Gardens Illustrated Interview

Beth Chatto, the late, pioneering plantswoman who convinced us to find the right plant for the right place, would have been 100 this year. Here, those who were influenced by her reflect on her lasting legacy.

Among gardeners, there was, and is, only one Beth. Over her long life, Beth Chatto achieved the highest accolades in horticulture and beyond, including ten successive Chelsea Gold medals and an OBE. She wrote a string of best-selling books based on her experience of growing at her famous garden, and opened the first nursery to offer plants for specific conditions.

This year marks the centenary of her birth in what she called ‘the sticks of Essex.’ But it was her garden at Elmstead Market, near Colchester, especially her experimental Gravel Garden, that brought her international acclaim. It’s a beautifully planted space that James Hitchmough, emeritus professor of Horticultural Ecology at the University of Sheffield, has described as “perhaps the most original British garden creation of the 20th century.” As the fame of her garden and nursery grew, so did the team around her. Beth inspired enormous loyalty and staff stayed for decades. But there was also a constant stream of international horticultural students starting out in their careers, eager to spend time learning from Beth.

Bernard Trainor, famous for his landscape designs along the west coast of California, came as an intern in 1989. “For me, Beth was the English voice of regionally appropriate design,” he says. “Her starting point was always to choose the plants that will thrive in your own garden’s particular context. Years after working with her, I have come to realise her gift to me was learning from her relentless work ethic, and her generosity to me as a mentor. Her influence has and always will be present in my gardens.”

Peter Janke, who, like Beth, came to gardening via floristry, came for a week’s trial in 2003 and ended up staying for months, returning regularly over the years as he built his garden design business near Dusseldorf. “Beth showed me how to solve a gardening oxymoron: all-year-round attractive garden design versus sensible eco-conscious gardening. All her gardening attitudes have been wise, constructive, and beautiful – her life-long work is still trendsetting.”

Yuko Tanabe Nagamura, landscape designer and project head gardener at the Piet Oudolf Garden in Tokyo, first met Beth on a visit to the gardens in 1995, and was so inspired that she moved to the UK to study with Beth at Elmstead Market. “The global climate changes prove her provision is right. I am now practicing and promoting more sustainable yet visually pleasing planting in Japan with its different climate zones. My challenge is to reach the stage where Beth used to say, ‘the garden is where art meets science,’ plants looking effortlessly harmonious as if ‘singing to the wind.’”

Doug Hoerr of Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects spent part of a sabbatical year at the gardens in the 1980s. “Beth had a huge influence on how I choose and compose plants in a naturalistic manner,” he says. “More importantly, she gave me the gift of learning to read a site, respect and accept the influences of its context, and identify microclimates. I learned to embrace the varying conditions – not fight them or attempt to bend them to my will, but rather, to choose and design from a plant palette that, by native origin, is well suited to the specific conditions.”

Garden designer Dan Pearson was captivated by Beth’s Chelsea Flower Show exhibits in the 1970s. “As a teenager, they made me feel like I’d found my horticultural mentor,” he says. “With her impeccable eye for a good plant, and ability to combine them so they made sense, she was a natural educator. I still refer to her catalogues and books for her wisdom and sensibility as a gardener and nurserywoman. She became a friend over the years, and we bonded over plants and the world around them.”

While curator at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, designer Matthew Wilson also got to know Beth. “Her impact on my career in horticulture was profound and enduring,” he says. “She helped me connect the dots between my childhood love of nature and wildlife and working life in gardening, and her enthusiasm and generosity in sharing knowledge was extraordinary.”

Beth died in 2018, aged 94, but five years on, the gardens continue to develop. “Beth always said that gardens are not like a picture you hang on the wall,” says the gardens’ head gardener Åsa Gregers-Warg. “They’ll continue to change and evolve over time. I’ve never felt tied to keeping the garden as some kind of museum. Beth was concerned about climate change, its global effects and how we use our precious natural resources. Her ethos and philosophy continue to inform and inspire the way we garden here.”

In 2015, Beth set up the Beth Chatto Education Trust to bring her ecological approach to new generations. As her granddaughter, Julia Boulton, who has run the gardens and nursery since 2012, puts it: “She had the foresight to pioneer sustainable gardening – needed now more than ever – and continues to inspire.”