Dear Friend and Gardener – a book review and delight!

Never making it to my bookshelf, Christmas or birthday wishlist, despite being picked up in bookshops many times over the years, when an email came in asking me if I wanted to review a copy of the New illustrated edition of ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ introduced by Fergus Garrett… I was thrilled and smiling all day!! Sorry, I just couldn’t make this book a giveaway to readers as was also suggested.

‘It is this book, I suspect, that many gardeners would most like to find at the ends of their beds when they wake up on Christmas morning.’

Independent on Sunday

I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above that appears on the back cover of this book. What an absolute joy this book has been to pick up and read over short and long spells since I received it back in early September. Would I recommend it? I think you might guess the answer there… YES!

So what makes this book special for me – I was to discover a few things I didn’t expect. The first thing I found was a renewed love of hand letter writing after years of ‘letter writing’ via PC template newsletters and word docs with inserted photos. Through reading just a few chapters, I genuinely took out a pen and writing pad from my drawer and began a letter to my friend. How surprisingly liberating it was!

The novel approach of letter writing between (distinguished UK/British gardeners and long established friends) Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd was made by their good friend Giles Gordon. The letter exchanges for this book covered two years (1996 & 1997) which include everything two gardening friends may chat about from the weather (often) to cooking freshly grown produce, from plants and garden visits to lunches and gossip. Oh yes… and there was a tad gardenwatching at times too 😉

“This morning, I had to be up early to say goodbye to Anne Wambach (whom we met up with in Vancouver, some years ago). We visited the Colocasia esculenta and there was a toad sitting motionless underneath a leaf tip, enjoying the overhead drip shower! Such experiences are precious. We walked away on tiptoe.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Christo to Beth P.228

“Incidentally I loved your picture of the toad sitting under the drip from the leaf-tip of an aroid – something magical that happens perhaps once in a lifetime, like the evening Andrew and I stood on one of the nursery paths, and a baby hedgehog came purposefully towards us and, finding my feet in the way, stumbled unconsciously over them. Like you and Anne Wambach we held our breath.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Beth to Christo P.242

Skilled plants people and garden writers who travelled the world, Beth and Christopher, were caretakers for two quite different gardens in England. Ordinary gardeners (what are they?) have to contend with what our unpredictable weather throws at us – Beth and Christopher were no different.

Beth in particular, gardens with a low level of rainfall which was a challenge that she turned into an experiment with her gravel garden. I remember watching a television programme on this not long after it was finished and was very keen to see it for myself which I did a couple of years later on a bus trip to the Chelsea Flower Show. I wasn’t disappointed.

Reading through the high quality pages of my hardback copy of Dear Friend and Gardener (I adore nice paper too) brought great personal insights in to the daily lives of the two celebrated friends.

I genuinely loved this extended chat which included a collection of colour garden photos. Ha-ha… that shouldn’t be a surprise to my garden blog readers at all 😉

The picture of the two friends, on the back cover of this book, makes me smile once again as I recognise the background as the topical garden at Christopher’s garden at Great Dixter. If I have done my sums correctly, Beth was 74 years young when they began these letters and Christopher (known as Christo to his friends) would have been 76 years. They were both actively involved in the running of their gardens then too. Christopher died in 2006 aged 88.

They were indeed a very busy pair at the time of letter writing. Chat on social engagements as well as professional ones are discussed between the two. I found it both fun and fascinating to hear about this. However, I particularly loved that still there was time for supporting smaller, local engagements…

“I’m giving an illustrated talk in the village this evening, showing different aspects and areas of Dixter through the year, and there are some lovely crocus pictures – those by the front path taken on 28 February this year. “

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Christo to Beth P.294

One of the delights in reviewing this book came near the end of reading it… with the discovery that my visit to Beth’s Garden had been during the time the two friends were exchanging their letters! It didn’t occur to me that this could be until I looked out the photos below to scan for this blog. What a fantastic coincidence 🙂

Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, taken on my visit of Thursday 23rd May 1996.

Beth Chatto’s Water Gardens, taken on my visit of Thursday 23rd May 1996.

