Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 1. 2012

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

“I think we may have a wider approach to garden design if we have been helped to appreciate other forms of art; to be aware of basic principles – balance, repetition, harmony and simplicity – which apply to all forms of creativity. To look for these ideas in painting and architecture, or hear them in music, has certainly influenced me as much as knowing whether to put a plant in the shade, or in full sun.”  

Beth Chatto

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Ten Days in March. All easy Mulmur winters are alike but a difficult winter is difficult after its own fashion. An easy winter is one in which 30 cm. of snow settles on the garden in November and stays there until the middle of March. There are few high winds, the temperature never goes above freezing and seldom goes very far below -15C (5F). A difficult winter–ah, I cannot generalize, because each is difficult in its special way. In that respect, the winter of 2011-12 has been a typically exceptional winter.

Being a bore on the subject of weather is an innate part of the gardener’s make-up. I have long been astounded by the phlegm of our farm neighbours who seem able to treat meteorological triumphs and disasters–those two impostors–just the same, while I am forever sliding from optimism to gloom and back up again. Part of the gloom is, of course, therapeutic and apotropaic, warding off the hostile gods.

Never did I imagine that I might be writing grumpily about a winter that has been mild. More snow would have been welcome in the early months of the year, but the real problems have been created by the extraordinarily warm days from March 14-23, when the temperatures were those more typically associated with early May, and the garden leapt into life a month early. It was inevitable that cold weather would return, and though we have had no severe weather since, frosty nights have turned the first flowers on the Star Magnolia, Magnolia stellata, to a brown mush, have battered to the ground, again and again, the fat, soft stems of Fritillaria imperialis, have executed the tentative flowers on Primula denticulata. It is snowing (April 11), something that is common enough for mid-April, and which would give rise to no concern were it not that many plants, normally wrapped in mulch and dormancy, are naked and trying to grow.

Add the considerable, dispiriting damage to grassy pathways and lawns (or what passes for lawns in this dry, weedy garden) inflicted by raccoons–local gossip blames hyperactive skunks, but the only skunky whiff comes from the defeated Crown Imperials–and this may be a spring not to be forgotten but to be regretted.

Chionodoxa In The Orchard at Lilactree Farm

A heart-stopping sea of chionodoxa in The Orchard (photo by Brian Bixley)

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Readers of our Garden Notes will have no difficulty in understanding that Beth Chatto’s words, cited at the top, are music–and painting and architecture, and literature, too–to my ears. The words come from a book, Dear Friend and Gardener, in which, over a period of two years, she exchanged letters with another renowned gardener, Christopher Lloyd. The book was published in 1998; from a reference to the death of Princess Diana, it appears that the letters were written throughout 1996 and 1997. Though I was at that time a hungry reader of the garden literature, I chose not to read Dear Friend and Gardener until it was given recently to me by a friend, and thereby hangs a tale.

Sometime in the early 1990’s I read a new gardening book by an American writer. I liked the book, and sent a note to the author to tell her of my enthusiasm. She replied, and invited me to visit. I did, and she and her husband came soon after to visit us in Mulmur. Her book had received very favourable reviews, though mostly of a banal nature (“shows considerable horticultural knowledge”), but a review in Horticulture, by another American garden writer, Ruth Rogers Clausen, caught exactly what had attracted me to the book when she wrote of the author’s “unwillingness to conform to the stodgy”, while the venerable Allen Paterson, writing with his habitual unlaboured grace and wit, described the author in his Foreword as belonging to that “traditional line of acerbic lady gardeners”. There was to the book a mild form of what we might now call “an edginess”, and when I met the author I was pleased to discover that the edginess formed part of her conversation. She was educated, cultured, articulate, and she possessed what I often think of as a peculiarly English characteristic (Christopher Lloyd certainly possessed it in spades): the willingness to launch a witticism or an incisive intervention into a conversation at the risk of being, at least momentarily, discourteous or, in a worse scenario, stinging.* There was an unannounced requirement to be alert. I needed that, liked it.

The Daphne Bank at Lilactree Farm

The Daphne Bank - Daphne mezereum album - had already finished on April 8, unseasonably early. (Photo by Brian Bixley)

At the time we met, I was frequently writing a column for the newsletter of the Ontario Rock Garden Society as well as the occasional piece for other publications. My new American friend had seen some of these and encouraged me to keep going. This encouragement propelled me to a perilously bold move. I suggested that we should write a book together, a book made up of letters that we wrote to each other over the course of a gardening year. It was a presumptuously asymmetric proposal; she was being acclaimed in newspapers and garden magazines across the continent; I was writing for the ORGS newsletter.  After some understandable hesitation, she accepted, and in March or thereabouts in the following year, we started to write to each other.

You know, I expect, that Christopher Lloyd gardened at Great Dixter in Sussex (he died in 2006), while Beth Chatto continues at the eponymously named garden and nursery at Elmstead Market in Essex. He inherited his garden from Nathaniel, his father, and it is structurally very much as it was then; she created hers out of a “wasteland, a wilderness lying between our farm and our neighbours.” Her preparation came initially from running a nearby fruit farm; his from a mother who was “a passionate gardener”, from living with a distinguished garden and from a horticultural degree. Both have been prolific writers. My erratic memory tells me that the first gardening book I read was Lloyd’s Well-Tempered Garden; its Bachian title appealed to me. They were of an age, she born in 1923, he in 1921. He was famous for his innovative, experimental planting ideas, perhaps because the structure of the garden had already been laid out for him, limiting his creativity in that direction.

