One of the greats of British gardening, Beth Chatto OBE has entered the realm of national treasuredom. Plants-woman, designer, author, 10-time gold-medal winner at Chelsea, holder of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour and, of course, the owner of the celebrated Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market, near Colchester, in Essex – her horticultural skills seem boundless. With the concept of “right plant, right place” – in other words, put a plant in conditions close to its natural habitat and it will thrive without help – running as a thread throughout her career, she has inspired a generation of gardeners to take their lead from nature.
The garden has been the inspiration for many of her influential books, including The Dry Garden (1978), The Damp Garden (1992) and Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (2000). It was created on land that was previously part of a fruit farm, owned by her late husband, Andrew, 14 years her senior, whom she married in 1943. “We met during the war,” she says. “I was a schoolgirl of about 17, considering going to college.”
A scholarly man, who died in 1999 after suffering from emphysema for 25 years, Andrew devoted much of his life to research into plant habitats. Chatto says it was he who inspired her interest in gardening and refers to him frequently, modestly deferring to his superior knowledge. “He’s such an important influence in my life,” she says. “My parents were keen, but they had a conventional garden, using mostly cultivars.”
The couple lived initially in his parents’ in Colchester, but in the late 1950s moved to a modernist house they’d built on the edge of the farm – where Chatto still lives today. Even inside, the garden is a constant presence. Large windows frame views and vignettes of the planting on every side and invite a tapestry of textures, colours and shapes into the house.
Chatto credits her husband almost entirely for her success. “My two daughters were teenagers before I began to think about making a business,” she says. “Andrew had looked after us and given me the security and freedom to experiment.” Her husband’s failing health and the trials of running a fruit farm concentrated her mind on developing the garden commercially, though what we see today took time to emerge.
“For the first seven or eight years, much of the land was a wilderness,” she recalls. Yet there were assets, too, not least a rare natural water source in the drought-prone east of Essex, where rainfall can be as little as 20in a year. “There were a few fine 300-year-old oaks and a spring-fed ditch ran through the hollow.” Today, the ornamental gardens cover about five acres; a further 10 are occupied by the nursery, which opened in 1967, and working areas.
Finding water was not the only challenge. “There was land that was so dry, the native weeds curled up and died. That eventually became my gravel garden,” she says. This she created in 1991, on the site of a car park. Apart from watering in the young, drought-tolerant plants during the first year, she has never artificially irrigated it.
Chatto has a knack for turning problem areas into an asset, and there are several distinct areas in the garden, each requiring a different approach. The large water gardens are dominated by a series of ponds surrounded by bog plants and swathes of lush grass. A long, shady walk runs parallel to one of the boundaries. Here, shade-tolerant planting – including ferns, tiarella and pulmonaria – carpet the ground beneath oaks and other specimen trees added by Chatto. By contrast, the gravel area is a mass of sun-loving perennials, with asters, rudbeckias and sedums glowing through hazy grasses.
The garden may have started out to give pleasure to a family, but it has developed into a self-contained horticultural powerhouse, attracting visitors from all over the world – about 40,000 a year. “It’s like sowing an acorn, which is my symbol,” says Chatto. “I have an acorn and an oak tree on a weather vane, which was a wonderful present from my staff.” Incredibly, it is tended by only one full-time and four part-time gardeners and volunteers – many of whom are foreign students. Chatto remains resolutely hands-on and is keen to pass on the knowledge she has gained through experience.
Chatto uses grasses brilliantly, and was doing so long before it became fashionable. She creates seemingly effortless but thoroughly satisfying combinations. Therein lies her genius – there may be others out there with an equal understanding of plants, but nobody else has her eye. Shape, scale, proportion, texture, colour – all are balanced with the skill of a plate-spinner.
She also factors in horticultural considerations – how big a plant will get, how fast or slowly it will grow, what conditions it needs to thrive and how it is maintained. The result is a garden that works on every level – practical, horticultural and aesthetic – with layer upon layer of carefully placed plants, as enticing asmillefeuillepastry. It all seems entirely uncontrived, but, on closer inspection, one notices geometric lines and angles. The big picture is built up gradually, with small groupings of three or more plants forming a satisfying melange of verticals and horizontals, and fluffy and solid plants. “I need the trees and shrubs to form a background, to paint the sky and lead the eye upwards towards the clouds,” Chatto explains. “Then one adds the embroidery, which I enjoy so much.” Nothing is allowed to get out of hand, but stagnation is not an option, either. “A garden is not a picture hanging on a wall,” she says. “It changes not only from hour to hour, week to week or month to month, but from year to year.”
Chatto has certainly noticed the effects of climate change. Drought is nothing new in her part of the world, where (the past two years aside) there is sometimes no rain for up to 10 weeks in the summer. “The most interesting change is the lack of cold weather,” she says. “Only 10 years ago, we had icicles hanging down, and when the children were little, they used to skate. Now we hardly have enough ice to bear a duck.” From an article by Rachel de Thame
Please visit www.bethchatto.co.uk/ for further information about this inspirational gardener and garden.
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