Lessons from Beth Chatto
Head gardener Åsa Gregers-Warg explains how they choose and use plants at her famous garden
In 1960, in the days before words like ‘plant ecology’ and ‘sustainability’ entered common awareness, Beth and Andrew Chatto set out to transform seven acres of neglected wilderness, which had been deemed unsuitable for agricultural use, into a series of gardens. Where others would have balked at the challenge, Beth and Andrew saw an opportunity to turn what appeared to be difficult conditions into favourable ones, based on the principle that all plants can thrive if grown in the appropriate conditions for their variety and species.
It was a challenging site: exposed to cold north-easterly winds in winter, with an average annual rainfall of 50mm, and soil conditions varying from boggy clay to drought-prone, sun-baked gravel. Influenced by her husband’s lifelong study of plants and their habitats, Beth became an ardent advocate for working with prevailing soil conditions, rather than fighting against them. Her pioneering approach has inspired and shaped the way we garden today, teaching us that plants, just like people, are individuals with specific needs and preferences.
Understanding what type of soil and what aspect they prefer is the key to creating a garden where the plants not only survive, but also thrive and flourish. At a time when garden blooms were bred for size – the bigger and blousier the better – and bright colours were revered, Beth broke the mould by championing species plants and those closely resembling (species) for their simple, yet elegant, qualities. Steering herself away from bumptious, intensely bred hybrids, she was intent on making a garden that would suit its setting and harmoniously blend in with the surrounding farmland.
The artistic principle that became the key influence in Beth’s design was based on ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, where a scalene triangle is used to create an outline that is both harmonious and dynamic. Delineated by three main points, it represents the harmonious relationship between heaven, man and earth. Having used its principle in floral arrangements, Beth continued to group her plants in a similar fashion: using vertical plants to create an apex that lifts your eye upwards, rather than just paint a picture on the ground; mound-forming plants for the middle layer; and low-growing, spreading ones at the base. When these triangles are placed so they interlock at the lowest point, a tall stately plant, perhaps Verbascum bombyciferum, is often allowed to rise out of the void like an exclamation mark.
A well-orchestrated garden design is much like a well-written piece of music, and repetition is one of the most useful tools for introducing rhythm into a garden. Repeating a colour, texture, shape or form helps to establish the visual pacing that leads the eye through a garden. It’s also about the combination and interplay of space and plant.
Empty space is a powerful amplifier, allowing other elements to ‘breathe’, and giving individual plants space to allow their natural form to be appreciated, yet all together it still makes a picture. Plants should be placed next to one another to accentuate their different characteristics and enhance each other. Emphasis is on the plant as a whole, not just the bloom. Above all, it is about contrasting form, leaf shape and texture, as well as subtle variations in colour of foliage.
Planting in drifts and asymmetrical groups, rather than in traditional blocks or straight rows, gives the borders a much more natural feel. The garden should be a rich tapestry of shape, texture and colour in every season, with a backbone of trees and shrubs running through the planting, ensuring year-round structure.
Redesigning one of our borders is an organic process. Working the same way Beth always did, there is no detailed design on paper from which to work, only a rough idea and a list of suitable plants. Planting is mainly done in spring or early autumn when there is plenty of moisture in the ground, which reduces the need for aftercare. Editing the borders is an ongoing process – self-seeders are allowed but need to be managed or they’ll become a nuisance; sometimes a plant combination doesn’t work, or a plant turns out to be too aggressive for its neighbours.
When planting, we know investing time and money in soil preparation always pays off. To quote the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter: “It’s no good offering plants the worst you’ve got and expecting them to get on with it.”
We tend to avoid cramming too many showy plants into one small area. Star performers are, of course, welcome, but they are best shown off surrounded by a supporting cast of quieter companions.
Borders with plenty of small-leaved plants can often look fuzzy. Using plants with big leaves to make a full stop – an interval before the next act – helps punctuate the design and provides somewhere for the eye to rest.
Top plants at the Beth Chatto Gardens
We are still always on the lookout for new plants to introduce into the gardens and its adjoining nursery. Apart from the obvious criteria of disease resistance, hardiness and vigour, we stay clear of aggressively over-cultivated plants that have lost their true character. Ideally, the plant should offer more than one season of interest, with attractive foliage, seedheads, berries and autumn colour.
- Bergenia is indispensable in our Gravel Garden, where its bold leaves provide a much-needed contrast to wispy grasses and fine-leaved plants. Many varieties, for example Bergenia ‘Abendglocken’, ‘Eric Smith’ and ‘Irish Crimson’, are grown for their attractive winter foliage, which turns striking shades of burgundy and crimson if grown in full sun and well-drained soil. Those planted in shady spots with heavy soil tend to colour less well.
- Kalimeris are free-flowering aster relatives that deserve wider recognition. Ideal at the front of the border, where they form a tidy mound, they never require staking and, unlike asters, never suffer from mildew. Flowering from midsummer into late autumn, they are much loved by bees, butterflies and hoverflies. K. incisa ‘Blue Star’ has soft lavender flowers, whereas the slightly more compact K. mongolica ‘Antonia’ bears a mass of mauve blooms.
- Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’, a perennial fennel, could be grown for its foliage alone: a handsome mound of glossy green leaves below a thick flower stalk topped with yellow umbellifer flowers. It’s not as tall as F. communis, so works well closer to the front of the border, but will leave a gap as the foliage dies down in midsummer.
- Stipa pseudoichu is light, airy and elegant, and moves gracefully in the breeze – allow it to rise out of a void so its silvery arching flowerheads can be appreciated
- Euphorbia margalidiana blooms from April onwards, making a yellow-green mound perfect for a middle layer in the border
- Patrinia aff. punctiflora, which works well drifted through Agastache ‘Blackadder’, lilac blue phlox and the arching stems of Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Les Ponts de Cé’
- Althaea cannabina, tall and willowy with branching stems that carry a mass of small pink, hollyhock-like flowers, is drought tolerant and ideal for creating a see-through haze for many months in summer.
- Thalia dealbata is a wonderfully architectural marginal plant with handsome blue-green paddle-shaped leaves. Branching panicles of tightly clustered purple flowers are held on tall, slim stalks. Even as the leaves shrivel up and turn brown in winter, it continues to provide a great focal point.
- Verbena macdougalii ‘Lavender Spires’, a superb sterile vervain from Marina Christopher, has a branching habit and deep lavender flowers over a long period. It is fully hardy and seems to cope better with heavier soil than V. bonariensis.