Friday, January 18, 2008

Book Report/Dear Friend & Gardener

Dear Friend & Gardener
by Beth Chatto & Christopher Lloyd
Published 1998
Nonfiction - gardening letters

This book was my January 2008 TBR (to be read) Challenge choice, and I also read it for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club, December/January selection. I am so thankful to Carol for suggesting it. I loved beginning a book about gardening on January 2, and finding that the letters began in January as well. Beth Chatto writes:

January seems to get a lot of people down, in spirit, if not with the sniffles. I have avoided those so far, and your letter has given me a real kick start - just what I needed, and doubtless just what you intended.

These letters are the perfect "kick start" for any gardener who is a bit down in the dumps, knowing the gardening season is a long time off.

Reading this book made me feel like a child again, curled up in a chair, listening to the grownups talking. It isn't often now, in my grownup life, that I get to just listen to people. I'm expected to engage, to comment, to be part of the conversation. In the presence of these two great gardeners, I could simply listen and learn. I don't think I've ever put so many page markers and notes (on paper) in a book.

My first question was if the two people were still alive. From what I can gather, Beth Chatto is, though her husband, Andrew, mentioned frequently in her letters as being ill with emphysema, has since died. And Christopher Lloyd, known to his friends as Christo, died two years ago this month. He was almost 85. I felt sad as I read, knowing he was no longer in the world. Yet, I also felt inspired by the great way he lived; still active, full of curiosity, planting, traveling, cooking when he was in his mid-seventies. And the same with Beth Chatto. These are not young people. Their friends are dying, their energies are somewhat diminished, yet they garden hopefully and with all the strength and interest afforded them. What encouragement for those of us still in our twenties, or those nearing our sixties. Just reading their letters gave me faith and hope for my future time in the garden. They were still learning new ideas and trying new plants. Their matter of fact acceptance of aging and change are exemplary. We see Beth's indomitable spirit when we learn that she had become allergic to [touching] most plants by the time she was in her forties. Did she give up gardening? No. She just wears gloves.

There is something special about reading letters, in the way we can enter into someone else's life a little bit. For a while, we can have a "wood" of snowdrops, or hundreds of tulips, or even better, the money to pay a gardener to help us with our chores. We can hear birds that don't live in our area, and see flowers that will not grow where we are. So often as I read, I kept thinking, truly, "England's green and pleasant land."

Through their letters, we see both the pleasure and the hassle of having gardens which are shared with the general public. They are on view all the time. In the very first letter, Christopher Lloyd says,

To what extent are we gardening for ourselves, for the public or for our plants?

I expected the book to talk about just flowers, and was so pleased to read about vegetable gardens, even learning some recipes using those vegetables. I like both types of gardening and often combine them, putting flowers among the vegetables, and tucking a tomato plant in a flower garden. I liked their honesty; the way they wrote about the problems and worries which are so different from mine, yet equally frustrating. I found myself thinking how nice it would be if there were garden magazines that pictured not just perfect gardens, but also showed the crop failures, the impossible weeds, the bug damage. I often feel this way about house magazines. The kitchens are too, too perfect. The living rooms look like no one ever lives in them. I would find it more encouraging, more heartening to see real homes, with possible goals that all of us could work toward. The words of Chatto and Lloyd offer their readers confidence that though we all have imperfect gardens, there is always hope. Of course most of us feel that way anyhow. As soon as August comes, I'm already looking way beyond the late summer weeds and seeing the perfectly weeded rows of next summer. It is great to read of experienced, famous gardeners such as these two, talking about plants they can "no longer be bothered with." I am not a gardener who knows many Latin names, and these two use them pretty frequently, though I wasn't terribly bothered by this. The names of the plants didn't matter to me as much as the gardeners themselves.

