Last Friday I was honoured to speak at the University of Essex in support of The Beth Chatto Education Trust, of which I am a patron. My brief, to talk about the importance of education in horticulture, was an easy one to meet and that much more relevant with the Trust firmly up and running. Julia Boulton, Beth’s granddaughter and Managing Director of the Gardens and Director of the Trust, has made it her mission to utilise the garden as an educational resource and it was with much excitement that we met to celebrate the fact that the garden now has this important new future.
Beth’s work has always been important and the garden is as relevant today as it ever has been. At the forefront of the naturalistic movement in this country, and instrumental in originating the ethos of ‘the right plant in the right place’, Beth’s displays at The Chelsea Flower Show were ground breaking in the 1970’s. I remember their singularity, for no one else at the show was using the plants that she was cultivating or combining them as intelligently; plants that were wild in feeling, always close to the species and grouped according to their habitat needs, not the whim of colour themes or border compositions. Apparently, in the early days, some show judges are said to have dismissed her displays as being nothing more than cultivated weeds, but the message to gardeners was strong, practical and consistent; put a plant where it wants to be and it will thrive. It is barely credible now that this approach should have been seen as unusual, but in the days of annual bedding, hybrid tea roses and prize dahlias Beth’s was a shock doctrine.
And she was far more than simply the nurserywoman who presented her wares at the show. You could also depend upon her not only for her impeccable taste, but also for her ability to educate you through her plantsmanship. For years Unusual Plants was the only place to go to get the plants I wanted to grow and I pored over the evocative descriptions in the catalogue. My borders in my parents’ garden were stocked with her treasures and it was through a love of her plants that I bonded with my first client, Frances Mossman, with whom I created the gardens at Home Farm. We had both fallen under the spell of Beth’s catalogue and I remember very clearly a key conversation about Beth’s description of Crambe maritima. A seaside wilding brought to life and into horticultural focus through words. A world of opportunity that was suddenly possible once you made the connections. When I started travelling to see native plants growing in the Himalayas, Israel and Europe in my ’20’s Beth’s ethos was plainly articulated in every plant community I saw and helped me make the connections between the wild and the cultivated.
Earlier last Friday, before the talk, we took a tour of the gardens with Dave Ward, the Garden Director and long term member of the team. At the Gravel Garden (main image) we stopped to catch up with Beth, who had come out to greet us and marvel at the Romneya. Just two days after celebrating her 94th birthday she had lost none of her fervour for the importance of horticulture and was vocal about how good education and competitive salaries are essential to encourage young people into the profession. It was so good to see her in her environment and I remembered how she had once talked about being in New Zealand with Christopher Lloyd and had dreamed of making this garden after they had come across a dried up river bed.
Repeated Genista aetnensis set the mood, its peppered clouds of gold, luminous against the dark hedges. Nothing looked out of place, with all the plants chosen for their drought resistance and moving about in the gravel as if they had found their way there and their companions quite naturally.
A repeat of vertical verbascum to arrest the eye; Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, dull white and caught in a gauze of Stipa gigantea, with a smattering of pink Dianthus carthusianorum. Felted Verbascum bombyciferum standing alone and breaking free at the very edges of the planting. Romneya coulteri fluttering close to the path so that you could inspect the boss of golden stamens. A stand of Stipa barbata given their own space and floating like seaweed in the breeze.
There were many plants that I am using at home which Beth introduced me to as a child (Eryngium giganteum, Lychnis coronaria, Crambe maritima, Romneya coulteri, Stipa gigantea, Dianthus carthusianorum, Phlomis russelliana) and others that I have come to from other directions, but surely because of Beth’s influence. An acid-yellow mist of Bupleurum falcatum through which the dark orbs of Allium sphaerocephalon were suspended. Buttons of pale yellow Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana, hunkered down and throwing off light. Splashes of electric-blue Eryngium x zabelii, metallic and architecturally jagged amongst the softness.
We moved from there into the lower sections of the garden where the compositions were driven by green and texture. Head Gardener, Åsa Gregers-Warg reminded us of Beth’s love of ikebana and the asymmetric triangle that repeats in her compositions. Watery reflections, plants adapted to their foothold, be it edge of the dry oak woodland or spearing Thalia dealbata amongst scale changing Alisma plantago-aquatica in the shallows of the ponds. Splashes of fiery candelabra primula amongst green umbrellas of Darmera peltata and in a narrowing on the way to the Reservoir Garden, the oversized creamy plates of Sambucus canadensis ‘Maxima’, a plant that I haven’t grown since I was a teenager. On enquiring about its availability (I had the nursery set firmly in my mind as a highlight of the day) Dave tipped me off. “You can get that at Great Dixter.” More connections from my early education. A plant I had all but forgotten about but, all these years later, am just as excited to be revisiting.
The best gardens are all about connections and the garden here at Elmstead Market is full of them. Talk to Beth and she will very quickly tell you about the importance of her husband, Andrew’s work as a botanist in identifying plants from all over the world that had the ability to grow together. She will tell you too about her friendship with Cedric Morris, and you will find his collections and selections in the garden if you dig a little and ask the right questions.
My notebook filled rapidly – the nine foot Allium ‘Purple Drummer’ and Agastache ‘Blue Boa’ amongst Deschampsia caespitosa ‘Schottland’ – and it continued to do so in the nursery where we had a behind the scenes look at the industry of the place and saw at close quarters all those treasures that have gone out into the world to fuel passions. My order of new-to-me and untested plants came together without hesitation. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’, Eupatorium fistulosum f. albidum ‘Ivory Towers’, Nepeta ‘Blue Dragon’, Salvia verticillata ‘Hannay’s Blue’ and Teucrium hircanicum to name a handful. They have just arrived, within the week, beautifully packaged as ever, bringing all the excitement that has been coming to me from this inspirational place for the best part of forty years.