Dear Friend And Gardener
by Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto (Aurum £9.99, 304 pp)
Even if you’ve never heard of Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, they have probably influenced the way you garden.
If your pots and borders look lush and tropical in late summer, you’re copying the style that Christo — as everyone called him — pioneered at Great Dixter in East Sussex.
If you have ferns and primroses in shady parts of your garden, and drought-tolerant lavender and cistus in dry, sunny areas, then you’re following Beth’s mantra of ‘right plant, right place’, the guiding principle at her Essex garden.
Dear Friend And Gardener is a collection of letters between Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto (both pictured) that show how close their bond was despite being ‘chalk and cheese’
Beth and Christo met in 1974 after a disagreement about bergenias, the plants known as ‘Elephant’s Ears’ because of their large, leathery leaves. She loved them, he dismissed them (correctly, in my view) as ‘lifeless and boring’.
When Beth wrote to tell him why he was wrong, Christo simply replied, ‘Come to lunch’. They never did agree about bergenias, but they were the best of friends for the rest of their lives.
Dear Friend And Gardener, first published in 1998 and now reissued, is a collection of their letters to each other and shows how close their bond was, although in many ways they were chalk and cheese.
‘We garden from almost opposite starting points’, Beth wrote.
Their backgrounds were quite different too. She was the beautiful, fiercely intelligent daughter of a village police constable, while Christo was born into wealth and inherited a splendid house and garden.
Beth married Andrew Chatto, a passionate botanist, who helped shape her views on gardening; they had two children but, as Catherine Horwood revealed in her fine 2019 biography of Beth, she also had a long and turbulent affair with a Dutch neighbour.
Great Dixter (above), which was the home of Christopher until his death in 2006, is a charitable trust run by his protege Fergus Garrett, who has written a introduction to the book
Christo, who never married, was generous and gregarious but could also be prickly and self-centred.
After the sudden death of Gardeners’ World presenter Geoff Hamilton he wrote to Beth: ‘I agree with all the praise you lavish on him but must say that he meant nothing to me’, adding crossly: ‘In all his years at the BBC, he never once suggested that I should take part in a programme.’
Both were trailblazers. Beth was far ahead of her time in championing native plants, rejecting pesticides and working with nature rather than trying to subdue it. Her greatest triumph was her famous Gravel Garden, whose plants were never watered yet survived the driest summers.
Unlike Beth, whose garden was created from scratch, Christo had inherited a beautiful and well-established garden, complete with hedges and topiary, yet he loved experimenting and shaking things up.
In the early 1990s he ripped out the 80-year-old rose garden planted by his parents, replacing it with tropical plants and unfashionably gaudy flowers like dahlias and crocosmias in fiery shades of orange and red.
Dear Friend And Gardener was first published back in 1998 and has now been reissued
He received hate mail from rose enthusiasts, but the result was a total success, sparking a trend for exotic gardens that continues to this day. ‘It is a most labour- intensive form of gardening, but such a lot of fun,’ he told Beth.
One of the pleasures of these lively, gossipy, erudite letters is the joyful way the two friends write about plants. Here’s Beth describing a new form of Galtonia candicans to him: ‘Imagine a tall, strong stem carrying upwards of 20 flowers, each looking like a perfectly formed rose, with layer upon layer of white petals enclosing faint green shadows.’
They gleefully compare notes on the visitors to their gardens, like the busload of ladies who wrote to Beth (enclosing their ticket stubs) demanding a refund because it had rained as they toured the garden.
They fret about the future of gardens like theirs, and whether they will survive. ‘To create a large and interesting garden is costly… who can tell whether such gardens will be part of the 21st century?’ Beth muses.
Christo died in 2006 and Beth in 2018. Great Dixter is now a charitable trust and is run by his protege Fergus Garrett, who has written a charming introduction to this new edition of the book, while Beth’s granddaughter Julia Boulton has taken over the reins at The Beth Chatto Gardens. Both gardens are still hugely influential and attract thousands of visitors a year.
‘It has been a love affair and lifework to make a garden,’ Beth writes. Fortunately for the rest of us, the love affair continues.