Beth Chatto’s lasting legacy

If you’ve noticed there are more and more plants sulking in your garden each year due to climate change and lack of water, there was only one person to turn to for advice, the award-winning plantswoman, Beth Chatto OBE who had create the most celebrated gravel garden in the UK.

Beth Chatto’s clever ideas began in 1960 when she and her late husband Andrew, who had a lifelong interest in the origins of garden plants, took over an overgrown wasteland of brambles, parched gravel and boggy ditches that had been part of the Chatto fruit farm. In collaboration with Andrew, Beth transformed the site by using plants adapted by nature that she knew would thrive in the difficult conditions.

Beth’s mantra soon became “right plant, right place” and with this in mind she turned her problem plot into an opportunity and asset

I interviewed Beth a couple of times when I was Features Editor at Practical Gardening magazine and visited her garden many times in the 80s, by which time she had already mastered the art of planting the ‘right plants’ so the garden did what she wanted it to do and was thriving without help.

‘Plants for difficult places’ was usually the theme of many of her lectures to the flower Club movement, which she had been involved with since the late 50’s. And was the subject covered in her first book, The Dry Garden, which was published in 1978. This and her Damp Garden Book are both considered classics amongst discerning gardeners who want the very best advice from their reference books. I am one such gardener who clung on to every bit of advice whilst making my own gardens.

For over 50 years she has been invited to give lecture tours in Canada, America and Australia as well as Europe, as she was universally recognized to be one of the most influential gardeners on the last half century. Her plant and gardening knowledge is based on her own experience and the challenges that she’d faced in making the garden, subjects that she often brought to life in many of her talks.

One monstrous challenge she took on at home was to turn the former car park into a beautiful gravel garden. She did this as she thought it would inspire visiting gardeners and show how to live without time consuming and thirsty lawns. The project began in 1991 and apart from watering in the young, drought-tolerant plants during the first year, she had never artificially irrigated it since.

In late summer, when I first visited, there were asters, rudbeckias and sedums planted through hazy grasses, many of which are evergreen to provide winter interest.

Beth’s mantra is “right plant, right place” and with this in mind she turned her problem plot into an opportunity and asset

During this time, I visited Beth’s garden to glean some planting tips. I was gardening under similar conditions on the outskirts of the Fens and was keen to learn some of the secrets behind her success. Beth told me, “that when gardening on dry soil, it is not only important to choose the right plants for the soil but also that good soil preparation is crucial”.

She recommended that I dug deep to break up compacted soil and fork in plenty of organic matter in the form of spent mushroom compost or home made compost to get plants off to a good start.

Her other bit of worthy advice was to keep the area weed free and she also recommended that I lay down a permeable ground covering material over the cultivated moist soil and plant through cross-shaped slits and that before planting, to soak every plant in a bucket of water until all bubbles stop.

When planting Beth always noticeably left an obvious depression around each specimen so that when watering in, the water does not run away but stays around the plant and slowly soaks in…it’s a bit of advice that I still pass on to this day.

Once an entire area is planted, she usually covers the bare soil with decorative aggregate mulch, ideally 12mm gravel, and spreads it at least 25mm thick to cover and hide the membrane

In my own garden, I planted shrubs that Beth recommended for dry soil. These were lavender, artemisia, santolina, salvia and Genista hispanica which are good bedfellows for herbaceous perennials like catmint, poppies and iris.

Beth’s other bit of advice was to add the odd striking architectural plant to the border such as melianthus and ornamental globe artichokes. For dry shade, usually found beneath trees and large shrubs, she suggested that I planted varieties of Geranium macrorrhizum and the lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor, to make a good weed suppressing ground cover.

Even without listening to her talks or reading her expertise and plant knowledge in her 10 published books and many articles that she has written over the years in magazines and newspapers, she says that you can still make plant selection easy, by looking for any that have natural drought-busting defences such as silver, hairy or tiny foliage, or thick succulent leaves…all Nature’s own adaptations to conserve water.

I am full of admiration for the late Beth Chatto’s gardening career and who wouldn’t be! She won 10 gold-medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, is a holder of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour and is a well-respected author and one of the Greats of British gardening. In 1987 she was also awarded, the Lawrence Memorial Medal and an Honorary Degree by the University of Essex. And in 2002 Beth was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours.

