The Beth Chatto Gardens

“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

The pinks of Sedum, Gaura and Amaryllis provide soft colour in the Gravel Garden

The pinks of Sedum, Gaura and Amaryllis provide soft colour in Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden

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.

I'm amazed more nurseries don't help their customers out with signs like this; it must be a win-win for both business and buyer

I’m amazed more nurseries don’t help customers with signs and displays like this; it must be a win-win for both business and buyer

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.

Birds and favourite plants on Beth Chatto's patio

Birds and favourite plants on Beth Chatto’s delightfully informal private patio

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.

Yucca provides bold, architectural structure in the Gravel Garden at Beth Chatto's garden

Yucca provides bold, architectural structure in the Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden

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 Chatto's Gravel Garden, complete with an enormous Eucalyptus

Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, complete with an enormous Eucalyptus

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.

Drought tolerant plantings in the Scree at Beth Chatto's

Drought tolerant planting in the Scree at Beth Chatto’s garden

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
Beth Chatto's traditional garden is maintained immaculately

Beth Chatto’s traditional garden is immaculately maintained

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.

The funny knobbly knees of Taxodium distichum roots, in the bottom left

Looking out to the Water Garden; the funny ‘knobbly knees’ (or pneumatophores)  of Taxodium distichum roots, in the bottom left

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.

Echinacea, Geranium and Aster in the Reservoir Garden at Beth Chatto's

Echinacea, Geranium and Symphyotrichum (Aster) in the Reservoir Garden at Beth Chatto’s

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?”

Traditional shrub and perennial borders in the Water Garden at Beth Chatto's

Traditional shrub and perennial borders in the Water Garden at Beth Chatto’s

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 Nursery
Beth Chatto's nursery; if only I lived round the corner from here!

Beth Chatto’s nursery; if only I lived round the corner from here!

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.

The Beth Chatto Nursery is perhaps the best I've ever seen

The neatly labelled, alphabetically-ordered Beth Chatto Nursery is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen

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.”

Succulents at Beth Chatto's garden

Succulents at Beth Chatto’s garden: the perfectly behaved pot plant for a spot in the sun

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.

Delicate Cyclamen growing in bare wasteland at Beth Chatto's garden

And one for Mum, who couldn’t believe I’d missed photographing these delicate Cyclamen in wasteland at Beth’s garden. I didn’t think they’d make much of a photo, but bending down and seeing them growing out of nowhere opened my eyes to the true delight of them. Mums are always right!

21 thoughts on “The Beth Chatto Gardens

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    I always tell my students to plant to suit the soil and conditions) – don’t change the soil (and conditions) to suit the plant. it never works. Beth is so right.
    I was admiring the lovely curved garden beds and thinking “she has got the curves just right – not fussy, not those horrible ‘in an out’ curves you see in some gardens”. Then I came across your comment about this being ‘old fashioned’ – It has never struck me like that and I panicked for a second, because although Beth has 3 decades on me, I still use these types of curves in my country garden (where I think they suit).. . I think we can be too much caught up in garden fashion at times or I am making excuses?. I love Beth’s garden – I love that it is tidy and yet crammed full of interesting plants. I love it curvaceousness. I love the idea of the gravel garden too and although you would imagine it sghould it may not be something that works as well here in Australia due to the reflected heat on those 40 degree days. And even if all the gravel is covered in foliage in summer, the heat will suck the moisture right out of the ground no matter what. I think we may be able to do this in a position that has dappled afternoon shade. But I am sidetracking – I love this garden Janna and yes your mum is right! You are keeping me inspired.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, good, you’ve got me thinking, Adriana! It’s definitely not curves per se that I think are old-fashioned. It would be terrible if everything went geometric. It was more the ‘island’ approach that I wasn’t so keen on. I completely agree, classic design principles are far more important than fashion but somehow the style of the layout did feel a little out of date. Maybe old-fashioned isn’t the right way of looking at it. Thinking about wonderful curves, the Kiloren garden in Crookwell is a fantastic example that seems classic and not in the slightest frumpy. It has many trees anchoring each planted area – which vary in size and spacing – so the curves around each feel natural and there for a reason. Perhaps I just wanted Beth’s island shapes to look a little less manufactured. The planting combinations within them were great, it was just the overall structure that somehow didn’t sit quite right with me. I’m not sure if the photos show that overall structure very well, but the whole garden is basically a series of fairly uniform islands floating within grassed pathways (see Incidently, Mum loved the curves and the islands and everything about the structure (and planting), so perhaps I’m just outright wrong!!!