Are you guessing what I checked next? Yep… the dates of the letters… did they match my visit? Close enough, I’d say! What a thrill. You can see the actual plants Beth refers to in the quote below above in my photos taken just a few days before – I got out a magnifying glass and went image searching online to verify this. What a fun, first book review this was becoming.

“The ancient oaks which form such an important role all round my garden are only now spreading tiny transparent yellow leaves, picking up the incredible colour of the euphorbias throughout the garden. E.robbiae in the shade, E. pallustris by the waterside. E.wulfenii and E.polychroma dominating the Gravel Garden. Against tantalising skies, heavy with French grey-navy blue clouds, these plants positively give off light. I can see them from my north-facing kitchen window as I prepare our evening meal and am enthralled by them. They lead my eyes into the distant scene, blossoming trees, layers of new leaves, a dark pool of water rimmed with big yellow kingcups.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Beth to Christo P.59, Saturday 25th May 1996

A Great Dixter visit on a family holiday in 2000, when my daughters were young, meant that I could picture garden/house areas Beth and Christopher were chatting about. We took the tour of the house but unfortunately other visitors spoilt it a bit by making us feel uncomfortable for joining the guided tour with young children – well behaved, interested 7 & 9 year olds they were too I should add.

It was still nice to see inside the house at Great Dixter and I could easily imagine Christopher living and entertaining there, even before reading the letters. It was a scorching day on our visit which curtailed our garden wandering a little. However, an area that was roped off caught our attention. Someone was doing an interview with Christopher that day which added to our visit. We never saw Christopher – just the empty chair. I remember seeing lots of bold tall yellow blooms in the garden that day too.

Aware that some of my blog visitors might be from outside the UK (and for those living here) who might not get the chance to visit Great Dixter, I went searching for a video to show you the house. I found one I liked that has Fergus Garrett narrating it which was a bonus as he is mentioned throughout this book. A bit about Fergus first…

FERGUS GARRETT has been Head Gardener of Great Dixter since 1992 and worked closely with Christopher Lloyd during the garden’s most exciting developments. After Christopher’s death in 2006, Fergus became Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, and he continues to manage and lecture on Great Dixter and gardening. Fergus first worked at the Beth Chatto Gardens as a student more than 20 years ago and has remained a close friend of Beth’s ever since. In this edition Fergus writes a new introduction.

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, inside back jacket

A Great Dixter Film, narrated by Fergus Garret, 7 min 21 sec. Great views inside the house.

“Here I am in front of a good fire, in the solar, just as it was six months ago. It took me ages to get installed (feet up on the sofa, both dogs by my right leg). First I realized that Canna wasn’t with me; she is so absent minded. I went back for her; she was still in the bathroom. Then having returned, I found I had left my specs in the bathroom. Back again. This time I counted my paces; it was 73 yards (over 66m) each way. So the double journey, what with picking up my laptop from the parlour, was a good 300 yards (over 270m).”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Christo to Beth P.60

What fun, you can easily put Christopher Lloyd in the house above now and you get a flavour of the chat between the two… if you haven’t gone for a nap yourself! Please forgive my indulgent long review (regular blog visitors will be used to my odd lengthy blog posts – I do have a warning in my sidebar too). I have genuinely had fun with this and hope it’s been an entertaining read for you too.

Make no mistake, this book will keep you up reading it with some serious plant chat too, many plant plant names, growing conditions and varieties best suited to certain conditions – all useful stuff for the new and experienced gardener can be found in this book in a style that you might find by meeting gardening friends over a coffee. Even these gardening friends were still learning 🙂

The Exotic Garden at Great Dixter, taken on my visit of 20th July 2000.

Despite gardenwatching and blogging for seven years now, what keeps me going is continuing to learn too. Sharing ‘stuff’ that I have come across is so much part of that. It is with this in mind I have one more quote from Dear Friend and Gardener that I’d like to share (it’s been hard cutting my list back).

