One of the most influential plantswomen in Britain, Beth Chatto OBE VMH transformed an overgrown wasteland into an extensive, beautiful garden. Continuing to oversee the developments well into her 90s, Beth created a pleasant place to visit, attracting people from all over the world. Whether visitors intend to have a peaceful walk followed by relaxing in the tearoom or arrive with the intention of purchasing from a wide range of plants, the Beth Chatto Gardens are a place that can be enjoyed by all. Since Beth’s death on 13th May 2018, her family and 50 plus workers are determined to keep the gardens alive and continue to develop and build on Beth’s aims and visions. The Beth Chatto Gardens are a legacy and a memorial of the fantastic, green-fingered gardener.
Situated near Elmstead Market, Colchester, the Beth Chatto Gardens are home to over 2000 varieties of plants. Split into several smaller gardens, habitats suitable for all types of plants have been developed, allowing native and exotic flowers and shrubs to blossom. From drought-tolerant plants to those that live near water, Beth Chatto has them all, however, the state of the land when Beth first purchased it was a completely contrasting, sorry sight.
Betty Diana Little was born in Good Easter, Essex in 1923 to Bessie (née Styles) and William Little, who were both keen gardeners. In her 20s, Betty began using the name Beth, by which she is now recognised throughout the world. Initially, Beth trained to be a teacher and worked at Hockerill College, Bishop’s Stortford from 1940 until 1943, when she married her husband Andrew Chatto.
Like Beth, Andrew was passionate about plants and worked as a fruit farmer until 1960. To begin with, the Chattos and their two daughters lived in Braiswick, Colchester, however, Beth was disappointed that she was unable to have a proper garden on account of the quality of the soil. The Chatto family fruit farm in Elmstead Market, however, had far more potential for a garden, so Beth convinced her husband to build a new home on the land.
Unlike other fruit farms in the area, the Chatto’s farm was less successful owing to the dryness of the soil in some parts and wetness in others. As a result, only plants such as wild blackthorn, willow and brambles had been able to grow naturally. Nevertheless, Beth was determined for her garden to be a success, and today, only the ancient oaks along the boundary survive from the original farmland.
Instead of being discouraged by the mix of gravelly soil and boggy ditches, Beth sought out plants that would thrive in these areas, rather than fight a losing battle trying to get anything else to grow. Today, the Beth Chatto Gardens span five acres of land with a variety of plant environments, including sun-baked gravel, water, woodland, heavy clay and alpine planting.
On arrival, visitors enter the newly developed Gravel Garden, which was once used as the car park. It was originally formed as an experiment by Beth Chatto and her team of workers. Famous for never needing to be watered, the free-draining soil is perfect for the Gardens’ selection of drought-tolerant plants, including ornamental grass and a tall eucalyptus tree, a plant native to Australia. Of the whole Beth Chatto Gardens, it is these plants that coped best during Britain’s July-August 2018 heatwave.
Another species of plant in the Gravel Garden is the genista aetnensis or Mount Etna Broom, which is endemic to the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. This Mediterranean shrubby vegetation typically needs stony soil to thrive and a sunny climate, i.e. little rain. Although Colchester is not the driest of places (heatwave notwithstanding), the light gravelly soil prevents the rain from having a disastrous effect on these dry-thriving plants.
Once past the main entrance to the gardens, where only those who have paid can enter, the path leads to the Water Garden which surrounds four cloud-shaped ponds in which many water plants are growing. All the plants in this garden need moisture in order to survive and, although they can be watered by hand, the roots can get what they need directly from the ponds.
Unfortunately, the plants and foliage in the Water Garden have been hit heavily by the recent heatwave. Although the water source is always available, in July the sun had scorched the petals and leaves, drying them up to make it look like autumn had come early. This garden is better suited to cooler springtime temperatures.
Following on from the Water Gardens is a long shady walk under tall ancient oak trees. The plants that are seen here grow well in the shade, out of the direct sunlight. These include ferns and various carpeting plants, which brighten up the surroundings. The Beth Chatto Gardens’ leaflet tells visitors to look out for strands of Solomon’s Seal, whose roots bear depressions which resemble royal seals.
Other interesting roots to look out for are the “knobbly knees” or pneumatophores of the swamp cypress. These can be seen above ground in areas near the newly developed area of clay soil near the reservoir. These plants are prevalent in places such as the Everglades in Florida and are not native to England, however, the damp soil in this area of the Beth Chatto Gardens is a great place for them to thrive.
On the far side of the Gardens is the Woodland Garden, which, as can be inferred from its name, is full of trees. Most of these are the remaining oaks from the original fruit farm but beneath them are shade-loving flowers, perennials and shrubs that provide a number of different colours. In the summer months, whilst there may be less blossom and flowers, there are numerous shades of green ranging from light to dark depending on the plant.
The Woodland Garden is the most peaceful section of the Beth Chatto Gardens. Out of the way of the entrance, it is easy to imagine you are in a country park or forest rather than a cultivated garden. It is also a great place for wildlife, particularly insects, who can live in the bug houses made of dead wood.
Other areas to investigate are the New Planting and Scree Garden. The former contains recently planted shrubs that had been started in the Nursery until strong enough to survive outside. The Scree Garden is made up of a series of raised beds where easy-to-grow alpine plants can prosper despite the stony growing conditions.
