Magazine article The Spectator

Gravel Allure

Magazine article The Spectator

Gravel Allure

Article excerpt

Whilst the skies wept, rivers rose and floods inundated, most people, I imagine, scarcely thought of their gardens except to dismiss their welfare as a side-issue. Only people like me, on the threshold of a major autumn planting programme, have been made teeth-chatteringly jittery by so much rain this autumn; those with fully established gardens concerned themselves, I imagine, simply with clearing away fallen branches and cleaning out gutters until the water seeped away from sodden lawns and flower-beds.

As perverse relief from kicking gloomily at claggy earth, I have been reading a book concerning `drought-resistant planting through the year'. Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden (Frances Lincoln, 25) is an account of the transformation, since 1991, of the three-quarter-acre carpark at the Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead Market into a garden of beauty and fascination at every season, by the use of drought-resistant plants disposed in congruous and flowing groups. Beth Chatto combines, as well as anyone at work today and better than most, an eye for good plants, knowledge of their ways and a sensitivity when putting them together. The result is a succession of deft, coherent and satisfying plant groupings. There is also a short section in the book on the even newer Scree Garden, composed of a number of slightly raised beds close to the house, intended for small alpines which would be easily swamped in the broad sweeps of the Gravel Garden.

Beth Chatto has always maintained that she lives in the driest part of the country in east Essex, which in some years receives only 14 inches of rain, and rarely more than 20. This relative shortage has influenced her gardening style. The other great acknowledged influence is her husband, Andrew, who died last year. A fruit farmer by profession but a plant ecologist by inclination, he preached the importance of choosing plants suited by upbringing to the conditions available, long before it was fashionable to do so.

Beth began gardening when she married more than 50 years ago, learned a great deal early on from Sir Cedric Morris, the painter and iris breeder, who lived nearby, and was in the van of postwar plantsmen/ gardeners seeking to expand the palette of interesting and worthwhile plants, especially those with good foliage. She founded a nursery to sell these plants. More than a decade after she gave up exhibiting at Chelsea, her displays still represent the standard to which artistic nurserymen and women aspire.

Gravel gardens are not unusual in this country; the fine one at Denmans in West Sussex, for example, was laid out by Joyce Robinson half a century ago. …

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