Beth Chatto’s Legacy

When I scribbled the first draft of this blog, Beth Chatto was still alive, in fact we saw her pootling around on her mobility scooter the morning of our visit, May 12 2018. Sadly, she died the following day, as I reflect on the tour; it makes our time there even more poignant. I can understand why she was in the gardens to the very end; frankly if I’d had a tent with me I would have slept there it was so wonderful!

Dry Planting

I had been planning to visit The Beth Chatto Gardens since seeing her interview on Gardeners World, a few years ago. However it moved up my bucket list last year, when I read her book Drought-Resistant Planting, whilst researching this planting scheme, which incidentally is doing really well in its second year with no watering, after the first few weeks.

Climate Change

The great lady was 94 and had contributed so much to horticulture and our approach to it, that we shall, I am sure be forever in her debt. Especially, with the announcement last week, from the Environmental Agency, that ‘climate change and a growing population, much of England could see significant water supply shortages by the 2050s – particularly in the south-east.’

You have to admire Beth Chatto for documenting the progress of the garden over so many years, whilst resisting the temptation to water, in even the driest summers, trusting in the plants to survive and if they didn’t to learn from that. In doing so, hard work of previous years, would have been lost but to our greater knowledge and understanding of what can survive in a garden; in the drought conditions of summer, combined with the cold winters, of the UK.

Rain, Really?!

After months of expectation, I was a teensy bit miffed that it was raining as we drove there. Neither was the irony lost on me, of visiting one of the driest areas of the UK and a garden famous for its dry gravel garden, in the rain! Grumpers did point out, that the driest part of Britain is the climatic opposite, of the wettest part of the Sahara, mmmh. However after much moaning, it ended up being perfect timing as they were having an open day to raise funds for The Beth Chatto Education Trust. So I was able to go on two talks; one on the gravel gardens and the other in the Woodland area. Plus the light was soft and made the colours all the better. And boy did we talk a lot of photographs!

The Gardens

You start in the Gravel Garden which used to be the car park. Situated on natural gravel beds, these are very difficult conditions for plants to do well in, especially in dry Essex.  Although the gardens look very naturalistic, drought tolerant plants situated amongst gravel. We were told that they allow most of the plants to self-seed and then ‘edit’ and weed by hand to create a natural effect which is in fact very labour intensive. Next are the Scree Gardens which rolls down to the Water Gardens and on to the Woodland. Each planted in Beth’s signature tapestry style and all having plants appropriate to the conditions of their location.

Plant Combinations

I’m told it’s acceptable to gush about someone who’s just died, which gives me even greater licence so extoll the virtues of Beth Chatto. I know she was the mistress of ‘right plant, right place’ however I hadn’t appreciate her mastery of planting combinations, so many perfectly chosen combinations of 3 or 5 different plants, positioned and balanced to perfection. I hope the photograph do these justice, they have really inspired me as a garden designer.

Plant Nursery

There is also a rather lovely café, so you can make a day of it. But best of all has to be the Plant Nursery, I had browsed the selection online but I’m always put off buying plants online – I have had some disappointing experiences in the past. Yes it’s small, tiny compared to my wholesale nursery but the selection of plants is fantastic, apparently they grow 60,000 plants a year!  Often the nursery specimens are grown in the gardens, so you can see them in situ and in combination. So many were varieties, I have read about but not been able to obtain elsewhere and there was not a duffer amongst them all looked like prime specimens. Plus UK grown means a lower carbo footprint to boot! So yes I did buy a few and a few weeks on they are all doing very well and every time I look at them I will think of Beth Chatto, who is now added to my pantheon of heroes alongside Iggy Pop and Scarpa, I’m sure she’d be thrilled.