Some parts of the Gardens are restricted to staff either because they are developing new areas or because the ground is used as stock beds. Over 60,000 plants are grown on site every year, which are either placed in the Gardens or sold. Most of the plants in the garden can be found for sale in the nursery, which has been running successfully since 1967. Many of these are offcuts or seedlings and may not look like the full-grown versions in the Gardens, however, staff working in the nursery are very good at identifying plants from photographs visitors have taken and can help people make the correct purchase.
Staff are also keen to help gardeners find plants that will thrive in the particular type of soil they have at home. There is a selection of plants that have been carefully selected to suit dry, shady, or damp gardens, therefore, rarely does anyone go away empty handed.
Beth Chatto is not just known for her lovely gardens, she is known throughout the horticultural community for her amazing knowledge of plants. Throughout her career as a gardener, Beth won many awards, the first being as early as 1977. After the hard work focused on the Gardens was beginning to pay off, Beth was able to concentrate on entering flower competitions, such as those at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Flower arranging was something that Beth became interested in during the 1950s when a neighbour encouraged her to become involved with the art. Soon, she became one of the founder members of the Colchester Flower Club, which was only the second flower club established in Britain. Combining her love of flower arranging with her ever-growing garden, Beth was persuaded to produce a display for the Royal Horticultural Society Show in 1975 for which she was awarded the RHS Flora Silver Medal.
The silver medal was only the beginning of Beth’s success; the following year, she entered the RHS’s Chelsea Flower Show and won another Flora Silver Gilt medal, however, in 1977, she did even better. For ten consecutive years, Beth Chatto was awarded Chelsea Gold Medals for her display of unique plants for dry and damp areas, which at the time were remarkably different to any other exhibit.
A decade after her first award at the Chelsea Flower Show, Beth had another victorious year in which she was awarded the Lawrence Memorial Medal, the Victoria Medal of Honour, and an Honorary Degree by the University of Essex. By this point, Beth’s fame had spread even further through the publication of several books: The Dry Garden (1978), The Damp Garden (1982) and Plant Portraits (1985). Later, Beth penned more popular gardening books, which can still be purchased in the Gardens’ gift shop. Her final book Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden was published in 2002.
As she became known throughout the world, Beth began going on tours, giving lectures about gardening. The first tour she participated in was in America during 1983, which was followed by British Columbia, Canada and the North West States of America the following year. In 1986, Beth went back to America to give more lectures, however, in 1987 she stayed closer to home, touring Holland and Germany. Eventually, Beth travelled as far as Australia for her lectures, before giving her final one in Paris in 1990.
Although her lecturing days were over, Beth was still being recognised for all her hard work. In 1995, Beth was elected to the International Professional and Business Women’s Hall of Fame for outstanding achievements in introducing plant ecology to garden design. This studies the effects of environmental factors upon the abundance of plants, for which the Beth Chatto Gardens are famous.
In 1998, Beth was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Garden Writer’s Guild for her numerous books, but her most prestigious award was given in 2002: an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 2009, she was awarded another honorary doctorate, this time from Anglia Ruskin University, then in 2011, was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Colchester Trinity Rotary Club. Her final award was presented in 2014: the Society of Garden Design’s John Brookes Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I wish to set up an Education Trust in my name to carry forward my passion for
plants and ecological approach to all age groups.”
– Beth Chatto
By now, Beth was already into her 90s and was no longer doing any physical gardening, although she was often seen driving around on a mobility scooter to check out the hard work of her devoted staff and volunteers. Knowing she would not live forever, Beth was determined for the garden to live on without her and wished to ignite the passion for gardening within the younger generation. She also believed that gardening was the key to a healthy planet.
In 2015, Beth set up an Education Trust in her own name to encourage people of all ages to become interested in ecological approaches. The charity offers courses, workshops and events for school parties, individuals and families throughout the year, including RHS qualifications. Many of these courses take place in the Willow Room situated near to the garden entrance. The building can also be hired out for special celebrations, wedding receptions and wakes.
Although her death is still fresh in the minds of many people, there is no risk of Beth Chatto being forgotten. The Gardens will continue to open to the public, courses will still run, and staff will always be hard at work. Apart from at Christmas and New Year, the Beth Chatto Gardens are open every day and can be accessed for a fee ranging between £4.50 and £8.45 depending on the season.
Visitors do not need to wander the gardens every time they visit, some people, who just want to purchase plants from the Gardens’ impressive stock, can enter the Plant Nursery and Gravel Garden for free. Also worth visiting is the Tearoom and Gravel Garden Restaurant, which specialises in freshly baked home-made scones, sausage rolls, homemade cakes and afternoon teas. Coffee lovers can enjoy a cup of the unique Beth Chatto Gardens coffee, which has been specially blended by the team.
Whilst it is sad to lose a life, Beth Chatto will live on through her garden, inspiring new gardeners, young and old, throughout the world. Whether you have green fingers or not, the Beth Chatto Gardens are worth a visit just to see the hard work that Beth and her workers have put in for almost 60 years.
More information about opening times, ticket prices and upcoming events can be found on the website: www.bethchatto.co.uk