Dear friend and gardener
PUBLISHED: 11:35 29 August 2013 | UPDATED: 11:35 29 August 2013
There can’t be many gardeners who haven’t been touched by Beth Chatto’s passion for plants and gardening. As a founder member of Colchester Flower Club, Beth used flowers and foliage from her garden at Elmstead Market to create arrangements as a way of showing different types of designs while at the same time encouraging the use of unusual plants among florists and gardeners.
Beth celebrated her 90th birthday in June of this year. Born Beth Little in 1923 to enthusiastic gardening parents, she lived at Great Chesterfield and attended Colchester County High School for Girls. She trained as a teacher and married Andrew Chatto in 1943, had two daughters and lived in Colchester while helping out at Andrew’s fruit farm at Elmstead Market; the family later moved here in 1960 to a new house built on the farm. Beth began her celebrated garden almost immediately, guided by her late husband’s life-long interest in the origins of plants. Andrew’s principles and enthusiasm have been Beth’s driving inspiration to create a place that puts plants whose native habitat closely resembles the soil and climate conditions of those in the Elmstead Market garden.
By using this ecological planting approach, potential problem areas (whether too dry, too shady or too wet) have been transformed into advantages with minimal work. In 1960, the garden had been a wilderness and wasteland area with different soils ranging from sand and gravel to clay and silt, in an area that has the lowest rainfall in the country. However, the garden also has the good fortune of natural underground springs which flow into a central stream, made into a series of small lakes by Beth and Andrew.
These challenging conditions have never dampened Beth’s enthusiasm to create and continue developing the garden. ‘This whole garden is one big experiment,’ she told me when we met in 2010 to celebrate the 50th year of her garden being open to visitors. One of her biggest experiments was in 1991 when she turned an area of land used as a car park into a gravel garden now world renowned for its plant collection.
‘The gravel is 20 feet deep under here and it’s been an experiment to find plants that survive these conditions,’ Beth explains. ‘We don’t water anything.’ Beth doesn’t plan on paper and shaped the outlines of beds and paths, which are inspired by dried-up river beds seen on her travels, using lengths of hosepipes. Borders were improved with homemade compost to get plants off to a good start as Beth likens the ‘soil’ in the gravel garden as similar to the beach at nearby Frinton on Sea.
As well as influencing many gardeners, Beth has been inspired by great gardening personalities, and two in particular: Sir Cedric Morris and the enigmatic Christopher Lloyd. Sir Cedric Morris lived nearby in Suffolk and when she first visited his garden in the early 1960s, Beth was struck by his eclectic plant collection and, even though she did not know many of the plants, she felt inspired to grow them. A 25-year friendship evolved and Sir Cedric frequently gave Beth plants, seeds and cuttings which she learned to propagate for her new garden before opening a small nursery called The Unusual Plant Nursery in the late 1960s, later to become The Beth Chatto Gardens.
Beth first got to know Christopher Lloyd through his writings and it was while reading his book The Well-Tempered Garden that she felt moved to write to Christopher about his hatred of bergenias, a plant that Beth adores and feels has a strong purpose in gardens. Their friendship lasted many years and they even travelled around the world in the late 1980s to visit natural plant habitats and gardens. The trip was then followed by a series of talks about their travels. Beth and Christopher both have their own but totally different approaches to gardens and strong opinions on plants, but had a unique friendship.
In 1976, Beth exhibited her nursery for the first time at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, gaining a silver medal. She then went on to win 10 consecutive gold medals at the show over the next 10 years before declining to do any more show work as she wanted to concentrate on her own garden and family.
She received the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH) and also the RHS Lawrence Memorial Medal in 1988 and was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2002. She has written numerous books on gardens and plants including The Damp Garden, 1982; Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook, 1988; Dear Friend and Gardener, with Christopher Lloyd, 1998; Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, 2000: and Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden, 2002.
The garden opened for the first time to the public in 1973 as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) and Beth still gets involved in the management and planning of her continually evolving garden, which she continues to enjoy sharing with ‘like-minded gardeners’.