      • Adriana Fraser says:

        Yes from the air I can see what you mean Janna – there are many ‘islands’ that could have been better connected ito make larger beds. You have me thinking too now! I may need to make some changes over time. I remember Kiloren from your post — must have another look.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Kiloren comes back to me very regularly. It is a truly magical garden. Hope it’s ‘good’ thinking you are doing and that this hasn’t prompted you to do anything too drastic!

        • Adriana Fraser says:

          Definitely will do some changes but in time when the rest of the heavy work is done I think. Good to get a wake up call sometimes.

  2. Deirdre says:

    I have always wanted to visit this garden. I have always admired Beth’s idea of planting to suit the conditions. I have been making a garden round a weekender near Canberra, for 30 years. A lot of trial and error but I am gradually learning what will grow. This winter the region has had a huge amount of rain and the effect on the garden has been truly magical. The whole area looks like a little piece of England right now! Hard to believe, I know. I love Beth’s philosophy about sharing plants and plant knowledge; really the essence of gardening.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Gardening remotely (ie not full time) in such a climate must be the activity of a saint, I think! So much patience, perseverance and resilience would be required. It’s a good job you really like gardening, Deirdre! But how wonderful to see it thriving after a good winter of rain. You must be enjoying the rewards of all your hard work.

  3. Marian St.Clair says:

    After years of reading about this garden and then learning more through Beth’s books, I was finally able to visit last September. It ranks with the best! I would love to visit in spring to see the woodland in its prime.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s so nice when you get to visit somewhere you’ve wanted to see for a long time, isn’t it? You would, presumably, have seen it looking much like the photos above, if you were there in September. The woodland garden had all but died down for me too, but would indeed be lovely to see in spring time. Perhaps next year!

  4. kate@barnhouse says:

    This was the very first garden I headed back to when we got back south east asia, then read all there was to read that had been published since our absence about it. The ‘real’ story of the gravel garden, which I hadn’t seem for nearly a decade since it as a carpark, was an eye opener. Everything that Beth has written and every inch of her garden are well worth studying. A good comparison is Derry Watkin’s two beautiful gravel gardens ….

  5. Suzanne says:

    I’m sure I t will come as no surprise Janna, that I love the gravel garden and Beth’s philosophy of right plant for the right place. But I am surprised that such a large eucalypt meets that criterion in England!
    When I first started gardening I wanted to only grow Australian plants. However very few were available in nurseries and those that were were from the Eastern States and as unsuitable as many from overseas. In the 80s a few brave nurseries started to introduce WA plants. It’s been a long voyage of discovery and learning as to what likes my conditions. About 16 years ago I got very serious about removing many of the exotics and replacing them with WA plants that like sand. What a revelation. Plants grow! I’ve turned off the reticulate on in many parts of the garden. The journey continues. The exotics I’ve kept are tough and do withstand 42 degrees, with a little help.
    Beth is a very wise gardener. Another great post thanks Janna.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I did think you might like it, Suzanne! And thought I’d better mention Perth for you! The (new) car park is full of towering eucalypts; I found it very disorientating when we first arrived, only because you see them so rarely here and when you do it’s always just the one. But if it’s a dry part of England with free draining soil, why not? It’s only because we are not expecting them that we are surprised, not that they are inappropriate. The more we can learn about plants’ natural growing environments and focus on a wider range of plants that will thrive, the better, as far as I am concerned. Suitable plants will soon start to look in place once they are grown more often and we’ll have thriving gardens AND plenty of variety and interest. What could be better?! I definitely think habitat trumps geography when it comes to plant selection.
      It is such an incredible journey you have been on over the past forty years of gardening, at such an important time in Australia’s horticultural history. I really think you need to write a book about it, Suzanne. I am sure there are thousands of Perth gardeners going through exactly what you have, reinventing the wheel all over again when they could save themselves the time, expense and heartache if they just heard your story. How about it?!

