I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy visiting other people’s gardens. They’re a great source of both pleasure and inspiration. One of my favourites to visit is the lovely garden created by the late Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market in Essex.
Fortunately for me, I live in the neighbouring county (Suffolk) and I’ve been able to visit the Beth Chatto Garden many times over recent years. But my first visit to the garden was much earlier, while I was still living in Scotland. At the time I was still fairly new to gardening and Mrs Chatto’s book, ‘The Green Tapestry’ had just come out. The book soon became one of my most relied-on sources of information about how to create a garden, so it was a great treat to actually be able to visit the garden that had inspired it.
As you walk into the main part of the gardens, your eye is caught by a series of four large ponds that form the impressive centrepiece of the garden. The water-garden was created to take advantage of water coming from a natural spring and to solve the problem of what would otherwise be heavy, waterlogged ground. The results are beautiful and invite you to wander and linger or just have a seat on one of the benches and relax.
It was late spring when we visited and there was new growth everywhere. The garden changes a lot with the seasons and can be dramatically different when the plants have grown to their full size later in the year. Our previous visit had been last autumn, so this felt like quite a contrast, with everything very fresh and green and full of promise for the summer.
Many of the plants here are familiar to me from Scottish gardens – candelabra primulas, gunnera and ferns particularly – but sadly they won’t grow well in my own very hot and dry garden. (One of the things I learned through reading Beth Chatto’s books was the importance of choosing the right plant for the situation. I’m afraid I condemned a few plants to a slow death by putting them in entirely the wrong place in my earlier gardening days!)
The planting in the garden is a delight. I love to see the way texture and shape are contrasted (as in the photo above). Actually, I’d really like to grow Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ in my own garden because the lines on the leaves make it a great subject for black and white photographs. (The wild arum keeps popping up here, so it should do well enough.)
Our visit to the Beth Chatto Garden was partly prompted by wanting to get ideas for making a pond in our own garden. (OK, so our pond will be absolutely tiny in comparison, but you might as well look for inspiration from the best!) And there’s a nursery at the garden, so inspiration can easily turn into a few plants to take home with you…
Of course, there are plenty of familiar plants that I can (and do) grow, like the alliums, camassia and forget-me-nots in the border above. And then there’s the plants that I could grow when I lived in Scotland, like the rhododendron below. (Ah, now I really wish I could grow that here!)
The gardens have far more than I can possibly describe here. There appears to be just about any habitat that you can think of – water garden, woodland, shady areas and the sunny scree beds. And then there’s the famous gravel garden with its drought-tolerant planting – it has been a great source of inspiration for our own very dry garden. It’s a garden that I feel I can thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting this area, at any time of year. There’s a nursery and a good tearoom too, so you can easily spend a few hours here.
As you will probably know if you read gardening papers or magazines, Beth Chatto passed away in May this year, aged 94. She has been an inspiration to many and I know that a lot of my own enthusiasm for gardening has come from reading her books. I feel that her legacy is not just in the beautiful gardens that she has created, but also in the love of plants and the understanding and knowledge of them that she has shared with other gardeners.