And now some phrases that I loved:

Olearia solandri is such a joy both to Fergus [his gardener] and me - every time we walk past it, a great gust of heliotrope scent comes to meet us, interrupting whatever thoughts were running in our minds. CL

One becomes so physically slack in winter. CL

Still, these aggravations occur every year and it's useless to get worked up about them. CL

[May 25] Weeks pass like days this time of year. BC

Such mornings are rare when everything seems right. You have to make time, to stop and stare. BC

I liked reading about other gardeners I am interested in such as Sarah Raven and Alan Titchmarsh. Christopher Lloyd says about the latter that "fame hasn't spoilt him one iota" and "he's always the same warm person who loves a good laugh." Just as I would have expected. Lloyd knew Sarah Raven's father, a Cambridge don, and gardener. She is married to Adam Nicolson, whose grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.

On the back cover of Dear Friend & Gardener, there is a quote from Country Life:

This is a wonderful book, a celebration of friendship, optimism, hard work, gaiety, doggedness, and the possibilities of sudden and unexpected revelation.



  1. Christopher Lloyd was writing his most interesting weekly column for Country Life almost to the end of his life. Whatever the topic, I always read it. Though I'm far less adventurous and bold in my plant choices, I was so impressed by his wisdom and enthusiasm.

    Someone in my town used to go over in late summer to tend and weed Lloyd's gardens--trekking across the Atlantic for the privilege of working under Fergus Garrett's direction, and Lloyd's. Fergus would take them to the pub in the evenings. No better remedy for sore and weary gardening muscles!

    Thanks for the review...another book to add to my list.

  2. These are not young people. Their friends are dying, their energies are somewhat diminished, yet they garden hopefully and with all the strength and interest afforded them. What encouragement...

    This book is definitely going on my wish list! Thank you for a great review.

  3. This is one of the best gardening books I ever read. Full of real life, full of love for plants, full of wisdom. It is a GREAT book and I still take it from time to time and read again some chapters.
    Have a good time reading!

  4. Great review. I am so happy you decided to join us for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club this time. Now I need to drop everything and finish the book myself!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  5. I have owned this book for some time. I often pick it up and just open it somewhere and read and enjoy. It is now on my bedside table - I am also reading the January letters.
    I love books that are composed of letters between two or more people. Do you have any other good suggestions? Thanks again!

  6. This does sound a wonderful book and your review makes me want to read it as soon as possible. I'm not good at gardening, but this sounds as though it would indeed give me a "kick start".

    "One becomes so physically slack in winter. CL", definitely applies to me. The rain has stopped me from gardening for weeks now. I also like this quote: "Still, these aggravations occur every year and it's useless to get worked up about them. CL" - it applies to life as well as gardening, doesn't it?

  7. I am so pleased to read this which is rekindling my enthusiasm for this book. I bought it when it first came out, and read it, enjoyed it. I agree with all that you say about it, particularly on their friendship and their enthusiasm for plants of all sorts. But I found it harder and harder to read, because of the mismatch in writing ability between the two: BC's writing is fine on its own, but put alongside CL's, it suffers.

    Your CL quote: To what extent are we gardening for ourselves, for the public or for our plants? ... well you could substitute writing for gardening. I think CL was less inclined to forget he was writing for publication, and BC more inclined to write just to her friend.

    It's a small carp - and I am so glad you have reminded me of what a good book it is despite this small drawback.


  8. Another book I might have to BUY~~ it's not in the library. Or else I need to get the interlibrary loan working for me!

    Thanks for the great books to read!


  9. Margaret, I wonder if those columns have been collected. He really was a good writer. I would often stop during my reading and just think about the way he put words together. I just love the passion of that person who would go over to the garden. It just makes me smile.

    Nancy, thanks so much. I really had a hard time writing it. You know how sometimes when you feel strongly about something, it can be hard to put it into words? I so loved the book.

    Barbara, I feel the same way. I just wish I'd read it when he was still alive.

    Thanks, Carol. Again, I am so pleased you introduced me to the book.

    Peg, I love thinking of you reading the January letters this month. There are a couple fiction letter books I have loved. One is a kid's book called Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. And have you ever read Griffin and Sabine? There are a couple sequels. Quite magical. I've read a few letters books, but I can't think of any nonfiction back and forth letters such as these. I just loved reading them.

