The death of a living legend – RIP Beth Chatto

Beth Chatto dead? This should not be a surprise. She was 94 but she seemed to have an air of gentle immortality about her. We were privileged to meet her in 2009 and to have her take us around part of her garden in Essex. Despite a large staff, a thriving nursery, extensive café and many garden visitors, she still lived in her fairly modest house in the centre of it all and the garden remained her very personal creation. The privilege was to be given a glimpse of the garden through her eyes. At 85, she wasn’t doing a lot of hands-on gardening herself, but she was in total control of managing it on a daily basis. It was gratifying to have her contact us after that visit, through our mutual friend, the late Charles Notcutt. She wanted the name and details of a plant remedy Mark had mentioned in conversation.

We returned to her garden with Charles in 2014 but she was too frail that day to join us. It was a bright, sunny day and I have since regretted that I did not get good enough photos of her dry garden in the glaring light.

Others will record the contribution made by this diminutive giant of the gardening world for half a century through her writing, her garden and nursery and her public appearances. Personally, we celebrate her exceptional plantsmanship in every aspect of her work and the cutting edge innovation of her dry garden.  She loved plants, found them endlessly fascinating and she knew how to work with plants. Those high levels skills show in a garden.

The original garden is perhaps a little dated by modern standards – rather a lot of curvy, hose-pipe borders – but always managed to the highest horticultural standards and underpinned by that knowledge of which plants will perform in those conditions and co-exist well with each other. I would love to see the woodland area in early spring when it must be magical but the UK in early spring is a bit cold for us these days. It is the dry garden that lifts a visit to another level altogether.

We have spent quite a bit of time making sense in our own minds of contemporary European and UK gardening trends – New Perennials (where Piet Oudolf’s work is still the gold standard), the New Naturalism, meadows, prairies, ecological gardening, matrix planting, sustainable plant communities and what we call the romantic revival or, simply, romantic gardens.  And in Beth Chatto’s garden, thirty years ago, she was creating the precursor to all these modern trends in her new dry garden. In a very dry climate, nothing is irrigated in this garden built on a compacted carpark and river gravel. The skills lie in plant selection and the light-handed but deft management which allows plants to have their own space and follow their own natural inclinations. She had a rare combination of exceptional plantsmanship and top-level gardening skills.

I did not so much appreciate her combinations of pink and yellow but that is a matter of taste, not skill.

Beth Chatto will go down in history alongside other great gardeners. And so she should.