Beth Chatto – a natural subject

A GARDENER'S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto (Photo: Alamy).
A GARDENER’S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto.

A Writer’s year with a great gardener.

WHEN I first arrived at the Beth Chatto Gardens in midsummer 1996, a bright, animated woman called Rosie greeted me and showed me into the house, where gardener and writer Beth Chatto hosted me for morning tea.

I was there to investigate the viability of producing a documentary on Beth and her work, and what struck me immediately was her gracious nervousness. Taking nothing whatsoever for granted, this multiple Chelsea award-winning gardener was as vulnerable as an auditioning actor.

She’d loved the program one of my colleagues had made about another respected local gardener – Suffolk’s Peggy Cole – because it had captured the truth about what it takes to nurture an English garden, and she hoped I could do the same for her.

Once outside, and more relaxed within the fluid environs of her garden, Beth related that she’d made a program about her garden before, but to date, she felt, no-one had captured what the Beth Chatto Gardens was really all about.

We walked, we talked, and Beth encouraged me to get right within the garden itself, to tread through beds to see the workings of the water garden or the structure of the gravel garden.

Passing a small group of visitors, she introduced herself, directly but politely, to a woman who was taking cuttings, not by reprimanding the culprit, but by saying, “Please, feel free …”, despite the well stocked nursery on the other side of the hedge.

That mixture of shock at her garden being picked-at, and her inner turmoil at wanting to share it without rancour, showed a complex woman with a very interesting story. All I wanted to know was when could we start?

I read as much as I could about Beth’s work and her place in post-war English gardening. She patiently gave me time to catch-up, but underlined that we’d need to spend time in the garden, perhaps an entire year, to film it in its fullness.

As a producer new to the company he worked for, that meant I needed to test budgetary terms, and face questions about when the product could be ready for the marketplace. Could the execs wait another Christmas? Had this territory already been covered enough by another company?

GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).
GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).

The best thing I could think to do was simply to start. A cameraman, Alan James (another Essex gardener in his own right), and me, just filmed as the seasons cycled, as they do so dramatically in England. Along the way, I felt sure I would find a way to make the project work for all the stakeholders.

Beth Chatto’s ornamental garden is just one part of her work. Situated at the end of a farm lane, not far from the Essex town of Colchester, it occupies a small gully between working farm fields which Beth and her husband Andrew transformed into their world famous garden.

A commercial nursery makes up almost half of the property, and much of that is taken up by large-scale compost production. I recall Beth’s delight when we proved ourselves willing to film tractors at work on steaming piles of leaf litter. Her approach to our company, with its track record for making programs about farm machinery, was paying off.

On one day’s filming in winter, a quiet, well-dressed man (who looked a bit like I’d imagine a Russian philosopher would) was seated on the other side of the fire in the garden office when I arrived. Rosie asked me to take a seat to warm myself, and Andrew Chatto gently introduced himself.

Beth credits her husband Andrew Chatto with the original inspiration behind their garden for one very simple reason. It was Andrew who came up with the idea of finding plants from across the temperate world, and to grow them in England under conditions that were suited to their needs. This was Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ concept in a nutshell.

To explain why such a basic philosophy became so revolutionary, you’d need to tackle centuries of horticultural collecting conducted by the great botanists who accompanied Britain’s explorers on dangerous voyages to bring seeds and cuttings back home.

The famous glasshouses of Kew were built to house this booty, and to keep it alive against the cold climate. The movement eventually encouraged generations of ordinary gardeners to buy whatever plants we liked, stick them in our back yards, and hope for the best.

Beth and Andrew were every bit as exploratory, not just because of their plant-inspired travels, but also because the climate and soil in Essex are not what you’d call typically English. Certainly the annual rainfall is not what other counties enjoy. The Chattos were also not afraid to wait many years to see what happened.

And what happened speaks for itself … the scrubby gully is now a stunning series of gardens that descend almost imperceptibly along a natural water-course. Preceding Beth’s well-loved books on water and shade gardening, these immaculate green spaces were her laboratory in an ongoing love affair with plants.

DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.
DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Photo: Alamy)

Our filming coincided with the peak early years of Beth’s latest project at the time – her gravel garden. In an ongoing experiment, quite ahead of its time, she vowed to never irrigate this garden, to test the boundaries of gardening under drought conditions, well aware of the tussle to come between farmers and gardeners over access to water.

Here was something an Australian could really get his head around – the gravel garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens reminded me of home, with its sparse, elemental feel and the heat that emanated from the ground, literally inches thick with small stones and filled with plants familiar to me from roadsides in the Outback.

As the months passed we got to know Beth’s staff quite well. I would often catch a glimpse of her observing our filming processes from a distance, and once she saw her gardeners chatting with us and surrendering to the often annoying process of, “now, could you just do that again, and we’ll film it from this angle …”, she would disappear into the house to get on with other work.

As an interviewee on camera Beth Chatto proved a natural. I realised very quickly that I’d only need to capture her in conversation and get Alan to just turn the camera on. Years of communicating her story had given her an edge that needed no other commentary.

In the last few months of filming, Beth kept gently reminding me that she’d like some group shots of the staff, and on one day in the Summer of 1997 we got everyone to down tools and take part in a photo shoot that we committed to tape. As the centre-piece to those moments, I saw Beth about the happiest I’d ever seen her.

She also understood innately what I was doing when I asked one of our execs to be an extra in a whole day’s filming, our one ‘big budget’ spend, working with a crane to capture high-angle motion shots. Beth guided my boss through the highly repetitious process of take after take, until we had it just right.

I became a gardener as a result of my year with Beth Chatto. What I know about gardens I learned from her, particularly about how to live in a garden and not be too precious about the life that runs through it – pets, visiting wildlife, and people who like to take cuttings.


The Beth Chatto Gardens DVD is available from BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Beth Chatto – a natural subject”

  1. Reading this took me back to my first year of marriage, living in St. Louis, Missouri, right across from the Missouri Botanical Gardens. My wife and I would walk the grounds nearly every Saturday morning.

    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  2. A very interesting post; thank you; I’ll look for the DVD when I visit the garden this spring. And happy gardening!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post too. A visit to Beth Chatto’s garden 4 years ago inspired us in our garden in Pemberton Western Australia. I feel sure that she has inspired gardeners from every corner of the globe. What a legacy!

    1. Glad you liked this post Sally. One of the most interesting things Beth ever said about Australia was how amused she was by a comment from one of her nearby Essex neighbours at the time – Germaine Greer – who was apparently amazed by what Beth was doing with one of Australia’s roadside familiars – verbena bonariensis

      1. Hi Michael – I actually love verbena bonariensis and use it extensively in all our garden beds – it looks great in the garden, and we cut off the flower heads before they go to seed. Germaine Greer has always been known for saying whatever she thinks!
        It’s so interesting to see how successful Beth Chatto has been in replicating our hot and dry gardens in Essex – who would have thought it?! We, on the other hand grow cool climate plants like rhododendrons, heucheras (we sell them) and maples, as well as heaps of Australian natives. We have over 40 xanthorrhoea australis on our 6 acre property – lucky us!
        cheers – Sally

      2. Isn’t it amazing to see such a garden in England – I recall Beth saying that Essex gets less annual rainfall on average than Israel, which makes it perfect for dry gardening.

        We restored an lovely cool climate garden in the Blue Mountains before moving to the sub-tropics last year, where we’re still getting to grips with gardening in this climate.

        Jealous of your grass trees!!!!

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