Style is always in fashion
A timeless garden forgoes cutting-edge surprise in favour of balance and simplicity
The last time I visited Beth Chatto’s garden and nursery, the gravel garden was still a car park and the tea room was just a hotdrinks machine in the potting shed. Of course, I’ve kept in touch through countless articles and images, and Chatto’s dictum “the right plant in the right place” comes to mind every time I buy something I know won’t grow in my clay garden, however much I love it. Wandering around the garden with nursery manager Dave Ward, I was none the less surprised to see how familiar the layout and planting felt. Maybe this is because Chatto’s once-unusual plants have become the bedrock of many successful gardens and are now absorbed into the gardening lexicon. Her garden layout combines asymmetry with balance, using principles from her days teaching flower arranging. Everything is tidy and right. Nothing shocks, but why should it – do we need to be endlessly surprised in our gardens? The design may not be cutting edge, but it’s stylish and classic – like a Jean Muir outfit that lasts a lifetime, while the trendy will seem out of date next season. The gravel garden is all it promised to be and looks exciting, even on a wet February afternoon, with burgundy bergenia and yellow Libertia formosa; the damp garden is atmospheric and calming; and the woodland garden is full of promise. The reservoir garden, built on debris from the neighbouring farmer’s lake and now looking rather Eighties, is due for a facelift and will become a living catalogue for many of the new plants grown in the nursery. Only the scree garden, near the house and packed full of favourite sedums, sempervivums and alpines, is a disappointment. I remembered a tapestry of fat succulents, now housed in the original wooden greenhouse where Chatto worked on her plants. Guardian oaks The whole garden was built from scratch from fallow fields along a backbone of 350-year-old oaks, still the most fabulous occupants in this magical place. Chatto, though frail, still gardens from her bedroom overlooking her creation, and her affection for her own plot has influenced gardeners worldwide. But how does a classic garden continue to draw visitors in a field of all-singing all-dancing attractions? There is plenty here to see, enjoy and learn from. It all makes ecological good sense: gardening with your soil conditions, climate, rainfall and local wildlife; the muted colours, patterns and, above all, textures. The nursery list is packed with quality plants, as opposed to garden centre varieties that are just the latest hybrids, regardless of their usefulness. This year The Beth Chatto Handbook, a catalogue of unusual plants that also offers an insight into her planting ideas, will be republished. Chatto’s archives have been donated to the Garden Museum and are being collated by Dr Catherine Horwood. Tea for two Who am I to judge such a garden? Sitting at the next table in the tea room overlooking the gravel garden, I asked Fernando Gonzalez his opinion. Gonzalez is an installation artist and creator of a Fresh garden at Chelsea this year. “Simply inspirational,” he replied. His companion, Fern Alder, plantswoman and founder of Full Frontal, a community project advocating the greening of streets, said: “Breathtaking, even in winter. Every visit recharges my batteries.” Beth Chatto Gardens and Nursery, Elmstead Market, Essex (01206 822007; bethchatto.co.uk).