Beth Chatto’s gardens don’t lack for press representation. Ms. Chatto herself wrote 8 books documenting their design and evolution. Dan Pearson cites the Beth Chatto & her gardens as a strong influence on his work. The Garden Museum in London is preserving her notes and correspondence I visited and, yes, the gardens are as good as promised. So, instead of adding another long-winded essay to the bank of tributes, I present you with a review in that most glorious of contemporary literary forms - a listicle. Now, I know it’s hard to read through this when you could be clicking through twenty photos of penguins who don’t give a fuck any more. Or discovering 12 unusual uses for cheese. But this is a listicle that you can actually apply to your life. Have a look. Discover the 5 secrets of Beth Chatto’s beautiful gardens*. And maybe, in a few years, I'll be writing a listicle about you. Or your garden.
1. Approach is Everything
Every work of art has a pace and a progression that unfolds over time. Some pieces develop gently, building from a simple theme to a rich and complex experience (think of Debussy’s Le Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin). Others explode bombastically from the first moment (think again of Debussy, but this time of of “Images: Iberia Pt 1 Par les rues e par les Chemins”). The Chatto garden is a slow builder.
My lovely friend Sarah of JarmanMurphy drove us through the gentle Essex plains. We passed through a tiny one-pub town. Blink, it’s gone. The fields stretched out again, gold and green. All of a sudden, there’s a country lane snuggled between high hedges. Gunmetal clouds of rustling eucalyptus foliage rise above the dark green slabs of hedge. Slip through the a gap, and you’re there - in the midst of the swirling waving pastels of the Dry Garden.
2. Work WITH the Character of the Site, Rather than Against It
This precept seems like a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to garden with plants that thrive in their garden? Most of us gardeners, are - despite our gentle exteriors - greedy and jealous buggers at heart. Someone in rural Wales can grow spectacular Meconopsis? Gardeners on St. Kitt’s can grow spectacular Bougainvilleas? Surely I can grow both of them in my backyard plot in Arkansas. Beth Chatto’s gardens are developed in three primary zones that respond specifically to the site conditions she observed as she and her husband Andrew tended their property. You first enter the Dry Garden, the site of an old car park. Where vehicles used to wait, dripping oil and emitting acrid fumes, there’s now a stunning array of drought-loving plants in jewel-toned foliage and flowers.
Stepping down into the lower area of the garden, you witness three ponds that make up the Damp Garden. In this area, the foliage is larger and colors are deeper.
At the edge of the Damp Garden, the garden shifts into the Woodland Garden. In the dry shade of the existing tree canopy, Beth developed a meandering series of walks through drifts of mostly green planting flickered with rays of the sun, as well as white and butter-yellow blossoms. Each of these garden areas is detailed in its own book.
Traditional American and European gardening practice seeks to build a soil profile that’s high in organic matter, abundant in nutrients, and neutral in ph - an approach derived from agriculture, since those conditions suit most common food crops. Beth Chatto’s gardens demonstrate the power of exaggerating the qualities of your site and working with them, rather than attempting to change the site’s essential character. They demonstrate that a more sensitive low-impact approach can support aesthetically and functionally successful planting.
3. Distribute Plants in Groupings that Mimic Wild Plant Communities
This is perhaps the most difficult of the Chatto garden secrets to apply, as either a gardener or designer. It requires paying close attention to plant groupings in the wild - observing the physical patterns of how they occur in relationship to plant habit, drainage, slope, underlying soil/rock conditions, and light. The starting point is that many plants tend to grow from one central mass, with smaller groupings trickled out from the main plant. Over time, happy plants will begin to develop sophisticated arrangements as they spread.
However, a designer can jumpstart things by setting up plant groupings sensitively to begin with. Distributing plants in such a sensitive way requires careful attention and strategic maintenance. With larger woody specimens, it also requires sourcing plants in an array of sizes and clumping them together in ways that will startle traditionalist designers. Thomas Rainer and Claudia West start to address this idea of plant distribution within matrixes in Planting in a Post-Wild World. You can also observe such distribution patterns in Piet Oudolf, Roy Diblick, Keith Wiley, James Basson, and JarmanMurphy’s gardens. However, the groupings at the Chatto Gardens are some of the most sophisticated I’ve seen. One of the most magical groupings were clusters of delicate crushed-raspberry and cream martagon lilies rising above long grass in a walk at the back of the Woodland Garden. A few clumps of hosta trickled through as well. Simple. Unforgettable.
4. Build Complex Multilayered Plant Matrixes
The vast quantities of pre-emergent herbicide applied to American landscapes demonstrates what a passion we ridiculous humans have for denying nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum. For the maximum aesthetic experience and ecological function of a garden, it’s important to think in terms of a rich and multilayered planting structure. The Chatto Gardens achieve this in different ways in different areas. In the Dry Garden, small trees and subshrubs form anchors while fat waves of perennials swirl around their feet.
In the Damp Garden, those structures are scaled up with full-sized trees, giant-leaved perennials, and groundcovers puddling at their toes. In the woodland, high tree canopy and groundcover frame an open view corridor, keeping the space full of visual interest without feeling congested. The multilayering of plants in the Chatto gardens goes beyond the typical tree-shrub-groundcover layering. The perennial layer has its own complex substructure, with differently shaped perennials forming a complex lasagna of foliage and flower.
5. Use Your Echoes (Color and Otherwise)
Clever painters often carry patches of a color through a painting. Think of the crimson and cobalt shapes in Joan Miro’s Figure, Dog & Birds. Or the yellow blocks, glowing windows, and flickers on the pavement in Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. These patches draw the eye of the viewer through the work. This technique works in gardens, as well. Of course, gardens have the added dimension of plants changing dramatically over time - moving into and out of flower, as well as changing flower color. I was particularly impressed in the Damp Garden with the wonderful use of electric orange primulas that were repeated in a burning constellation all around the three ponds.
Another example of echoing - in form rather than color, was with the amazing conjuction of a branched golden candelabra of Verbascum flowers echoing the form of a lead-green agave in the Dry Garden. You may be the only person to consciously notice such details, but they’ll help harmonize your planting.
*See, that was definitely better than penguins or cheese. As a disclaimer, these 5 secrets are purely my response based on a trip to Beth Chatto’s gardens in June 2017. They are in no way approved or sponsored by Ms Chatto, her organization or any affiliates. No money, plants, or cheese changed hands in return for this piece. It represents the views of the author alone and may well be contradicted by anyone who disagrees. If you WOULD like to sponsor the author for future listicles, feel free to contact through Instagram (instagram.com/the_curious_gardener/) or in the comments section.