      • Suzanne says:

        Lol…and I think there was a bit of a snort in there as well! Now if I were as eloquent as you, my gardening mentor, it may be a different story.
        I hope all that prattle above about WA natives doesn’t suggest I abhor exotics. I don’t and do grow quite a few as you know. But as mentioned in your post, many are not suited to our very long, very hot, dry and windy summers. However there are about 14,000 different species in this SW corner of WA; unique and beautiful plants many of which want to grow in my hydrophobic, infertile sand. So many are becoming available and I can’t resist them. I’m a addicted plantophile and patriotic to the core!
        Btw, do you know what eucalypt is in Beth’s garden?

        • jannaschreier says:

          I did wonder if my ‘geographic’ comment might sound like a criticism. It absolutely wasn’t supposed to be; I know you are not a purist on this (just thought I’d already waffled on for far too long to add a ‘by the way….’)! But I do love your patriotism and why wouldn’t you want to focus on local species when you have so many wonderful ones in your area? Much more important to look widely when you live somewhere more limited, like in the odd dry patch of England! I’m not certain on the eucalypt but I’m thinking E. camaldulensis. I really need to defer to someone who is an expert on Australian natives. If only someone who knew a lot about them would write a book….(I’m going to keep going on this, Suzanne!).

    • Diana Studer says:

      In South Africa the eucalyptus (while welcomed by commercial honey bee farmers) is an invasive alien slurping up our desperately needed water.
      And yet, early settlers, farming in that clay is concrete in summer, and eats your shoes in winter – planted a eucalyptus near the farmhouse, deliberately, to slurp up the winter downpours.

      • jannaschreier says:

        I find it fascinating to understand what grows where in the world and the pros and cons in each location. I love the story of your deliberately-planned, slurping eucalypts! Interestingly enough, in my sandy, Sydney garden the best soil of all was around the base of my huge Eucalyptus. Completely counter-intuitive but I think the year-round leaf litter and dappled shade combined to make a powerful formula, which needed far less irrigation than the rest of the garden. Clearly, we have to be extremely careful with the introduction of new species, as they do have very different consequences for different geographies, but we understand so much more than we used to about this and can now make much better informed decisions. We may still have the odd disaster in doing this, but I think we are all the richer for sharing plants and to me, complete aversion to any risk is not the way forward in life.

  6. Louise Dutton says:

    Oh what a talented lady Beth is in being able to create such beautiful gardens and be able to so eloquently write about them. So in tune with nature! I will have to read more about her now. I loved that nursery! Oh how I wish for a nursery like that, although it would mean many hours spent there and of course could cost me a fortune. Seems she is also a very organised lady with grand ideas of enabling others to obtain the plants she uses while utilising their own creativity. The rainfall has been plentiful here and I have never seen the arboretum looking so green. With just the right light the colours out my window are truly spectacular. But we are in for a dreadfully hot summer so I don’t think it will take long for the gardens etc….to feel the harshness. Thank you for taking me to another beautiful garden. My garden is still evolving and it is through meeting you and reading that I have found that my ideas are always evolving. It is lovely to have found like minded people, even if I still have a long way to go to catch up to their knowledge base etc…

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, Beth is a rare gem! I read a TripAdvisor review about the garden that casually mentioned an ‘OK nursery’ at the back of the garden. I think perhaps this was not a mad keen gardener! Mum found it incredibly hard to restrain her purchases and I just had to breathe in and know that I will have a garden to put all these things in one day!
      I wish I could see the views from your home and the arboretum after a lovely wet winter. I can imagine it is stunning. I do hope the summer is kind to you.
      And yes, I think we all love the ‘sharing’ part of gardening. I’m very grateful to have met you and others through our mutual love; it certainly magnifies my enjoyment of the subject many times over.

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