Beth Chatto: A profile of the renowned plantswoman and writer
Acclaimed gardener, writer and plantswoman Beth Chatto OBE VMH, died in 2018 at the age of 94. We share an interview with Beth Chatto in memory of her amazing life and work. Photograph by Charlie Hopkinson
The acclaimed gardener, writer and plantswoman Beth Chatto OBE VMH, died in 2018 at the age of 94. Her garden in Essex and numerous books have inspired many – and continue to do so. In memory of her amazing life and work, we share this interview between Beth Chatto and then editor Rosie Atkins from a 1997 issue of Gardens Illustrated.
Interview with Beth Chatto from Gardens Illustrated magazine
Beth Chatto is described as England's most influential plantswoman, but unlike her plants, it is not so easy to put a label on her. Her style of gardening, based on working with nature, has been strongly influenced by the man she has been married to for 54 years, Andrew Chatto, who has made a life-long study of plant ecology.
Having started out life as a teacher, Beth has a natural tendency to inspire others, although she is happy to talk about those who have inspired her, such as the late Sir Cedric Morris. She first met the painter 45 years ago as a young mother of two daughters living on her husband's fruit farm in Essex. Morris introduced her to the plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas and the cookery writer Elizabeth David as well as to his own extraordinary collection of plants. While everyone else in Britain was obsessed with bedding plants and roses, Beth was discovering the joys of lime-green Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii and ashen-pink, oriental poppies.
While everyone else in Britain was obsessed with bedding plants and roses, Beth was discovering Euphorbia characias subsp. 'Wulfenni' and pale pink oriental poppies.
By 1951, she was sharing her excitement with members of a flower arranging club she helped start and their enthusiastic response made her think about making such plants more widely available. This only became possible when Andrew retired and they decided to build a new house on some 12 acres of wasteland at Elmstead Market, near Colchester in Essex. Seven years later, Beth had not just created a garden but started a small nursery selling unusual plants.
The terrace of the house now looks out over trees and lakes, with her famous gravel garden and a newly planted woodland. "A tree is so much nicer than sitting under a garden umbrella," she says, setting out a lunch of home-made bread and delicious bean soup from her vegetable garden under a Magnolia x soulangeana covered in flowers. "When I planted this bare-rooted tree with four flowers on it I remember the tilers on the roof saying it would never grow." Presumably they had no idea they were talking to someone who could grow roses on a bootlace.
What had she in mind when she started planting the garden, I ask? Gracefully she glides over to a Cedric Morris painting of rooftops in a Portuguese village. "I wanted to group trees and shrubs together with occasional narrow conifers to resemble church spires in my village – inspired by Cedric's painting." The painting seems to throb in the Mediterranean sun, reflecting Beth's battle to make a garden in an area of Britain notorious for its lack of rain. In fact she has turned this totally disadvantaged site into a positive advantage by showing the value of planting the right plant in the right place. "Plants are like people, they can't just be stuck into the nearest house. If you do, you'll lose them."
Plants are like people, you can't just stick them in the nearest house. If you do, you'll lose them.
The Royal Horticultural Society shows provided a vital platform for Beth to display her 'unusual plants' but she didn't venture forth until the nursery had been going for ten years. Alan Bloom was particularly encouraging, and introduced her to the late Countess von Stein Zeppelin who had a nursery in Germany. "We became such close friends, but I realised that we had no right to use the name Unusual Plants when there were nurseries like hers."
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Beth Chatto went on to win ten gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 11 years, but in 1988 she decided to stop in order to develop her ideas at home.
Now the garden and nursery attracts over 25,000 people a year searching for plants that are more unusual than fashionable. "Some plants deserve to go out of fashion, like Lavatera 'Barnsley', which waves at you from every front garden," Beth says with a smile. "And that charming little blue Corydalis flexuosa is sold like wallpaper in the garden centres, but I wonder how many people manage to keep it? It is not an easy plant, but that doesn't usually worry the person who sold it."
It is this forthright approach that has made Beth's books like The Dry Garden, first published in 1978, into classics. Even her nursery catalogue is an education, but there is no doubt in Beth's mind that she wouldn't be a writer if she hasn't first become a plantswoman. "It all comes out of the soil, all those years of digging , learning and observing."
As we walk around the garden, she says she is pleased people are becoming more plant orientated. "It's like a child learning to talk, picking up new words and beginning to tell stories. Designers need a good vocabulary of plants and strong narrative to design gardens well." Sir Cedric Morris used to say that gardening was the only civilised thing left to do in life, but Beth questions if that is still true today. "So much seems to be keeping up with the Joneses, which is a great pity when a garden can give such contentment. I know if you grow contented plants you will find contentment yourself."
Words Rosie Atkins
Portrait Charlie Hopkinson
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