Erythronium dens-canis at Lilactree Farm

A fabulous dog's tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) (photo by Brian Bixley)

One of the disadvantages of Dear Friend and Gardener is that the authors knew well each other’s garden because they visited frequently. As a consequence there are odd sections where (and Chatto is the major culprit) she writes about Lloyd’s garden as if he really hadn’t noticed what was going on there, and this often gives a public brochure-like texture to the letters. A well-thought out strategy of the scheme was to spread the correspondence over two years. My new American friend and I had the advantage of not being tempted to write about the other’s garden–she had visited ours only once, I had visited hers but twice–and so we could focus on our own gardens with the expectation that the differences and similarities would emerge as the correspondence continued; that, after all, was the objective. Where we went wrong, mea culpa, was to try to squeeze the correspondence into a single calendar year.

On the assumption that a gardening year in Mulmur and in the northern United States runs from mid-March to early November, we were looking at a stretch of about 32 weeks. We could extend that by writing about seed-sowing at one end, the battening-down of the hatches at the other, and doubtless we could have written about our gardening thoughts during the remaining weeks. If a book required a minimum of 80,000 words, then we needed to produce at least 2000 illuminating words a week while we had gardens to attend to and, in my case, a job as well.

The letters still exist in one of my files. There aren’t many. When, in one of my letters, I complained that caring for hundreds of freshly germinated seedlings was sometimes burdensome, her reply was alliteratively concise: ‘The solution is simple; stop starting so many.” After a few weeks we were falling seriously behind the Bixley-imposed but never-discussed schedule. In anxiety, I, the junior partner, wrote to urge more commitment, more haste. The senior partner was justifiably incensed, I received a telephone call (acerbic, definitely not stodgy) and the project fell into the waste-basket reserved for unrealized hopes. We could not have hoped to match the later Chatto-Lloyd achievement. He, particularly, was a grandee of the English garden-writing world, she the creator of one of England’s major gardens in the second half of the 20C. It has taken me a long time to prepare myself to see what they had accomplished in Dear Friend and Gardener.**

*Lloyd was visiting a garden where The Gardener called attention to a plant of which he was particularly proud.
“Is it long-lived?” asked Lloyd.
“Absolutely”, replied The Gardener agreeably.
“Pity”, said Lloyd.


** They wrote, of course, from a profound knowledge of garden history, of garden making, of garden maintenance. I recently opened a new Canadian gardening book. It fell open at a paragraph that began, “I know no one who grows pulsatillas.” Baffled by this easily avoidable ignorance, I put the book back on the shelf. This was in the delicious Booklore in Orangeville. My time was not wasted, however, when I noticed a sign (for some near-by shelves) that said, ‘Graphic Fiction.’

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Hylomecon japonicum is a plant of great beauty. It comes in early spring when its soft green pinnate leaves form the perfect backdrop for myriads of  3-5 cm flowers that are at first bowl-shaped and then flatten (as in the photo).  Our first plant came from Barbara Wilkins’ Toronto garden. We found a second plant in a nursery, but I rarely see it available commercially, so you should snap it up if you have a chance. It is, apparently, divisible by the bold, but I have not yet been bold enough, though this year, as in years past, I plan to divide it. It is a woodland plant, tolerant of considerable shade, spreading to 20-30 cm, growing in the garden here alongside double bloodroot. Its only drawback is the brevity of its flowering, a maximum of five or six days. It may be in flower on April 22.

Hylomecon japonicum at Lilactree Farm

Hylomecon japonicum in the Rock Garden (Photo by Brian Bixley)

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You can read about the garden in normal spring mode at  We have the same number of Open Garden days this year as in earlier years, but as part of our evangelism on behalf of the garden in April and May, four of the dates are, this year, in those months. We were not brave enough, however. On April 8, you would have seen: the last snowdrops, pulmonarias, daffodils, corydalis, arabis, hepatica, pulsatillas, grape hyacinths, Primula juliae, species tulips, the dwarf Alyssum handellii, jeffersonias, cyclamen, pushkinias, a fabulous dog’s tooth violet, the first bloodroot, a heart-stopping sea of chionodoxa and scilla, rosy heaths and hellebores of several hues, even the diminuitive Hacquetia epipactis from the eastern Alps and southern Poland, with fashionable yellowy-greeny flowers, “a member of the cow-parsley family (with) the charming distinction of not looking like one.”

Hacquetia epipactis at Lilactree Farm

The diminutive Hacquetia epipactis from the eastern Alps and southern Poland

Winter aconites, the Spring Snowflake Leucojum vernum, most snowdrops, the ‘white forsythia’ Abeliophyllum distichum, the early daphne Daphne mezereum in its pink and white forms, had all finished. The question now: Will there be a peony in flower before April is out?

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Lilactree Farm is 70 miles north-west of Toronto. In 2012, the garden is open to visitors on April 22, May 6, 20, 27, June 17 and September 16. For information, email:

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

Layanee April 24, 2012, 1:51 pm

I adore Beth Chatto and actually met her last summer. She was gracious and informative, as one would expect. Her garden is a beautiful testament to her art of gardening.

Brian Bixley April 24, 2012, 2:10 pm

I was fortunate to be able to spend most of a weekend with Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, and I agree completely with your remarks about her. I would perhaps add the word ‘diplomatic’. My parents lived in Elmstead Market, so I visited her garden on several occasions.

Jan April 19, 2012, 4:32 pm

I’m in Australia, in Autumn watching the leaves turn and wondering whether I could get one more week from all the wonderful flowers still going on salivias gauras, geraniums and penstemons. Hope everyone heading into spring right now gets a fabulous display of colour and those late frosts stay away! Keep your fingers crossed against early frosts for me!