In the mid-90s, a publisher suggested to the eminent horticulturalists Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd that they write a series of letters on ‘life and gardening’ to be published as a book. ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ is the result of that suggestion, a cosy fireside delve into the chatty, gossipy, and wholly fascinating missives that flew back and forth between these two old chums.
Without ado, you fall into their world: of seed pans, topiary, propagation, opera, tulips, visits, droughts, plums, long journeys, gravel, potting up, dinner parties, carrots, dogs, daffodils. You instantly come to know the writers and their quirks: Christo, crotchety, confident, scathing, versus Beth, dreamy, poetic, a darling, nervous as a wren. Christo has an arch opinion to give to anyone who is unlucky enough to have committed a horticultural crime and to have come within earshot. At an RHS garden, he finds that the paths too wiggly, a patch of helianthus ‘of no great distinction’ is flowering without a supporting cast, and pruning has been done incorrectly. So of course he tells the gardeners so, immediately. Yet the reader cannot resent the man for his stridency, for we can tell without seeing the objects of shame that he’s bound to be right. Surely it is a genius’s prerogative to cast aspersions on the fumbling attempts of the rest of us. Anyway, Christo’s forthright manner provides us with the much-needed humour to stop the chat from becoming too earnest.
He is the perfect foil for kind, sweet Beth, who writes delightedly about everything she comes across, yet by contrast is a bundle of anxieties over her garden, especially about the perpetual lack of rain in her parched corner of Suffolk. She counts every precious drop, and wills the nearby thunderclaps to move overhead and bring a downpour to her dry land. But rain hardly ever does come to Beth Chatto’s garden. How often does she lament that it has cruelly drenched villages just a few miles off! To the maxim of never working with children or animals, we might just as well add ‘plants’ and ‘the weather’.
The backdrops to their letters are, naturally, Great Dixter and the Beth Chatto Gardens. Each is described in perfect poetry, particularly by Beth. Open the book at any of her letters and you will find grapes hanging ‘like a frieze over the potting shed door’, ‘tall columns of miscanthus grass, bleached and dried, [swaying] restlessly beside the frigid ponds’, or a baby hedgehog coming ‘purposefully towards us and, finding my feet in the way, [stumbling] unconciously over them… We held our breath.’
“I could just stand and stare: not only at the planting, still rich and full, albeit with few flowers now, but at the bowl of blue sky, filled with feathery white clouds twisting and dissolving into nothingness, high, high above. Below, slow moving indigo ‘mountains’ closed in behind the oast houses, their white caps highlighted against the dark sky, while all the autumn colours of the garden were gilded by the dying of the sun as it sank into a sea of gold.”
What I liked
The contrast between the two old friends gave the book the perfect amount of fizz and energy to carry me through, always wanting to read on. I aspired to the ‘good life’ they both led, a simple life of gardens, pottering round with chickens getting under their feet, wandering in from the vegetable garden with some fresh crop to turn in to lunch, or writing letters in front of the fire. Their ability to observe and describe the most minute of details with accuracy and poetry was inspiring, as was what they had both managed to achieve in their different ways within the horticultural world. I adored both of them, and was able to see gardening and gardens anew through their eyes.
What I didn’t like
Very little, although I found some of the writing necessarily contrived. Throughout the book, I kept wondering about the frequency with which they explained things that the other would have automatically known, for the benefit of the lay reader. Did they edit the letters afterwards to clarify things, or did they have to include tiresome facts as they went along? My question was answered in a throwaway comment of Christo’s in his final paragraph: he is relieved that henceforth their letters would be private and they could leave out descriptors such as ‘the autumn flowering Crocus speciosus‘ since they both know ‘perfectly well’ when this plant flowers. I can imagine what a relief that would have been for them both. Presumably they will also stop giving all their measurements in both metric and imperial, a practice which I for one found wholly unnecessary.
Who should buy this book
Anyone with even the vaguest interest in gardening would adore losing themselves in these letters. Just add a glass of mulled wine and a crackly fire for the perfect winter’s night in.
Chatto, B; Lloyd, C. (1998) Dear Friend and Gardener: letters on life and gardening. 1st edition, London: Frances Lincoln.