Only recently I had spotted a Woodpigeon gathering on my small pendulous cotoneaster tree (so out of scale they were). They started eating its berries. In all my gardenwatching, I had never seen that before. I really shouldn’t have been surprised…

“There are crowds of ivy seedlings – the wild Hedera helix which one needs to be at before they start running and rooting as they go. I have a week spot for ivy as I would expect you to. Its foliage is so glossy and rich on mature specimens, of which I allow a number, mostly on ash trees, which have a light, thin crown of foliage; just what ivy suits best. Flowering time in the autumn, is a festive occasion for many insects; a loud hum issues from a flowering ivy. And then there is the fruit (source of our weeding troubles), which is borne in handsome, domed clusters and adored when ripening in February, by wood pigeons. These are daintily built birds and it is laughable to hear them clapping their wings as they attempt to balance on a quite unsuitably weak twig, to reach the berries.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, Christo to Beth P.293

Interestingly here, I did lift running wild ivy (growing under my Leylandii hedge) and planted it up my pergola poles after losing plants to a hard winter a number of years ago. It was an experiment that worked well and I have ivy flowers on the roof of my pergola now as well as birds feeding on insects on its leaves. I will be keeping a closer eye up there in February now – thanks Christopher 🙂

Okay, that’s the chat from me almost over now and shortly I’ll hand you over to Beth and Christopher chatting in videos. Before I go, I’d like to share one final delight that I discovered on reading Dear Friend and Gardener and it was to be found in the final letter from Beth to Christo.

Garden videos, I have received quite a few over Christmases past, made the big ironings when my daughters were younger a very pleasant activity and something to look forward to. I had one favourite garden video that I watched again and again and if ever I hear the music used in the intro I am instantly transported back in time and can hear Beth Chatto’s voice talking to me. You’ll find a clip from it below 🙂

You can imagine what a thrill it was when I realised that this favourite video I had enjoyed so much was being filmed during the time of letter writing for Dear Friend and Gardener. Beth’s final letter to Christo describes the excitement of a publicity party for a video. Once I read who made the video I gave the biggest smile… Wow!

Wishing everyone a great weekend (especially Beth for a peaceful Sunday where she will have her garden all to herself). I think I’ll get that current letter to my friend finished now that I am done here. I genuinely can’t see any gardener (especially garden bloggers) not enjoying this book. It is a delight to read. You’ll find the code for a discount price at the bottom of this post 😉

The Beth Chatto Gardens video, 2 min 20 sec clip, try HD quality.

“ BETH CHATTO is a well-respected plantswoman, garden designer and writer. She describes the experiences of creating the Beth Chatto Gardens from scratch at Elmstead Market in Essex in The Dry Garden (1978), The Damp Garden (1982) and Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden (2008). Today’s wonderful and mature planting is beautifully captured by photographer Rachel Warne in A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Gardens. Beth’s knowledge of gardening on inauspicious sites is virtually unequalled. She holds the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour and an honorary doctorate from Essex University for her services to horticulture. She was awarded an OBE in 2002.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, inside back jacket.

Christopher Lloyd in Tropical Garden at Great Dixter, first 3 mins 30 secs of GW clip.
Interview by Stephen Lacey in Sept 1996, try 480p quality

“ CHRISTOPHER LLOYD (1921–2006) is one of the major figures in 20th-century gardening who transformed the gardens of his home Great Dixter in East Sussex. He authored a host of classics, including The Well-Tempered Garden (1970), The Adventurous Gardener (1987), Gardener Cook (1997), Christopher Lloyd’s Gardening Year (1999), and Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners (2007). On his death in 2006, Christopher Lloyd was described as ‘the best informed, liveliest and most innovative gardening writer of our times’. He was awarded an OBE in 2000.”

Dear Friend and Gardener, new revised edition 2013, inside back jacket.

To order a copy of Dear Friend and Gardener for £16 including p&p* (RRP £20), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk, and quote the offer code APG16. *UK only – Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

This post was published by Shirley for shirls gardenwatch in November 2013.

10 thoughts on “Dear Friend and Gardener – a book review and delight!

  1. Great Dixter I'm sure would be a great place to visit – a special garden like Hidcote that we visited a couple of years ago.

    I've bought quite a lot of perennials from beth Chatto's nursery too.

  2. How exciting to think you were there when they were writing their letters. I too love hand written letters. I do hand written correspondence with several friends. Nothing that would be book worthy I am sure. 🙂

  3. Lovely to read your bookreview!
    I have the book already for years and it is such a delight reading. I too visited both gardens, Great Dixter and Beth Chatto´s garden, they are both different but beautiful.

