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Gardening: Beth Chatto's Legacy

Pursuits | By ​David Wheeler

Such a creative soul was Beth Chatto OBE VMH (1923-2018), who died aged 94 on 13th May, writes David Wheeler

Writing here five years ago on the occasion of Beth Chatto’s ninetieth birthday, I suppressed morbid thoughts of the day I’d return to sum up her life’s work. 

I reminded myself that, when green-fingered souls retreat from this living world, there are unexpected legacies to be strewn. If that soul was of the creative kind, then a host of unnamed beneficiaries may also profit. If, too, that departed soul was a friend or acquaintance, the interest on that legacy is further compounded. 

Such a creative soul, indeed, was Beth Chatto OBE VMH, who died aged 94 on 13th May. Her ‘gift’ to gardeners throughout the temperate world has yet to be fully measured… and fully appreciated. I, personally, am without doubt one of her beneficiaries (as, perhaps, are you, the gardening reader), profiting from a trio of intangibles: legacies of the aesthetic kind, as well as the cultural and stylistic. And as Beth’s bequest is intangible, we’re free to adapt it as we wish.

For me, Beth’s supreme legacy is one of silver – of the silver-leafed plants she greatly loved – thriving in her dry East Anglia. I bought them by the car-bootload from her nursery at Elmstead Market. Beth’s own interest in this group of plants – herbaceous mostly – was in turn inherited from her erstwhile Colchester neighbour Mrs Desmond Underwood. Mrs Underwood’s classic book Grey and Silver Plants (Collins, 1971) remains on my shelves to this day. Pressed between its much-thumbed pages are several perfectly preserved, felty artemisia leaves, picked from Beth’s garden on my first visit more than forty years ago.

Beth herself wrote about many of Mrs U’s favourite greys and silvers in her own destined-to-be-classic The Dry Garden of 1978, forerunner of her The Damp Garden. Each has remained in print since first published. Each has been indispensable to me when, first, I gardened on dry, sandy Surrey heathland in the late 1970s; and, later, in mid-Wales where the annual rainfall of some 70in was getting on for four times greater than Beth’s yearly precipitation. 

Both books grew from her first-hand experience of plants suited to these two diverse situations. The higher beds around her White Barn House were dry, only becoming moist lower down in a dip where spring water was eventually dammed to create the perfect conditions for aquatics. Hence such drought-tolerant Mediterranean aromatics as lavender, rosemary and cistus could be sniffed through open windows; while a kind of marsh-loving clan comprising Siberian irises, Asiatic primulas and sunlike globes of bright kingcups – with their toes in water – ran luxuriantly towards shady woodland and the garden’s distant boundary. 

Beth, like her contemporary Heidi Gildemeister on Mallorca, spearheaded an eco-friendly attitude towards ‘waterwise gardening’, a practice that involved the appropriate placing of plants, mulching them generously and then leaving them to their own devices, without further watering, insisting on the right plant in the right place – for the plant’s sake.

Mrs Chatto should have the last words here, simple words that crystallise in my mind the hugely worthwhile legacy from which all gardeners can benefit. ‘The great thing about gardening is that you don’t have to stick to something if it doesn’t work. You can dig out failures and start again. The important thing is to plant, letting everything grow on for a year or so. Then look again! It won’t be all bad... Again, when you have finished mourning the loss of some valued plant that has died, either of old age or unendurable conditions, you can be thankful for the space wherein to try a new discovery.’

This story was from July 2018 issue. Subscribe Now