Magazine article The Spectator

Inspiration for All

Magazine article The Spectator

Inspiration for All

Article excerpt

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. …

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