Beth Chatto: Every plant in its place

PUBLISHED: 12:09 03 July 2013 | UPDATED: 12:09 03 July 2013

Beth Chatto gardens

Beth Chatto gardens


We are welcomed into Beth Chatto’s living room with a warm embrace.

It is five years since Beth came to see our humble garden at Rushbrooke and since then we have exchanged a few postcards. I last saw her when I visited her garden in 2010 as part of the Garden Media Guild to celebrate 50 years of The Beth Chatto Gardens.

Anyone familiar with Beth’s garden at Elmstead Market, in the Suffolk/Essex borderlands, will have noticed her stylised white house, which she and her late husband Andrew built in the 1960s. It nestles behind choice plants and its large picture window looks out across the tranquil water garden and mature oak trees on the bank bordering the garden.

Beth’s desk – on which sits the biggest Allium schubertii seedhead I have ever seen, like a giant firework frozen in time – overlooks this scene. Huge bookcases adorn one wall and the sloped timber lined roof and woodburning stove add character and warmth.

I sit down with Beth in front of the fire, and over a cup of tea I encourage her to reminisce.

Beth was brought up in Essex by parents who were both keen gardeners. But it was through flower arranging that she became interested in plants, particularly the Japanese principle of using the Golden Mean – the desirable middle between two extremes – which would play an important part in the placing of plants in her garden.

She used unusual foliage and flowers in flower arranging demonstrations, which proved to be a good marketing tool. Flower clubs visited the nursery where her lovely plants would be snapped up.

Beth and Andrew Chatto were married in 1943. It was he who inspired her with his lifelong study of the natural environment of plants. It all began,Beth says, when Andrew visited his uncle’s orange ranch in California. He saw a large Ceanothus blooming and asked “How did this get here from England?” Although it was just like the one he’d seen in his parents’ garden in Hertfordshire, it was native to the USA and this sowed the seed of interest to find out more about the natural homes of plants.

When Andrew and Beth found this awkward plot of land with a spring fed stream, she jumped at the chance to create a garden which would demonstrate to visitors how to overcome problem sites by selecting the right plant for the right conditions. Areas of dry shade, boggy ground or in baking sunshine with no irrigation (the old car park) were planted. Now it’s an idyllic haven, visited by people from all over the world.

Beth’s gardening mentor was the artist Cedric Morris, whose garden at Benton End, Hadleigh, was a great inspiration. She took cuttings from Cedric’s plants, descendants of which can still be found in her garden today. I remember as a teenager being taken by my mother to an exhibition of Cedric’s wonderful oil paintings – often plant based studies – at The Old School in Hadleigh where Beth gave a fascinating lecture.

Interestingly, Beth doesn’t have any sculpture or art in the garden, believing that the plants should do the talking. I use them to draw the eye or to surprise, and enjoy picking up the colour of our sculptures from which the selected plants emerge. “We all have a canvas and must paint it how we want,” she declares.

Beth’s nursery and garden really took shape once her children were grown up and her husband retired. In 1977, when the garden had been up and running for ten years she decided to exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show and went on to win ten consecutive gold medals. Her pioneering displays were a sight to behold – she was the first person to bury her pots so that it looked as though the plants were growing naturally in a border.

She also didn’t worry whether plants were in full bloom as they were sometimes needed to provide spikes or spires. camassia popped up the through pipe cleaner stemmed ballota, while bronze fennel added texture and was a foil to alliums of all shapes and sizes. What was also ground breaking was that the plants were grouped according to their natural growing conditions, emulating her garden and helping to spread her philosophy.

Beth is a true visionary – forthright, yet very kind and giving in conversation. Spending an hour with her was a true honour and delight. I can’t believe I am on kissing terms with my plant heroine!

She has been awarded the highest accolades in horticulture, the Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH), the Lawrence Memorial Medal, and, for Services to Horticulture, the OBE, which she received from Prince Charles – another admirer of her work.

As Beth says, Chelsea is about “people who are passionate about plants”, whether exhibitors or visitors and it’s important not to lose sight of that.

Latest from the EADT Suffolk Magazine