Forward planting

PUBLISHED: 11:19 11 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013

Beth Chatto

Beth Chatto

It is nearly 50 years ago that Beth Chatto started her Elmstead Market garden on five acres of overgrown wasteland. Today, Beth is an acknowledged pioneer of ecological gardening and her gardens are famous throughout the world. Pat Parker took a g...

BETH CHATTO is a gardening legend. As she shows me round her glorious gardens in Elmstead Market, visitors gawp in admiration. One delighted Dutch visitor asks her to pose for a photograph.

Beth's life has been devoted to creating a natural garden based on ecological principles, in which plants are chosen to match the conditions available. And the result is a harmony of colour, shape and texture which is ever-changing, but always beautiful.

Her guiding principle has been to work with nature, rather than against it.
'There's a phrase which has now become ubiquitous, but which I suppose I started, which is to find the right plant for the right place. Plants are like people. People would not take kindly to being pushed into the nearest job, and plants don't take kindly to being pushed into the nearest available hole. They have their preferences too. If you have a very shady garden, there's no use planting it up with grey foliage plants which need full sun. It sounds obvious now, but it wasn't 50 years ago.'

At 85, Beth is small and spry, her bright eyes radiating intelligence and enthusiasm. She started her garden 48 years ago, on five acres of wasteland bordering her husband Andrew's fruit farm. The land was so poor - ranging from arid gravel to boggy hollows, that it had never been cultivated. It was, in short, a wilderness.

But she was inspired by the research of her late husband, Andrew Chatto, who spent a lifetime studying the natural habitats of plants. 'He was an intellectual gardener, I was the practical gardener. It was a good partnership.' Together, they collected rare seeds and plants from around the world which would suit the challenging conditions. Today, the gravel, water, woodland and scree gardens are a testament to Andrew's painstaking research and Beth's artistic vision.

We start our walk in the famous gravel garden, created in 1992 on the site of the visitors' car park, to see how well drought-tolerant plants could survive without irrigation. In an area of Essex which has the lowest rainfall in the country (20 inches a year on average), it was a bold experiment.

'We had all sorts of problems,' says Beth. 'It was so hot and dry here that even native weeds curled up and died.' But she planted sedums and succulents, grasses, alliums, broom and cistus, and the result is a tapestry of flower and grey-green foliage - the pinks and purples of spring giving way to the yellows of summer. 'The whole point is to have a succession of shape and colour as the seasons progress,' says Beth.

She has an artist's eye for composition. 'To make a landscape, you need verticals - grasses or a slender tree to raise your eye to the sky. Without those, low plants like lavender or the sages can look like a tray of buns. I love it when the sky is full of mountainous white clouds. They form a landscape in the sky, echoing the shape of the trees and shrubs in the garden.'

From the dry gravel garden, we descend to the lush, cool greenery of the water gardens. Here, on the site of a spring-fed, boggy hollow, Beth has created four natural ponds surrounded by dawn redwoods from China, American swamp cypresses, and moisture-loving plants such as the parasol-like Gunnera tinctoria.
Beth stops to admire a blue wood anemome. 'It's like a bit of sky dropped on to the ground.'

A trail of forget-me-nots leads us through the shady woodland garden, created after the 1987 storms devastated much of the two-acre wood which stood here. Only ancient oaks, and some ash and birch remained standing, and it took Beth several years to create an under-storey of shrubs to protect the narcissi, violets, wood ferns and hostas from the easterly winds.

It starts to rain and, after a look around the famous nursery from which 2,000 mostly herbaceous and often unusual plants are sold, many via online mail order, we return to Beth's house via the scree garden, featuring a wealth of alpine and other sun-loving plants.

Beth was brought up first in Great Chesterford and then Wivenhoe, the daughter of a police officer. Both her parents were keen gardeners, and she can remember lovingly tending her own patch of garden as a child. It never occurred to her that she could become a professional gardener, however. 'Before the war, gardening wasn't considered a suitable career for women.'

Instead, she trained as a teacher, but when she was just 17, she met Andrew, 14 years her senior. It was wartime, and she visited Andrew's fruit farm at Elmstead Market trying to find homes for evacuated children. The pair fell in love, and married when Beth was just 20.

Andrew devoted much of his life to researching the origins of garden plants, and their natural habitats, often translating obscure botany books from French, German or Russian. Andrew's research inspired Beth to create a garden in which wild flowers from all around the world grew in conditions to which they were naturally suited. She was inspired also by the artist and gardener Sir Cedric Morris, who gave her many then rare plants, such as alliums, from his garden at Benton End in Hadleigh.

Beth taught briefly in Great Bentley before having her two daughters. Then, a neighbour, Pamela Underwood, lured her out of domesticity by inviting her to become a founder member of the Colchester Flower Club - the second such club in the country.

Beth helped set up new clubs by demonstrating flower arranging using the unusual plants from her garden. 'Whereas most demonstrators would buy flowers from the florist, I took everything from the garden. I was often asked where I'd got the plants from, so that sowed a seed in my mind to start a little nursery, which I opened in 1967.'

Realising she needed publicity, Beth plucked up courage to demonstrate a natural winter garden at the Royal Horticultural Society show in Westminster Hall in January, 1975. Using natural winter foliage, as opposed to the forced cherries and primulas on show, caused a sensation. Emboldened, she then exhibited at Chelsea, and went on to win ten consecutive Gold medals - an extraordinary feat for an amateur gardener.

Her business took off just as Andrew's fruit farm folded - competition from imported apples forced them to sell it off cheaply. Beth became the family breadwinner and Andrew's carer - he suffered from emphysema for many years. Andrew died, aged 90, nine years ago.

Beth has been showered with awards, including the OBE in 2002. She has written numerous gardening books, and has lectured around the world.

She lives alone now, surrounded by loyal staff and her beloved garden. But her passion for gardening is as intense as ever. 'If you love what you do, hard work becomes an enormous pleasure. I like to think I have helped other people enjoy their gardens, and find lifelong pleasure in growing contented plants. Everyone who comes here carries a little bit of me away with them. In that way, whatever happens, the garden will live on.'

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