and I could have the weekend.
I talked to several of Christopher Lloyds close friends. I kept hearing the word “acerbic.” Then came “great host.” One person mentioned that he was a good writer. Finally, gardener came up. “People said he was the last of the breed.”
Then the word “experimental” surfaced. Mr. Lloyd was an original artist who worked in a transitional style. He experimented over the last fifteen years with unconventional plants like tropical perennials and Mediterranean species, as did his colleagues the author and nursery owner Beth Chatto, American artists Marco Polo Stufano at Wave Hill, designer Gary Keim, nurserymen Dan Hinkley and Nancy Goodwin.
Besides being known for his published works, Mr. Lloyd was perhaps even more famous for the place where he gardened, Great Dixter, where he restored, maintained, altered and invented gardens. “ My parents were both gardeners, ” he wrote in his contribution to “The Englishman’s Garden,” edited by Rosemary Verey.
His mother, the former Daisy Field, appreciated “the art of letting plants enjoy themselves,” Mr. Lloyd wrote. “She would go round the garden with a trugful of snowdrop bulbs or odd cyclamen seedlings…and pop them into all sorts of odd places: under the skirts of hedges and topiary specimens into paving and wall cracks.”
His father Nathaniel bought Great Dixter in 1910. He wrote a few books including “Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box,” which is still in print. The architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed additions to the house and laid out the gardens. Lutyens often worked in conjunction with Gertrude Jekyll, the influential Edwardian garden designer, but Mr. Lloyd was always quick to set the record straight that although he had met Miss Jeckyll when he was a boy, she never worked at Dixter, as is often printed.
But all the words I heard didn’t say what first came to mind when I thought of Mr. Lloyd. I only met Christo (as we called him) a few times (I wish I had gotten to know him better). . The thing that struck me about this man was how eager he was to engage young people in discussions about horticulture. At events where we would meet up, he was always surrounded, like a rock star, by "kids" (under 30). I know Christo enjoyed their company, but he was a great, and here’s the word, “teacher.” Right: Christopher Lloyd and Louis Bauer (former curator of the Flower Garden) at Wave Hill, the public garden in the Bronx, NY around 1995.
“I’m not too old to learn,” he once said. “And I’m not too old to teach.” His books and articles are charming and often disarming; but always instructive with really good advice, graciously sahred. It seemed to me that he liked talking with "the young generation" as much as anything else. I suspect Christo considered himself one of them.
Mr. Lloyd wrote 20 books on gardening, columns for various newspapers over the years, magazine articles and -- astounding! – a weekly column in Britain's Country Life magazine for 42 years. (I always think it must be easier for "Brits" to write so well and so profusely -- 'cause they talk so good.)
By any standard, this is a prodigious legacy. His greatest, however, are the gardens at Great Dixter in Sussex, England, near Rye, where Lloyd was born and where he lived his entire life.
Be sure to visit Great Dixter web site to see many photographs and detailed descriptions of the gardens there. And if you can, make sure you are one of the 44,000 people a year who visit them in person, from April to October during the three hours they are open each day.
Portrait of Christopher Lloyd, courtesy of Timber Press.