03 September 2012

News from Essex, with Beth Chatto

Crossing the border into Essex last week the skies were noticeably brighter. I walked into Beth Chatto's garden before opening time and wandered on my own around the calming lakes in the water garden. There was a 1960s house in its midst, and a slim lady of a certain age walking around with a watering can who didn't see me. I tiptoed around the carpet of turf.

Even after the gardening public began to step gingerly around, talking quietly, the garden retained this feeling of being private, completely imbued with the personality of the woman who created it. No gardening by committee here: the acanthus above is allowed to flop because it looks interesting. It makes a good picture.

"I aim to make pictures with form, texture and colour," says Beth Chatto later as we sit on a bench in the Gravel Garden. The sense of peace and quiet has long gone and children are charging around. The world famous Gravel Garden is a former car park and even now it seems to be the main route for deliveries. A parcel van reverses towards us, beeping loudly. "I don't mean a picture hanging on a wall, with a frame," she continues serenely. "It's an evolving picture... Which means there is a lot of editing. Trees and shrubs double in size; you put things down as ground cover and then they take over... Just this morning we were going around and I was saying 'let's start again with this.'"

There was no garden or house here before 1960, just dry Essex land. The layout does not follow Victorian guide lines but is free and fluid and yet curiously of its time. The planting follows the Japanese 'line of beauty': "The structure of the bed forms a triangle, and within that triangle there are more triangles." They are essentially giant island beds and what could be more 1960s than that.

The garden is very neat,  without being 'tidy'. "I like a certain amount of freedom but there needs to be control as well," says Beth Chatto. Although many of her ideas have caught up with her over the years Mrs Chatto has always been a radical. She is completely immune to gardening fashions. "Nature is not distracted by fashion," she says, almost indignantly. There are plants here which have earned their place and are outside the zeitgest. Right plant for the right place: it's her thing - she may even have invented the idea. If it works, it works. And by the way, she used grasses fifty years ago.


  1. What does she use as the underplanting for her black eyed susans in the last image? Is it sweet woodruff? What a striking detail, and so much softer a transition from the turf.

  2. Good question: I don't think it's woodruff as the foliage is slightly ridged on closer inspection. Perhaps geranium. I will enquire.

  3. Thank you, please do. I'd love to know.

    1. Nick: I emailed and twittered and got nowhere but then I received a very courteous note from Beth Chatto and I decided to press my advantage and ask her. This is what her Plant Propagation Manager says:
      "We have not planted this plant. It has 'appeared' in various places around the garden. Not fully sure what it is: probably a form of cinquefoil/potentilla." He also offers to mail you some but I fear that imported plant material is strictly contraband over there!

  4. your garden is very nice. i wish i could do the same with mine.