  4. Hello everyone, thanks for all your comments. I appreciate this was a bit of a long read 🙂

    Sue, Yes, one day I'd like to go back to Great Dixter as I didn't feel I got the best out of it on our visit. Perhaps I was hoping for too much. Where I was also hoping for a lot at Beth Chatto's garden, I got more than I expected out of that visit. I picked up a couple of plants from Beth's nursery on my visit mainly to mark our day there. At Great Dixter, I picked up the plant catalogue. Mm… I’ve just remembered that I visited Sissinghurst (which we loved) earlier on in the week before going to Great Dixter maybe that was the problem. .. too much of a good thing 🙂

    L, what a lovely comment! I’m delighted, my fingers are crossed for you too 🙂

    Lisa, it really was, so many coincidences too including the timing of the video filming. I wish I’d known when it was filmed when I was watching it doing all those ironings. Ah… after seeing your handwritten notes in your garden journals it is no surprise to me at all that you are a hand letter writer! I would imagine you have a great hand at that. I bet your friends loved when your envelope dropped on their mat just like Beth spotting Christo’s handwritten brown envelope among her mail. I hope you had a good Thanksgiving 🙂

    Suzie, thank-you! I couldn’t believe how many stories evolved here. Good luck with the hints 😉

    Janneke, I’m thrilled to hear of someone who read this first time round. I just couldn’t find any other descriptive word for this book but ‘a delight’. I am delighted to hear you felt the same. I love that you have also visited both gardens, as you say they are both very different and for me that’s what made discussions on areas of their gardens all the better – especially if they had different opinions 🙂

  5. I loved this book,ideal reading for a cold winter day.
    I went to Beth Chatto's garden on Friday and it was looking fabulous even at this miserable time of the year.
    I enjoyed looking at your blog; very interesting and lots to read.

  6. Enjoyed your excellent review of what is a great book Shirl. I read it first time around in the last century 🙂 I would imagine that if you have not already read it that you would also enjoy ' Beth Chatto's Garden Notebook' which is in diary format. Your post has got my brain in overdrive now, as our one and only visit to Elmstead Market was in the 90s but I can't remember which year!

  7. Christina said…
    I read this when it was first published and really enjoyed it, my only disappointment was to learn that the book had been suggested by a publisher and not was not just the result of letters that had been written between the friends. But even with this it is a book I would enjoy reading again, I'm not sure I bought my copy with me when we moved. (email comment)

  8. Hello everyone, thanks for all your comments. I appreciate this was a bit of a long read 🙂

    blooming garden, thanks for stopping by. Delighted to hear you enjoyed your winter read and garden visit. I saw a fb image on the Beth Chatto Garden page the other day and I agree it does look great just now 🙂

    Anna, Thank-you – all the more so since you’ve read this book too! Ah… now I do have ‘Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook' and I have to confess to probably not reading all the way through it (other distractions at the time no doubt) as I see a little metal bookmark clipped to one page. I do know that, at the time, my plan was to read each month during that calendar month. I’ve clearly had this book on my bookshelf a long time as the pages have yellowed edges! This post prompted my brain into remembering I had this book. I’ll begin this book again in January 2014 😉

    Christina, I do appreciate you taking the time to email your comment. Ah yes… I did now that I was reading letters for a book and can understand your thoughts on that. However, it seems pretty clear that the two were friends for some years and probably wrote and telephoned each other before the book letters. As Christopher says in the last paragraph in the book:
    “I suppose this’ll be my last letter of the year, which means of the series, but it does not mean that we shall stop writing to or telephoning each other. Just that we shall no longer be going public. I don’t think that has inhibited us much. The main difference, from a totally private letter, is the extra explanatory matter that is necessary, as, in this letter, ‘the autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus’. Obviuosly ‘autumn-flowering’ would be omitted in a wholly private letter, as we both know this perfectly well.”
    I particularly loved their discussions on daily stuff like listening to music and their conversations with their staff etc. The book covered a lot of topics giving us a great insight into their lives which included Beth’s husband being ill too which was clearly hard for her at that time and expect for the couple of years after too before he died.

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