Beth Chatto who when faced with difficult conditions – everything from boggy and dry soil to sun and shade, in her Essex garden, followed her instincts, took advice from her late husband Andrew as well as other gardening gurus, and used her initiative produced a garden, which has become Mecca to plant enthusiasts the world over

One of my favourite books is Dear Friend and Gardener; Letters on Life and Gradening, which is the exchange of personal letters of the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter and Beth Chatto in which they share their successes and failures and learn from each other’s experiences in two very different gardens

It’ll be no surprise then to learn that in 1995 Beth Chatto was selected to the International Professional and Business Woman’s Hall of Fame for outstanding achievements in introducing plant ecology to garden design. In 2008 a retrospective exhibition on the career of Beth Chatto was held at the Garden Museum, London (garden

The Nursery at Beth Chatto Gardens sell unusual plants –

It’s been through gifts of seeds and cuttings and a passion for propagation that she has amassed a large collection of unusual plants, which became her specialism so it seemed to only right to her to start a plant nursery and mail order business to fuel the interest in other gardeners.

The accolades poured in throughout her gardening lifetime, and these include an honorary doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University in 2010, followed by her being named a Paul Harris Fellow by Colchester Trinity Rotary Club and in 2014 she was awarded the Society of Garden Design’s John Brookes Lifetime Achievement Award. Since her recent death, aged 94, gardeners everywhere have mourned her loss and are full of praise on how she has fired their imagination, fuelled their interest and given them some of the best gardening advice.

Drought, which proved to be a challenge throughout Beth’s gardening life. In her Essex garden there is an average annual rainfall of just over 50cm and often no rain for up to 10 weeks in the summer, which is less than many parts of the Middle East, so if you’re looking for inspiration set aside some time to visit Beth Chatto’s nursery and garden at Elmstead Market, Colchester. It will no doubt remain to be a popular tourist attraction, complete with tearooms and a restaurant.

Opening times

1st November to 22nd March: £4.50 per adult.

23rd March – 30th April & 1st – 31st October: £6.95 per adult.

May – September: £7.95 per adult.

November 2018 – March 2019: £4.50 per adult.

1 carer goes free with disabled badge holder.

The tearoom and gardens are suitable for people with disabilities., 01206 825933


The Drought-Loving Plant Collection – from

Beth and her gardening team have taken the hard work out of planning your garden with their Plant Collections. No need to worry about which plant will grow next to which plant, or how much space they will need. Beth and her gardening team have selected Beth’s favourite plants to suit the different growing conditions in your garden. They have also drawn up a planting plan to create easy-to-follow instructions for creating your Beth Chatto-inspired garden. The plants in the Drought-Loving Collection are the same as those used in the Gravel Garden and have been picked specifically to recreate Beth’s unique planting style.

If the exact plants in this collection aren’t available at the time of purchase, we reserve the right to replace them with suitable, similar high-quality plants.

The 12 plant Collection covers an area of 6 metres sq – costs £55

The 36-plant Collection covers an area of 18 metres sq – £165

The 60-plant Collection covers 30 metres sq – £275

When you buy a plant collection, you will receive the carefully selected and packaged plants and they will also send you a detailed planting plan, to take the hard work out of planning your border. In addition, you will receive seasonal updates about how to care for and maintain your plants.

“I realise that many people love gardens but lack the time to create their own. My team and I have done the hard work for you, to enable you to create a low-maintenance, beautiful garden” Beth Chatto

Plants in this Drought Loving Plant Collection include Beth’s favourite varieties of the following:

Allium; Ballota; Euphorbia; Gaura; Helianthemum; Nepeta; Santolina; Sedum; Stachys; Stipa; Thymus and Verbena

If the exact plants in this collection aren’t available at the time of purchase, we reserve the right to replace them with suitable, similar high-quality plants.

Other ready-made collections available 

Your Moisture Loving Garden

Your Shade Loving Garden

FREE Border Design Service when you buy a £150 plant voucher


  1. Flipthetruck left a comment on May 16, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Thank you ever so for you post.Much thanks again.

    • A. Wild left a comment on May 18, 2018 at 1:47 pm

      glad you liked it, thanks

      • A. Wild left a comment on May 31, 2018 at 7:27 am


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