Beth Chatto’s approach to planting has frequently been summed up as the right plant in the right place, though the truth is a little more subtle than that, as was demonstrated later when we had our tour.
Catherine’s evocation of Beth’s personal life was rich and illuminating: her early years involved moving between fairly primitive cottage homes – no electricity or running water – as her father, a policeman, was posted to serve a variety of Essex communities. Her father was a passionate gardener and she inherited his interest, and this led to her meeting and subsequently marrying Andrew Chatto, himself a plantsman of note as well as being a local fruit-grower. They lived in the Chatto family home to the west of Colchester, but a conversation with Cedric Morris – an artist and gardener and relatively near neighbour – convinced her that the soil wouldn’t allow her to create the garden she desired; thus they set up home in one of Andrew’s orchards east of Colchester, designing both the house and garden that can be visited on the edge of the village of Elmstead Market today.
There was much of interest in Catherine’s lecture and, rather than having me make a mess of transcribing her talk, you’ll be far more entertained by getting hold of Catherine’s recently published biography Beth Chatto: A Life with Plants (Pimpernel Press). And you can see the whole Zoom talk here.
The day of our visit arrived and we were warmly welcomed by David Ward (Director) and Åsa Gregers-Warg (Head Gardener). After introductions and dividing into manageable groups we went for a tour of what is probably Beth Chatto’s most famous creation, and certainly a topical one on a hot and sunny summer’s day, the Gravel Garden.
The Gravel Garden is something of a wonder to gardeners. Sandy gravel some five or six metres deep in one of the driest parts of the country is hardly an easy proposition for gardening. That it might be possible to create such a beautiful garden, and never to add water, is quite remarkable. The garden was inspired by a visit Beth took with Christopher Lloyd (of Great Dixter) to New Zealand, where they encountered plants growing in the flowing lines created naturally in a dry river bed. In 1991 Beth set about converting an old car park into a similarly sinuously styled dry river, arranging hosepipes to define the flowing lines and improving the soil while retaining the fundamental well drained character, and topping this with a thin layer of gravel. The following year she started planting.