Book Review: Dear Friend and Gardener

Dear Friend jkt copyChristopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, Dear Friend and Gardener, (Frances Lincoln, 2013;  ISBN 978-0-7112-3461-1) £20

Dear Friend and Gardener is an exchange of letters written in 1996 and 1997 between Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) and Beth Chatto (b. 1923).  Lloyd, a major figure in the gardening world for many years, wrote countless articles and gardening books as well as a weekly column for Country Life for over forty years.  His prose was fluent and witty and frequently recounted the changes he was making to his garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex (Parks & Gardens UK Record Id: 1508).  Chatto, a lifelong gardener, began the transformation of an overgrown wasteland at Elmstead Market in Essex in 1960 and subsequently become a doyenne of the gardening world herself.  It was not long before she had developed an informal garden which she opened to the public, set up a commercial plant nursery, published books and won ten consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show.  The correspondents had met in the 1970s when Chatto, whilst admiring Lloyd’s book, The Well-Tempered Garden, was indignant that he had dismissed bergenias as plants of no importance.  She wrote to him to tell him so, as a result of which he invited her to lunch.  Subsequently they corresponded and worked together on a number of projects and, spotting a potentially interesting opportunity, the publishers, Frances Lincoln, suggested that their letters might be turned into an engaging book.

The correspondence was originally published in 1998 but this new edition is far more attractive, a little larger in size and printed in a sensible font on quality paper.  Particularly attractive are the endpapers, absent from the earlier edition, which are delightful coloured plans of their two gardens.  These, together with the well-captioned coloured photographs (another addition), not only give an idea of the differences between the two gardens but also make it so much easier to imagine the descriptions in the letters.  Also new to this edition is an introduction by Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener at Great Dixter.  Garrett, now a well-known gardener himself, worked with Lloyd at Great Dixter from the early 1990s and features frequently in the letters.

Whilst a keen gardener can get plenty of ideas from the letters on how to improve their plot this isn’t a book on how to prune roses or what needs to be done to improve the lawn.  It is much more than that because the correspondents vividly describe features of their gardens, as when Chatto reflects on her planting, a few years earlier, of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ which ‘against a background of bare black trees and shrubs … make an indefinite haze of warm colour, glowing like the remains of a bonfire’.  Neither are they slow to dismiss misguided ideas about gardening, as when both agree that Chatto’s famous gravel garden is laboursome and anything but low-maintenance, as so often described in the press. 

At the time the letters were written Lloyd was in the final stages of preparing Gardener Cook, another of his books, for publication so it is perhaps not surprising that there are frequent references to food.  Both writers describe what they grow in the gardens, how they serve it and come across as imaginative cooks with bulging freezers to sustain them through the winter months.  They entertained regularly, their guests including not only gardening and other celebrities but also visitors from abroad, students and passing friends.  As with gardening matters, the book does not include instructions on how to cook things but there are often ideas that a curious cook can pick up and try at home, as when Chatto describes a way to make a horseradish paste that can be used in soup, on bread or in a carrot salad.  Ideas are not just for edibles either, as when Chatto gives Lloyd a recipe and a sample of her pot-pourri, a product of which he is not fond but is gracious enough to thank her for her gift, declaring that that whilst he ‘might disapprove of its contents, it smells delicious and looks delightful’.

The period during which they wrote could not have been easy for either.  Lloyd was diagnosed with a serious illness, Chatto was unwell for some months and, throughout the exchange of letters, the health of Chatto’s husband gave cause for concern.  Nevertheless, their spirits generally remain high and the letters contain reports of many enjoyable trips taken, both in Britain and abroad, to the opera and, of course, to gardens.  They constantly reflect on what they had seen and done, whether it be Lloyd listening to Shostakovich’s 4th symphony or Chatto enjoying a big open-air lunch to raise funds for a church in Germany.

Both had strong opinions and were unafraid to commit them to print even when they concerned those with impressive reputations, which adds a certain frisson to the text.  The fact that their letters were going to be published must have sometimes inhibited them in what they said to each other but there are plenty of moments when their private opinions shine through.  Of the two, Lloyd is the often most outspoken, as when he declared, at the time of Geoff Hamilton’s death, that the deceased had ‘meant nothing to me … [for he] was egocentric and nervous of competition’.  There are a number of prosaic moments that allows a peep into their personalities, as when Lloyd asks if anyone could pick up for him from Colchester a ‘canister’ of his favourite hair shampoo or when Chatto, driving her new car, ran out of petrol because she had misread the dials on the dashboard.

The book must have been meticulously edited because it would be hard to imagine the letter-writers giving so much detailed information in a casual correspondence. Measurements are always given in both metric and imperial and details about plants mentioned often include alternative names and the time of year in which they flower.   This would not have been necessary between such plant experts but it adds enormously to readers less sure of their horticulture.  There is also a tremendously detailed index.  It is a book for the thinking person’s bookshelf. 

Jean Reader

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