Described as ‘undoubtedly the most influential British gardener of the last half-century,’ Beth Chatto OBE, together with her husband Andrew, are renowned for shaping the way we garden. It may sound obvious now but they pioneered the concept of choosing plants for specific areas according to their natural habitat, “the right plant for the right place”. This idea is brilliantly demonstrated in her earliest books titled The Dry Garden, The Damp Garden, The Gravel Garden and The Shade Garden.
Beth explains, “My parents were enthusiastic gardeners but I went off to college to learn to teach. All my life I wanted to be a teacher and although it wasn’t as I had intended, I suppose I have become one.
“During the War, we were looking for home for evacuees and I met Andrew. As a child he had spent a lot of time with his Uncle in California and had recognised plants like Ceanothus (Californian lilac) and Eschscholzia (Californian poppies) from his Hertfordshire home, growing wild there, rather like blackberries grow wild here. He wondered how they had got there from the UK and his lifelong research into plant origins, was born.
Beth continues, “When we were married, Andrew had a fruit farm and I had always wanted to have a little nursery to grow unusual plants. When he retired it rather made sense for me to take on the land. I don’t consider myself to be a garden designer but I have been in way, as I had to design various aspects to create this garden. I have simply put the plants in the appropriate places and not just the nearest available space. I have always said that we as people wouldn’t want to be thrust into the nearest job.”
The Beth Chatto Gardens, in Essex, are now famous and enjoyed by a steady stream of visitors. At 88 years of age, Beth still goes out into the garden every day. “I don’t do much these days. If I sit in the chair I go to sleep which is such a bore. My staff are like extended family so we plan changes and improvements together, they think and plant like I do now. And I still meet the visitors of course.”
Beth is extremely humble as she talks about the contribution her and Andrew have made to the world of horticulture. “Three things inspired me, Andrew and the extensive research he had done about where plants came from and their preferred habitats; the flower arranging movement and a dear friend Cedric Morris whose own garden was full of treasures for me. They were species plants or wild plants and quite rare in the 1940/50’s. Of course now Chelsea’s full of them.” she laughs.
“but in those days everyone wanted big, blousy flowers. I have always liked things that are quietly vigorous and do well. The reason that some things are rare is that they’re difficult.”
“I must admit that I have been torn between on the one hand enjoying sharing a new range of plants through my writing but on the other hand feeling sad that the financial people have jumped on the band wagon and made it all so commercial. We must remember to take care of Nature and not exploit her.”
Andrew Chatto papers
Andrew’s lifelong research into plant ecology included investigating the writings of plant hunters, travellers, scientists in French and German, and he even taught himself Russian, in order to read the literature on the plant ecological associations of the USSR where many good garden plants come from. His copious handwritten notes, poems and even hand drawn maps have recently been translated into a digital format that can be read online. Beth explains, “It’s 11 years almost to the day since Andrew died and although he never intended his writings to be published, as time went on I thought it would be nice if someone took it on.”
After discussing her thoughts with garden writer Noel Kingsbury, he put an advert in the Hardy Plant Society newsletter for volunteers who had typing skills and plant knowledge. Out of 55 replies he selected eight people to translate and type up Andrew’s notes. “I’m absolutely thrilled Andrew’s work has been recognised and made available in this way. Of course it never occurred to us that it would be available online of all things.”
You can find out more about the fabulous Beth Chatto Gardens and also read Andrew Chatto’s papers at www.bethchatto.co.uk.
Meet a volunteer
Carmarthenshire based Yvonne Law is almost as humble as Beth herself, “I have no idea why I was chosen to help with the translations,” she begins, adding, “but I did run my own garden design consultancy before moving to Wales, I’m a plant-a-holic and Latin names don’t scare me. I also have the necessary secretarial skills. I was very pleased to be chosen and to be involved in the project especially with Beth’s reputation. It took me about 3 months, and was a very relaxed affair without any time pressures. I would do a bit now and then on wet days, just settling down with a cup of tea and getting on with it. It was a fascinating project, I worked on the New Zealand notes and didn’t realise that so many of our plants were introduced from there. In particular the Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax) stood out for me as I learned it originated from riverbanks and mountainsides. I always thought of it as preferring arid conditions not highland bogs and riversides!”
Beth is fond of Wales and associates it with ‘lovely damp soil’. She told me, “I have been surprised to hear from Welsh visitors to the Garden, that Wales has experienced drought conditions too; I suppose rain is capricious but I think Wales probably gets more. I used to lecture in Wales when Andrew and I were first married. I love the mountains and the long winding stone walls which we don’t have here in Essex. Your lovely damp soil means that you can have the beautiful plants from the Himalayas, blue meconopsis and rhododendrons.”
Highlight of my week
It was a real treat to talk to Beth, she is a remarkable woman who has achieved such great things by simply followed her passion. Such people have so much to teach us, not only about their specialised subject but about life. I was thrilled when she invited me to join her for tea and a walk around her garden. “I am fascinated by the wide range of things you do,” she said, “I knew you would be an interesting person to talk to. Don’t leave it too long before you visit.” Kind words indeed and from woman who has shaped horticultural history.