In every generation, there are at least two famous gardeners who inspire universal respect, if not necessarily affection, in their contemporaries. From the 1870s they were William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, in Edwardian times Reginald Farrer and E.A. Bowles, in the post-war period Vita Sackville-West and Graham Stuart Thomas, and, since the 1970s, Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto. Only Beth Chatto remains but, at 87, she is in good fettle and presently celebrating 50 years since the Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market, Essex, were founded.
It would be impossible, I am sure, to find anyone, however generally ill-natured and carping, who would say an unkind word about Beth Chatto because of her warmth of personality, generous spirit, concern for others and exceptional talents as a gardener and ecologist. Beth’s horticultural reputation depends on her having made a large, complex and handsome garden on land that was not fit for agriculture (in places too wet, in others too dry), in a region that experiences as little as 14 inches of rain a year, and developing there a style of gardening underpinned by what we now call ‘sustainability’. In other words, she has suited the plant to the site, so that its requirements for water and artificial nutrients are minimised. Her husband, Andrew, a fruit farmer by profession but a serious plant ecologist by inclination, was a major influence on her by stressing the importance of using (mainly) species plants where they had the best chance of thriving.
Crucially, as a new gardener, she got to know the artist Sir Cedric Morris, whose garden at Benton End, Hadleigh, Suffolk, was a strong draw for artistically minded plantsmen; he encouraged her and gave her many plants. She discovered that she was able not only to grow plants and put them where they would be happy, but also to make them look good in association with each other. That is a most uncommon trick to pull off.
She proceeded to take the plants she grew in the garden, as well as the nursery she founded next to it in 1967, to Chelsea Flower Show in 1976, causing a sensation with the public, even though she was fearful the judges would dislike the exhibit as being full of ‘weeds’. That year she won a silver-gilt medal from the Royal Horticultural Society; ten golds followed in successive years. She ceased exhibiting at Chelsea after 1987, wishing to concentrate on her garden and nursery. People still talk about the remarkable quality of those exhibits, and she undoubtedly influenced other talented nurserywomen such as Carol Klein of Glebe Cottage Plants and Rosy Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.
Beth’s garden and nursery have been the inspiration for a succession of highly influential books on, variously, the dry garden, the damp garden, the shade garden, the woodland garden and the gravel garden. There is also a published correspondence between her and Christopher Lloyd, entitled ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’. Although she lacks the acerbic wit of Christopher Lloyd, her writing is pleasant, illuminating and always to the point. And, because she does not write a word about plants that she has not grown and studied, these books will stand the test of time.
Over the years, Beth has won all the prizes: Lawrence Medal for best RHS show exhibit, Victoria Medal of Honour, OBE, a retrospective at the Garden Museum, two honorary degrees. But I am convinced that one compelling reason why this small, bird-like creature is held in such esteem by her friends, staff, customers, lecture audiences and readers is that fame and public plaudits have never remotely spoiled her.