“The site was wasteland, a wilderness lying between our farm and our neighbours. It consisted of a long spring-fed hollow where the soil lay black and waterlogged, surrounded by sun-baked gravel…in one of the driest parts of the country. But it was the extreme variation in growing conditions which intrigued us, the possibility lying before us of growing…plants adapted by nature to different situations.” Beth Chatto
This quote from Beth Chatto sparks all manner of thoughts in my mind. It makes me wonder what conditions I might face, when I do begin my much longed-for English garden. It reminds me of my thick clay soil in Canberra, baked solid in summer and impossibly sticky after rain. And it reinforces my deeply-held (if blatantly obvious) belief that we should always (with the odd moment of madness) plant suitable species for the prevailing conditions.
But actually, this hasn’t always been such an obvious idea. Beth Chatto – now the grand old age of 93 – has been awarded an OBE, the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest order Victoria Medal and ten consecutive gold medals at Chelsea, for her innovative thinking along these (and other) lines. Perhaps Beth’s idea – conceived in the 1960s – of “the right plant in the right place” would still have escaped me if it wasn’t for her leading light on this matter.
I’d wanted to visit her garden since arriving in Canberra in 2010, when I had an abrupt introduction to the concept of dry gardening. And dry gardening on clay, at that. Not helped by the local nursery selling me beautiful, frost-tender shrubs in an area where minus fives were a regular winter occurrence.
It took me six long years and a move to a decidedly wetter country to get there, but get there I eventually did. And I hope her garden might be of inspiration to those still battling with Canberra’s heat and Sydney’s hydrophobic sand.
Gravel and Scree Gardens
Beth’s Gravel Garden was the area I really wanted to see. A car park until 1992, Beth added home-made compost to the yellow sand and gravel before commencing planting and has never watered since. It is still described as an experimental garden, used to see what really can survive such harsh conditions. To put it in perspective, it has a similar rainfall to Canberra, clearly lower evaporation, but much faster drainage than your typical Canberra soil.
In late summer, the garden wasn’t necessarily at its fullest, but to me, it looked like a beautiful Canberra scene. Multiple, towering eucalyts played games with my mind and I just wished I could pick it up and put it down in Australia’s capital – or indeed Perth or Adelaide, for that matter – to demonstrate the beauty of ecological gardening, or ‘right plant, right place’.
Water and Reservoir Gardens
Moving through to the boggy Water and Reservoir Gardens, you’d hardly believe you were only metres away. Here, the damming of the natural spring-fed hollows has created a stunning environment and the planting couldn’t be more different.
Beth was formally a teacher of flower arranging and encourages the appreciation of all forms of art to learn the basic principles of balance, repetition, harmony and simplicity, in order to widen our approach to garden design. The organic, curving island beds throughout her gardens show clear asymmetric balance which, whilst skilfully applied, did, perhaps, feel a little out of date as a layout. But for a gardening pioneer, who has lectured in the UK, Australia, US, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands and authored ten books, perhaps we can forgive a lady in her 90s for being a little old-fashioned on one dimension.
Francine Raymond, the garden writer, speaks of Beth’s garden:
“Everything is tidy and right. Nothing shocks, but why should it – do we need to be endlessly surprised in our gardens?”
It certainly is immaculate – not a deadhead to be seen, even at this impossibly difficult time of the year – but these words brought me back to my experience at Broughton Grange. The pleasant surprise I experienced at glimpsing the brightly-bedded parterre for the first time. And I suppose it is horses for courses. We don’t need surprise or tension in our gardens, but sometimes it energises and inspires. On other occasions, the serenity of complete harmony is perfection. Neither approach in itself right, nor wrong. It is one of the huge joys of garden design, that there are infinite ways of creating a breathtaking garden, all with distinct merit. These endless possibilities of exploration, thought and discovery are all part of the true magic of gardens.
The final, and possibly largest part of the garden is the nursery, selling an enormous range of mostly perennial plants. It is beautiful in itself and a plantsman’s absolute dream. Divided into sections according to moisture and light preferences, each is then – also immaculately – populated by the most incredible selection of alphabetically-arranged species and cultivars. Oh, to have this on your doorstep. To be able to choose between one of a dozen cultivars of Achillea or eight of Miscanthus. To move far beyond the it’s-vaguely-red-coloured-so-I’d-better-grab-it-whilst-I-can method of plant buying.
Described as being among the most influential British gardeners of the second half of the twentieth century, Beth Chatto is quite philosophical about her work of over fifty years, developing this garden:
“We all pass on, our gardens change, many disintegrate and disappear. That is not important. What matters is the continuing cycle of sharing and learning about plants, and perhaps a little bit of us remains with our plants…maybe this is another precious thing about gardening.”
I love this ethos, of the power of sharing and learning about plants. Something that grows and strengthens, the more you do of it. Whatever site I next find myself gardening in, I can’t wait to apply the learning I’ve taken, both directly and indirectly, from the very learned and talented Beth Chatto.