January 31, 2015

The legacy of Beth Chatto: Ecology and Aesthetics: a powerful association

At a Society of Garden Designers ceremony in London to celebrate the best of garden design and garden designers last night, the well known plants woman Beth Chatto was awarded the John Brookes Lifetime achievement award!- Hip hip hurrah for such a fitting tribute to a lady that has given so much to the profession and our approach to planting design in the UK!

I have long been a fan of Beth Chatto, her gardens, books and philosophy not to mention her wonderful eye for plant aesthetics. I don’t aim to write a detailed account of her work and approaches here, nor specific plant combinations (where would I start!) not least of which because there are far more worthy plants and design professionals than me to do that! Moreover, this is my own personal take, albeit brief, of her contributions.

Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to visit The Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market near Colchester, Essex (the site combines the actual gardens with a nursery and café) on a number of occasions. Both with Capel Manor (where I first started my garden and landscape design training) and also with my parents, keen gardeners who live relatively locally (in Suffolk).. These were inspirational visits of which I have fond memories. I also have a couple of Beth’s informative, conversational books: Green Tapestry and The Gravel Garden, the later a signed copy given to me by students on my first ever garden design teaching for a City and Guilds evening course! Oh yes and some wonderful nursery catalogues.   Not surprisingly, her nursery, is a plantfest of the perennials that she grows in the adjacent gardens.


A driving force

Herbaceous perennials had, in the past, been used in rather artificial ways, to produced painterly visual effects that are short lived and high maintenance.  But over the more recent past, perhaps from the 60’s onwards, new approaches to planting design, driven by Beth Chatto in the UK and Piet Oudolf in Europe have led to the so-called ‘New’ perennial planting. Beth has always approached her work from an ecological point of view and the success of her gardens in Essex relies on her understanding on the varied conditions of her site and the plants that flourish there. She then marries this scientific approach with an artistic eye to produce informal, rhythmic and uncontrived planting. Her UK contemporaries in this approach include Noel Kingsbury and Dan Pearson; as well as those from the Sheffield landscape school James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett all combining strong horticultural and ecological awareness and design acumen.

Designing with the local environment in mind

Beth Chatto’s approach to planting design is underpinned by an informed approach to the site and its environmental conditions and it is this, which she has written about so eloquently in her books about the development of her gardens on unproductive farmland in Essex. This garden is a series of spaces with a surprisingly wide range of conditions from drought-stricken gravel to dense damp silty soil. She has worked with the conditions of the site from rainfall, to soil and microclimate before identifying what type of planting will work. Inspired by her late husband Andrew’s interest in plant ecology, they eventually created a Mediterranean garden on sunny slopes, shade loving plants are planted beneath the trees to form a woodland whilst the spring-fed ditch was used to provide a water garden with water-loving plants. Plants come from various parts of the world, suited to the prevailing conditions. Her books emphasize the need to assess the very particular conditions of your site rather than copying types of garden such as a gravel garden that may or may not be suited to your own particular site.

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A garden of illustration and experimentation

By her own admission, Beth Chatto has been fortunate in having a wide canvas with which to experiment, but she has certainly made the most of that opportunity and in turn passed that experience and knowledge to her visitors, followers and book readers. In the development of the gravel garden, she was keen to understand which plants survived without hosepipe irrigation and was prepared to lose some of the many new introductions and replace with other more resistant plants. Her approach has provided a wealth of experience and knowledge accessible to visitors trying to create and maintain their own gardens, both related to the conditions but also related to aesthetics and plant combinations. Her woodland areas, where she has chosen plants growing in woodlands from around the world, provide a wealth of ideas for those shady places where people are often unaware of what will work.



 The aeasthetics of planting

Beth Chatto knew that it is one thing to choose plants suited to their conditions, but it is a whole additional layer of skill and aesthetic awareness to arrange them in a pleasing way. She illustrates in her garden, and describes and illustrates in her books the importance of form of the plant and the texture , shape and colour of the leaves; emphasizing that the leaves are around for much longer than the flowers.   She describes the rich textural effects of the different leaves, from coarse to fine textured and the layering of different plant forms and functions.   Her detailed but easy to follow texts and images provide explanation of a visual language, enriching our understanding. Of course Beth Chatto’s early experience of the flower club and the flower arranging movement (which transformed the nursery business as people started to use more species plants) undoubtedly allowed her aesthetic skills to flourish as well as fuelling the idea of an unusual plants nursery.   Beth would provide demonstrations using flowers and foliage from the nursery and has 10 Gold Chelsea flower show medals for her displays over 10 consecutive years!  I wish I had seen some of those show displays!



Plant association as second nature

Beth Chatto started her long career as a plantswoman when she visited other countries with her husband and looked at plants and plant combinations and associations in different environments and it was this that she mentions drove her initial ideas of making a garden based on ecological ideas.   Through her hands on approach and passion for plants, she realized that you cannot be completely purist in a garden and understood entirely the difference between the garden situation and the natural environment. In this way her associations in the garden are based on her understanding and appreciation of plants in nature. Her artistic sensibility of understanding of form, texture and colour and how to combine them to best effect enables aesthetic combinations that are informed by but not driven by nature.

In summary, it is Beth Chatto’s tripartite skills combining: an understanding of the site in which she gardens; relating that to natural ecosystems and plants in their native environments around the world and then creating exquisite aesthetic combinations that work in those cultivated garden conditions that makes her shine as one of the great plants people of our time.

I am a Chartered Landscape architect and garden designer with a keen interest in contemporary spaces, roof terraces, courtyards and kitchen gardens as well as all manner of garden and landscape projects.  I  blog regularly about aspects of garden and landscape design and growing food on our boutique allotment.  You can also follow me, Liz Ackerley on Twitter @poppyheadC,  or like our facebook page  www.facebook.com/poppyheadconsultancy  where you will find lots of tips and ideas related to gardens.  Also check out my projects and approaches to design here on my website:  www.poppyheadconsultancy.com



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