Simply stylish: The Beth Chatto Gardens

The reservoir garden, built on debris from the neighbouring farmer’s lake and now looking rather Eighties, is due for a facelift and will become a living catalogue for many of the new plants grown in the nursery. Only the scree garden, near the house and packed full of favourite sedums, sempervivums and alpines, is a disappointment. I remembered a tapestry of fat succulents, now housed in the original wooden greenhouse where Chatto worked on her plants.

Guardian oaks

The whole garden was built from scratch from fallow fields along a backbone of 350-year-old oaks, still the most fabulous occupants in this magical place. Chatto, though frail, still gardens from her bedroom overlooking her creation, and her affection for her own plot has influenced gardeners worldwide.

But how does a classic garden continue to draw visitors in a field of all-singing all-dancing attractions? There is plenty here to see, enjoy and learn from. It all makes ecological good sense: gardening with your soil conditions, climate, rainfall and local wildlife; the muted colours, patterns and, above all, textures.

The nursery list is packed with quality plants, as opposed to garden centre varieties that are just the latest hybrids, regardless of their usefulness. This year The Beth Chatto Handbook, a catalogue of unusual plants that also offers an insight into her planting ideas, will be republished. Chatto’s archives have been donated to the Garden Museum and are being collated by Dr Catherine Horwood.

Beth Chatto in her garden (Asa Gregers-Warg)

Tea for two

Who am I to judge such a garden? Sitting at the next table in the tea room overlooking the gravel garden, I asked Fernando Gonzalez his opinion. Gonzalez is an installation artist and creator of a Fresh garden at Chelsea this year. “Simply inspirational,” he replied.

His companion, Fern Alder, plantswoman and founder of Full Frontal, a community project advocating the greening of streets, said: “Breathtaking, even in winter. Every visit recharges my batteries.”

Plantsman’s Pick

I asked Dave Ward for his predictions for this year’s trendiest plants.

– Heucheras and hostas are on the way out, but purple flowers and dark foliage are in.

- Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’ – a new vervain with purple-tinged foliage and lavender-pink flower spikes.

Beautiful ‘Bampton’

- Sedum ‘Karfunkelstein’ – a dark, slate-leaved sedum with mounds of dusty pink flower heads.

- Geranium phaeum ‘Misty Samobor’ – only from Beth Chatto; bold, splashed purple-black leaves, subtle cream and lilac flowers. Easy in shade or sun.

‘Misty Samobor’ only available from Beth Chatto

- Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Prince’ – aster with dark leaves in spring, tiny pink and white autumn daisies.

Beth Chatto Gardens and Nursery, Elmstead Market, Essex (01206 822007).

“One of key books has been reissued in a splendidly illustrated new edition.”

“An updated version of a modern classic. Full of timeless wisdom that will stand any gardener in good stead, it is perhaps the ultimate guide to gardening in the shade…Describing her woodland garden as ‘tranquil and yet full of life and interest’ this description also perfectly sums up the book.”

“As one would expect from Beth Chatto, this book is packed with knowledge, wisdom and common sense. Her guiding principle has always been the right plant for the right place, bringing about a quiet revolution in the gardening world. The writing style is stimulating and personal, her plant descriptions eloquent. Photography for the book is from Steven Wooster, a garden photographer and a graphic designer who won the Garden Media Guild Award for his photographs in Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden. He has been photographing Beth’s garden for more than 20 years and his intimate knowledge of the garden gives the reader a beautiful insight into this special place.”

“This book is great for anyone who has a shady area that they’re a bit stumped with or just for a good old interesting read that fills you with a rosy glow of well-being. It would make a great gift.”

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