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A Homage to Beth Chatto

I was at the Beth Chatto Symposium last week, but before I write anything about that because I want to take a little time to assimilate the many interesting things that have been said, I would like to post some writing I had found about my first experience of visiting this garden in September 2014 and have decided to finish off and publish:

We couldn't asked for a more perfect day when we went to Beth Chatto's. As autumn colours now slowly pales into winter, it felt like a long time ago on that September day, when it still felt like late summer.

Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden
Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden

It is a garden that I have wanted to visit for a long time, especially because of Beth's close relationship with Christopher Lloyd, two very different gardens, two very different individuals but one very strong and respectful friendship. It has been an influential garden in the UK, ahead of its time in its approach and changing the outlook of how you can garden and what plants you can use. As well as a garden that's connected to ecology and created by a woman. Even if it did belong to a certain period of time, I still felt it was of value to see.

One of the first things that struck me when I got there was how incredibly gentle and peaceful it was. The car park was a low key affair with some Colchicum speciosum dotted in small numbers here and there. Before you even purchase a ticket the first area of the garden that you encounter is the Gravel Garden, my friend Robert explained to me that on principle Beth has kept this area free, as she so strongly wants to demonstrate her belief of planting the right plant in the right place, and which she has highlighted extensively in her book 'The Dry Garden', a well read and much known book. In no hurry we sat outside the cafe with prime view of the Gravel Garden, to really absorb this space. The composition of the plants felt just so. The perfectly pruned and sculptural Rhus typhina would fast become one of my favourite plants and feature of the garden and what’s there not to love with such a wonderful small tree/ shrub.

Rhus typhina one of the highlights in Beth Chatto's gravel garden
Rhus typhina one of the highlights in the gravel garden

We walked around slowly taking everything in, loving the small details - mounds of Armeria maritima ‘Rubrifolia’ to big trees like the Eucalyptus dalrympleana with their beautiful peeling bark, wowed by the great big Verbascum bombyciferum punctuating the gravel garden throughout and the big grey pink frilled flowers of the Cedric Morris poppies unique to the garden. In the Water Garden it was the same, we nodded to the rowing boat in one of the ponds – an iconic image associated with the garden, we loved the unassuming white house, and noted how unusual it was for a garden like this not to be associated with a big grand house and how refreshing that was. We noticed that the grass paths through the garden were not striped and it felt like that made all the difference, not detracting from the planting and making the walk through the garden all the more immersive - subtle but important nuances.

The Damp Garden at Beth Chatto's
The Water Garden at Beth Chatto's

Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'
Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'

I was excited to see in the Woodland Garden Euonymus 'Red Cascade', origin of the beautiful specimen on the kitchen drive in the Peacock Garden at Great Dixter, that I have long admired and had led me to first hearing of Beth's garden. I was impressed by how well she collated huge trees as much as she had with herbaceous perennials. Being interested in flower arranging she had a natural sense of aesthetics. She used big meaty perennials and planted them in distinct blocks rather than the softer intermingling and more diffused style of current trends. But as her arrangement of plants made my eyes bounce from one corresponding colour, form and texture all in conversation with each other, I felt what I was looking at was like the visual version of a beautiful matured wine that gets better with age or the more that you looked at it. A deeper understanding of the gardening craft that could not just be fleetingly compared to contemporary fashions, and to do so seemed futile. She is a key influence to the planting styles now and what they are doing are a continuing dialogue of what she has done, and she in turn the people who inspired and mentored her.

Some of the plantings in the Damp Garden Persicaria amplexicaulis, Asters, Chelone obliqua and Calamagrostis brachytricha.
Some of the plantings around near the Water Garden - Persicaria amplexicaulis, Asters, Chelone obliqua and Calamagrostis brachytricha.

A pot display of succulents in the Scree Garden with the wonderful Vitis cognetiae setting off the pinks and echoing the dark tones of the Aeoniums

Like in a dream whilst me and Rob were out in the gravel garden admiring some creamy coloured Eschscholzia, Beth Chatto herself came by in her mobile scooter. I approached her and said hi and she talked about how her eyesight was not so good now, but that she could still make out and enjoy the colour of the Californian poppies, and how she had carefully selected this one over the years for its colour. As she drove off, me and Rob looked at each other, put our arms around one another in acknowledgement of the lovely warm feeling we felt inside from the interaction we just had with her, and for a moment it felt like our friendship resonated the legendary friendship of Christopher and Beth.

Eschscholzia californica 'Alba'
Eschscholzia californica 'Alba'


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