Christopher Lloyd would have been 100 today.
He was, without doubt, the single biggest ‘input’ into my gardening experience. I will never forget that moment when I casually flipped open a borrowed copy of The Adventurous Gardener in 1987, for no other purpose than to read something that I could comment on as I handed the book back to its owner, and cover for the fact that it was otherwise unread. It had been ‘forced’ on me by this well-intentioned friend, who was concerned by my disillusionment with gardening, and I had no intention of reading it, or anything else about gardening.
My life changed in that moment. The paragraph I read was a window through into a world I’d been searching for but had given up on ever finding.
Then I met him. Then we corresponded. Then I lived and worked with him.
Most of what I learned from him, in his presence, was absorbed by osmosis. I always found him curiously evasive about direct gardening questions. The conversations around Great Dixter – his home – were largely about gardening, and he’d always have his say, but if I went to him looking like I had a pre-thought question, I’d never get an answer in the way I wanted it. I think I probably learned more of his lateral thinking, and gained more access into his vast storehouse of knowledge, through reading him.
But the biggest lessons were things he’d never think to write about – things that were maybe so intuitive that he never thought to communicate them, or things that might have made him squeamish at their sentimentality, about which there was a virtual phobia in Englishmen of his era.
As a scan over that summer at Dixter, the most resonant memory that emerges, and therefore message I get, is of Christopher Lloyds lifelong pouring of focus and passion into his home. He absolutely loved Dixter, far more than any of his five older siblings, and spent his whole life in nurturing it – the garden, the building, and the life within it. What that kind of focus and love does to a place is immeasurable and unimaginable.
I understand that there’s an element of crazy privilege in there. To have been born into, and to, such a house in the first place, and to have the means to continue to live there, could place his experience in a category so rarefied as to have no application to the rest of us. But I can’t dismiss it that easily. Something in me knows that I too can, by my passion and focus, value-add to my comparatively humble surroundings, and be a part of creating a life-giving sense of home. Not just life-giving to me, but to my partner, my kids, my extended family, to my friends, and to anyone that might visit. I’m all too aware of the vagueness of my language, but I just can’t find better, or more specific, words for it.
The other big general lesson I gained, through both direct instruction, and by osmosis, was that above all else, this gardening thing has to be fun. I’d somehow absorbed (perhaps through reading too intensely the captions of the pics in too many Penelope Hobhouse and Rosemary Verey books, which pointed to subtle colour echoes between perfectly partnered perennials) that I’d only ever advance by taking it all very seriously. Christopher Lloyd laughed at me, and showed me the greater value, and liberty, in simply trying stuff out – playfully – knowing that you could simply avoid repeating a failure, or even avoid repeating a success, if you wanted to.
For those lessons, and about a million others, thank you, Christo. Over and over again.