In September last year, Thomas and I were lucky enough to visit Beth Chatto’s stunning gardens in Essex.

Beth Chatto is a great hero of mine

She has been a huge inspiration to a great many people, across the generations, in the horticultural world. I had long been familiar with her through her books and her reputation as one of the great influential figures in twentieth century gardens and gardening, however, this was the first time I had had the opportunity to visit her gardens.

Beth Chatto has a series of different gardens with different conditions, offering complete contrast and they are every bit as beautiful, diverse and inspiring as I had hoped they would be.

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The first garden you come across as you enter is the famous gravel garden, which was ground breaking when first established in the 1990s. It had been the visitors car park for twenty-five years, and was almost pure sand and gravel. Beth Chatto added a lot of humus to the soil, broke up the pan caused by years of use as a car park, and experimented with drought tolerant plants – finding out what would grow, in the existing conditions. Essex has one of the lowest levels of rainfall in the country, and this was a response to the problem of global warming.

The result is a delightful garden full of contrasting textures

The garden is based on the idea of a dried up river bed. The gravel path meanders just like a river, but it is Beth’s eye for beautiful plant combinations that make this gently flow. With low mounds and contrasting feathery verticals, round leaves of Bergenia, the contrast of grey/silver leaves with gold leaves, the repetition of colours plants and shapes. The plants she has used include Stipa gigantea, Sedums, Verbena bonariensis, Santolina, Euphorbias, and a Rhus typhinia, just coming into its vibrant autumn foliage when we were there, but providing a beautiful branch structure throughout the year. Like a real river bed, the modest-sized plants are set into a setting provided by the structure of mature trees – most of which melt into the background, but the white bark of a large Eucalyptus provides a focal point.

Beth Chatto’s great legacy can be summed up by the phrase:
“Right plant, right place”

She was ground breaking in many ways. Influenced by her late husband’s research into how plants grow in the wild. She pioneered a different, modern way of gardening and designing gardens that is as relevant today as it ever was.

She discovered that the gravel garden had a surprising appeal in winter, that many ‘tender’ plants will survive a surprising amount of cold if they are kept relatively dry, and that “secateurs can replace the hosepipe” – if you cut plants back, they can survive summer drought more successfully – this makes sense, as the roots have less top growth to support.

The damp garden, with four large ponds, made by damming natural springs, is wonderfully, luxuriously lush and green. The clear water of the ponds, provided beautiful reflections of the mature planting around the sides. The light shining through the giant leaves of the Gunnera, is just breath-taking. The large leaves, and the huge swamp cypresses give you the feeling of being immersed in another world, a complete contrast to the dry gravel garden.

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“A hundred shades of green, with forms both bold and delicate, create a scene of harmony and tranquillity.” (Beth Chatto ‘A Guide and History of the Gardens)

Beth Chatto was one of the first people to really recognise the beauty and importance of foliage in gardens, rather than just concentrating flowers. Her first stand at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1977 broke the mould. She buried her pots so that the plants looked like they were growing naturally; she used species plants, and included many foliage plants to offset the flowers. “I did not aim for a showy display of unseasonal plants in flower but tended to concentrate on the effect of contrasting shapes, sizes and designs of leaves” (Beth Chatto ‘A Guide and History of the Gardens)

She was also influenced by Japanese flower arranging – where everything is placed in asymmetric triangles – this is a planting technique garden designers still use today to make their planting look natural rather than contrived.
Her plant associations are delightful – she looks for contrast in texture, form, shape, and colour.

The other gardens are the reservoir garden, the scree garden, and the woodland garden. I was particularly struck by the woodland garden for its rich green tapestry of woodland shade loving plants on different levels.

The reservoir garden was very different again. This was converted from scrubby wasteland of mainly brambles in 1976, to the magnificent garden it is today, with stately perennials such as Eupatorum maculatum, alongside more delicate blooms of perennial potentilla and persicaria, combined with the feathery grass Pennisetum. The mix of shrubs, trees and perennials means there is no corner of the garden that lacks interest, as shapes, textures, leaves and scale both contrast and harmonise.

The gardens are a stunning legacy given to the world by one of the great women and horticulturalists of our time, and I can only hope that I’m doing as well as she is when I am approaching 93.

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