Beth Chatto was no ordinary gardener, turning what was once a wasteland into 5 distinct and extraordinary gardens. She lived the mantra: Right plant, right place.
Gardeners around the world look to English gardens for inspiration. We buy the books, we delight in the magazines and we often try to imitate those features that we believe best define an English garden – large, formal, herbaceous borders, boxwood hedging, symmetrical design, fountains and statues. We also tour the great gardens and it is then, as we stand under our umbrellas, that we truly understand how weather contributes to the making of exceptional gardens. Knowing all this, it comes as a surprise to discover that one of Britain’s finest gardens does not fit the above description at all, for it has none of the borders of Wisley, rooms of Hidecote or walls of Sissinghurst. It not only has no fountains or statues, it has very little rain.
Beth Chatto’s Gardens are located in East Anglia, the driest region of England. In the early 1960s, she and her husband, Andrew Chatto, began creating her gardens on what was considered wasteland, at one end of his fruit farm. The quality of soil ranged from mostly sand and gravel to silt and clay. However, the property was blessed with magnificent old oak trees, in what would become the Woodland Garden, as well as underground springs, which made possible the formation of the Water Garden.
For most visitors, the Water Garden is probably the most arresting and memorable, for in this sunken area, six meters below the Gravel Garden, Beth Chatto has created a lush, verdant piece of paradise centered around four large ponds that provide the water to support a wide assortment of plants, many with impressive and sometimes gigantic leaves.
I first became interested in Beth Chatto when I was struggling with my own landscaping challenges. I garden on a property with two distinct growing conditions. The lower half faces a lake and is wet, particularly in the spring, and is generally shady. The upper part is open, sunny with dry, sandy soil.
It was not until I discovered Chatto’s book on dry gardening, written in 1978, that I truly understood the importance of the right plant in the right place and the real potential that dry gardening offers. Her book is not the beautifully photographed coffee table type I normally gravitate to, but rather a small, densely printed book with a limited number of black and white photos and drawings.
In fact, I did not recognize most of the plants she named; however, her determined approach to finding the plants that would flourish in the hostile growing conditions of her former parking lot strongly affected my way of gardening.
For those of us who garden in rural environments and are looking for a more natural, flowing and organic approach to landscaping, there is much to learn from Beth Chatto. And with the learning comes inspiration. We are inspired by her partnership with her accomplished husband, her friendships with other great gardeners, her desire to share her knowledge with new converts and, of course, her imagination, tenacity and grit.
Just like her style, Beth Chatto’s gardens are a little off the beaten path. Many garden tours do not include her property in their itinerary; therefore, it is recommended to travel there by car. Since I was using public transportation, I travelled by train from London to Colchester where I stayed at a B&B. The following day, I got on a bus in the town center, which took me to the gardens located 6 miles east of Colchester, shortly beyond the town of Elmstead Market. (This information is provided on Beth Chatto’s website.)
For me, the additional planning and patience required to visit her gardens was well worth the effort. Having the opportunity to appreciate and absorb the life’s work of this impressive woman, who turned 90 in 2013, and then to bring her ideas home to my own Canadian plot has been a particularly precious gardening experience.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2014