For a gardener, Beth Chatto has achieved some incredible things. Her name is regularly included in the lists of most influential landscape designers of the 20th/21st century, she has lectured around the world, received 10 consecutive Gold Medals at Chelsea, and was bestowed the highest award by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour. Not bad for someone who has only ever gardened in her own backyard.
Now a pilgrimage site for thousands of gardeners, 50 years ago her 'backyard' (it's a few acres) was neglected land allowed to grow wild because the soil was deemed unsuitable for farming. Inspired by her husband’s interest in the origins of plants and their visits to many wild plant habitats, she set about transforming the garden. Given the challenges of the site, the most important principle she adopted was ‘right plant for the right place’. While this may not seem particularly revolutionary to us now, it was in her time, when everyone was growing the same standard roses, delphiniums and foxgloves anywhere and everywhere. This unique approach and the inspiring results brought her fame and recognition in the gardening world. Of course, she also wrote a few books along the way and started a nursery business.
Visiting the Beth Chatto Gardens was definitely the highlight of our garden trip to Essex. The gardens are impressive for many reasons, but especially because of the extreme range of natural habitats that exist in a relatively small area. The most famous section is probably the non-irrigated, dry gravel garden where a surprising variety of plants flourish, many of which I would have never thought could even survive such dry conditions. This area was actually a bit smaller than I expected (given that she's written a whole book dedicated to it), but not less amazing.
Past the gravel garden, the entrance to the garden proper is underneath a huge, ancient oak tree. From the hot, exposed gravel section, stepping underneath the shade of the tree and into the main garden area is like stepping into a green oasis. The garden runs along a natural valley where three large, interconnected ponds have been created. Everything is incredibly green and lush, with the ponds surrounded by large-leaved plants and bold grasses. This was my favourite area - I probably could have sat there for hours just staring.
If you continue past the last pond and a reservoir, you arrive at the woodland garden. Shaded by some impressive, very tall trees, the woodland garden floor is completely packed with plants, many of which I didn't know but all of which were thriving. I loved this area because it was more relaxed in character (less gardened) which fitted perfectly with its woodland setting . In between the woodland and water gardens there are also some more traditional garden beds, with many interesting plant selections and combinations.
Beth Chatto has had an impressive impact on the gardening world, and I don't think it's only because of her plant habitat philosophy. On top of being a dedicated plant lover, I think it's her artistic eye, so evident throughout the gardens, which has really set her apart from so many others.