Thursday, June 3, 2010

Groundbreakers: The Garden Heard Round the World

It was the garden heard round the world. Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex, England, is perhaps the single most influential garden of the last century. The rather modest gardener with a unique flair for underappreciated plants stirred the waters of British gardening, and as a result, sent ripples throughout the world. Begun in 1960 on a farm property that was a wasteland of "starved gravel and soggy bog,” Beth Chatto transformed the site by creating a string of contrasting yet complementary gardens. Chatto embraced the site’s difficult features and matched plants to fit the inhospitable terrain.

Beth Chatto is the grand dame of English gardeners, the reigning heir of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and painter-gardener Sir Cedris Morris. Though not the first naturalistic gardener, Chatto nonetheless is the pioneer—the first garden structuralist—who blazed the way for brilliant plantsmen like Dan Pearson and Piet Oudolf. “Success depends on knowledge of plant provenance and on an understanding of natural plant associations,” writes Chatto in her book The Dry Garden. Chatto credits her late husband, horticulturist, and farmer for creating an interest in natural plant associations. Andrew spent his life studying where garden plants originated. Her husband’s passion for ecological patterns stirred a curiosity in Beth that would fuel her most daring garden experiment.

Her most famous and influential garden is the Gravel Garden. Begun in 1991 as a horticultural experiment, the Gravel Garden was converted from a former parking lot. Chatto was inspired by hikes she and her good friend, the legendary Great Dixter gardener Christopher Lloyd, took through various countries. During these walks, Chatto would notice how native plants would miraculously thrive in the harshest conditions, from salt-crusted sand dunes to wind-battered alpine rockeries. Inspired by the “miracle of growing plants,” Chatto set home determined to prevail with her experiment. The site was a heavily compacted parking area that consisted mostly of yellow gravel that went twenty feet deep. Chatto carefully prepared the soil (including subsoiling and several homemade blends of compost), cut in beds by using a hose to lay them out, and selected plants to fit the harsh conditions.

The most revolutionary part of the Gravel Garden is that it has never once been artificially watered. This is especially remarkable when you consider how ornamental and colorful the garden is year-round. The Gravel Garden is not a dry meadow or succulent garden, but a richly-layered perennial garden. This feat is doubly impressive considering that Essex is perhaps the driest corner in all of England.

Of course, Chatto’s concept garden would not have been a success had it not been stunningly beautiful. Chatto began her career arranging flowers, and it is her flair for arranging boldly structural plants in strikingly original combinations that accounts for her critical acclaim. As a founding member of the Colchester Flower Club, Chatto’s experience arranging plants in vases shows itself in her gardens. Chatto structures the garden with tall vertical plants like verbascum, acanthus, and foxgloves (“church spires in my village”); then artfully creates mass with textural filler plants like eryngium, euphorbia, or santolina; finally, she punches through the texture with moments of startling contrast—a luminous Stipa pulcherrima—resolving the tension between the architectural lines and the soft mass.

Chatto’s international fame came as a result of winning medals at the Superbowl of British gardening, the Chelsea Flower Show. Chatto won her first medal in 1976 and went on to win ten more gold medals during subsequent years. The show attracts thousands of visitors a year, and her unusual yet seductive combinations launched Chatto as an international garden figure. Her ability to mix traditional garden flowers like delphiniums and roses with weedy thistles, grasses, and structural seedheads gave her designs an edge and freshness that few could match. Chatto went on to publish several books, including The Dry Garden and The Damp Garden, that became instant garden classics.

Beth Chatto is widely celebrated for being one of the first ecological gardeners. But she describes her philosophy of pairing the right plants to the right habitat as nothing more than common sense. While her Gravel Garden rightfully deserves the attention it has received for its sustainable approach, it is her artistry in plant combination and natural association that makes her a Groundbreaker. Chatto orchestrates an international ensemble of plants into combinations that have the same resonance and harmony of a native palette. Like no one else before, Chatto understands form, color, and texture not as abstract design principles, but as an extension of a particular place.

For Chatto, all of the acclaim and attention her garden has received is missing the point. "Our time is so ephemeral, and no one can say how long any garden will last,” says Chatto, now 87 years old. “It is being part of that continuous chain, passing on plants and the love of plants from generation to generation, that matters."


The Dry Garden, Beth Chatto and Steven Wooster 2001.
Beth Chatto Exhibition: A Revoutionary Revisited.” Telegraph. 13 November 2008.
All photos by Steven Wooster.


  1. Your keyboard has turned an old story into a fresh, fascinating and timely article. Another sublime piece of writing.

  2. Hi Thomas, Stumbled upon your blog through Gail @ C&L. Of course with my affinity for the lighter side of things, I was immediately drawn to your sidebar's "No They Didn't..." Great stuff.

    Not one to typically toot my horn, my landscape is strictly crafted by moi--the consummate NON-professional [and you could say UN-professional] rather than the professionals you so aptly and diplomatically take issue with, I'd love your professional assessment of my quirky "design" ways.

    And of course, what more can be said about the venerable Ms. Chatto? Your inspiring words have done her justice.

  3. Beth Chatto's gravel garden inspired me to try a similar experiment in my dry corner of the world...Anchorage, Alaska. Someday I hope to visit her garden. Til then, I'll just have to be satisfied by reading her books.

    Christine in Alaska

  4. Jeez, now you're sending me back to the library!

    Most interesting. So she is the grandmother of the Lurie garden in Chicago. Who knew? Not I.

    I wonder if great gardeners and designers arise out of the gestalt, when there are enough people moving in that direction to recognize, give a name to and honor what the great ones do? And then their influence ultimately becomes nameless again, part of the "air" in which we garden?

    I remember looking at books of English natural gardens, which must have included hers and wondering if I could do something like that at home with US natives.


If you liked this post . . .

Related Posts with Thumbnails