    Booksplease, I think it gives any reader the courage to just begin gardening. That was the wonder of it to me- that these two great gardeners were not intimidating, but rather just the opposite.

    Joanna, you bring up such an interesting point. But that very thing is what made the letters so appealing, so real to me. And I also think that Beth Chatto was going through some really hard times, particularly watching her dear husband fading away. So often he couldn't walk even a short distance. Toward the end, she didn't even want to leave for overnight. And during the course of the letters, she had some sort of depression, I think. And yet, she came back from it with the vigor and enthusiasm to begin thinking about and building a new tea house.

  10. Bonnie, thank you for saying that. You know, I think it is worth owning. It is a book I will go back to again and again.

  11. Nan, I wish I could write how I think and feel about a book like you can. It was as much of a joy to read your review as it is reading the book. You have expressed so many of the thoughts I have had while reading this. I am not quite finished reading it but will finish soon.

    It is funny that you have so many papers in your book. I have turned down corners and underlined sentences etc. I only do this on books I figure I am keeping and this is one of them.

    Another book about two people writing back and forth is _The 3,000 Mile Garden_. It is an older book but since you enjoyed Chrito and Chatto you might like The Leslie Land and Roger Phillips. There is more contrast in their gardens and gardening styles but the chat is great.

  12. To follow up from yesterday's post, I thought I'd let you know that I've reserved the book at the library. There are three copies in the system, so I hope I get one soon.

  13. I have heard of Christopher Lloyd and seen him on BBC gardening shows. Reason? I am a big Alan Titchmarsh fan! I really miss him now that he has stopped. I wish he was still presenting Gardener's World. I love that he still does the Chelsea Flower Show each year on the BBC. It is a treat. This book sounds really wonderful. Your discription of feeling like a child listening to adult conversations was so descriptive of how we loose something precious when we 'grow up'. What a treasure to have captured a few of those moments in reading this book.

    Have you read any of the Beverly Nichols books Nan? I have them in my basket to order and wondered if you have an opinion on them?

    Hugs ~

  14. Lisa, I was so pleased to read what you wrote. I struggle over each book report, but it's good for me to do them, I think. But, gosh that was nice of you. I own the 3000 book, and look forward to reading it, especially now. Thanks for mentioning it, and I hope Peg read your comment.

    Heidi, I, too, am such a fan of Alan T. I so wish we got the 'real' BBC over here, and not just BBC America. And yes, I own and have read some Beverly Nichols. I just love his writing.

  15. Oh, my! Another to add to my Amazon wish list. I love reading epistolary works and this one sounds lovely. As always, you've written an outstanding review! And I love the picture of your book, littered with sticky notes. :)

  16. I'm a reader so I don't really mind January and February - and now I've got new books for my must read list, not only Dear Friend and Gardener, but also the 3000 Mile Garden (I love Leslie Land). I'm already a fan of Beverley Nichols and his wonderful British Wit.

  17. Nan,what a great review.
    British garden books are different from american ones in that they do not often include the common names of plants. The first book I read that used botanical nomenclature exclusively was by John Brooks in 1985 and named simply 'The Garden Book'.I was lost.
    After 20 years of determination to learn, today the same book can be read without having to look up every other plant. Having the entire botanical world at the fingertips via the internet has helped a great deal. So has volunteer work at public gardens,and reading a lot of british authors work. It sounds like a job but was really a love of reading and plants combined.
    Not necessary to get plants to grow.

    Gardeners world-wide, new and experienced alike, do seem to enjoy passing on a bit of philosophy. Communing with the earth and growing things just seems to bring on a contemplation of the garden and life.

  18. Les, thank you! I usually take out my post it notes before I take the picture but it struck me that this would be a fun photo showing how very many there were. I really loved the book.

    Pat, I haven't read the 3000 mile garden. Maybe next Jan and Feb. ;<)

    Gloria, isn't that the truth about philosophy! I read both Henry Mitchell and Charles Dudley Warner last year, and found them full of it, as well as humor. That's the other trait I just love in gardeners. What else can you do but be philosophical and laugh?!


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