A cut above

A year spent at the Beth Chatto Gar­dens com­pletely changed florist Amy San­der­son’s ap­proach to flower ar­rang­ing


A year spent mak­ing house ar­range­ments for the late great Beth Chatto, com­pletely changed florist Amy San­der­son’s think­ing about what makes a cut flower

‘On low ta­bles, in sim­ple white bowls, I have posies of white, yel­low and green flow­ers, strength­ened by a few dark and mar­bled leaves of Arum

italicum ‘Pic­tum’ and lit­tle clus­ters of Skim­mia japon­ica ‘Rubella’ which scent the driz­zly evening with a sweet fresh smell… But the f low­ers which give style to these sim­ple ar­range­ments are a few stems of

Fri­t­il­laria ver­ti­cil­lata, adding height and ele­gance… Be­tween the f low­ers, at the top of each stem, are fine curl­ing ten­drils which are mod­i­fied leaves. These, to­gether with the cu­ri­ously coloured bells, give a very dis­tinc­tive air to a few spring f low­ers.’ Beth Chatto’s Gar­den Note­book.

The renowned plantswoman Beth Chatto learned the art of gar­den com­po­si­tion and plant com­bi­na­tions through years of prac­tice in flo­ral ar­rang­ing. In­spired by the ar­range­ments of Con­stance Spry and Ju­lia Cle­ments, Beth used ma­te­ri­als from her gar­den to create flo­ral dis­plays rich in dif­fer­ent tex­tures and shapes. Soon she was lec­tur­ing through­out the coun­try and sell­ing plants to keen am­a­teur ar­rangers. What set her apart then, and what is im­me­di­ately no­tice­able in her gar­den to this day, is her fo­cus on species plants. She was an early cham­pion of Fri­t­il­laria im­pe­ri­alis and Cy­nara car­dun­cu­lus, and never wa­vered in her love for the many greens of helle­bores, eu­phor­bias and her much-beloved Arum italicum ‘Mar­mora­tum’. The only dahlia you’ll find in the gar­den is D. mer­ckii. So it was with much trep­i­da­tion that I took on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing her flower ar­range­ments each week, while in­tern­ing at the Beth Chatto Gar­dens and Nurs­ery.

Gar­den-in­spired flo­ral ar­rang­ing, which seems to com­bine the best of Dutch still-life paint­ings with the cot­tage gar­den bor­der, has en­joyed a resur­gence. Lush cat­a­logues ar­rive weekly, brim­ming over with new cul­ti­vars of cos­mos and dahlias, and bare-root roses in fash­ion­able shades of tan and dried blood. To be hon­est, I love and grow pretty much all of them. But spend­ing a year mak­ing flow­ers for Beth, in­tro­duced me to the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other kind of gar­den-in­spired ar­rang­ing.

Tra­di­tional cut f low­ers re­quire rich soil, ir­ri­ga­tion and plenty of sun to re­peat­edly pro­duce big blooms. The keen grower is ex­pected to amend the soil be­fore each plant­ing, fo­liar and root feed weekly, and en­sure plants are ad­e­quately sup­ported by nets or stak­ing through­out the grow­ing sea­son. At Beth’s I se­cured per­mis­sion for a small, cut-f lower bor­der in an un­used bit of stock bed, and dili­gently (or some­times less dili­gently) did just that to grow my zin­nias, cos­mos, sweet peas and dahlias.

Yet, as the year went by, I re­lied less on my own cut f low­ers than on the in­ter­est­ing things I found in Beth’s gar­den. There was an un­de­ni­ably en­joy­able chal­lenge in scour­ing the gar­den to catch flow­ers at their peak or find ways to in­cor­po­rate the myr­iad fo­liage, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from gera­nium leaves to branches of Me­tase­quoia glyp­tostroboides. It is a sur­prise, or per­haps an in­evitable in­ter­nal­i­sa­tion of that im­mor­tal phrase ‘right plant, right place’, to find my­self now cham­pi­oning grow­ing plants for cut­ting that can fend for them­selves in a va­ri­ety of con­di­tions with­out ir­ri­ga­tion and yearly ad­di­tions of fer­tiliser. This shouldn’t be mis­taken for low-main­te­nance, cut-f lower grow­ing, but it is low-im­pact grow­ing, and per­fect for those who share Beth’s deep love of plants and gar­den­ing.

Species f low­ers can be frus­trat­ing to ar­range be­cause they’re of­ten smaller and less pro­fuse than hy­bridised forms, and once the species pe­onies and roses are over, showy blooms are few and far be­tween. In­stead, you’re likely to find your­self reach­ing for buck­ets of phlox, he­le­ni­ums and a plethora of asters. But there is much merit in free­ing your­self from the idea that ar­rang­ing re­lies on f low­ers, and on f low­ers in abun­dance.

As I learned from Emily Al­lard, the gar­den’s prop­a­ga­tion man­ager who has been mak­ing flow­ers un­der Beth’s tute­lage since she was a girl, in­ter­est­ing fo­liage, seed­heads, emerg­ing buds or a par­tic­u­larly sculp­tural dead branch are all prized above f low­ers. This means that ar­range­ments are less an Left The Gravel Gar­den at Beth Chatto Gar­dens was a source of in­spi­ra­tion for Amy. Dur­ing her year at the gar­den she learned to ap­pre­ci­ate how use­ful grasses, such as Stipa gi­gan­tea and Stipa tenuis­sima, grow­ing around the Yucca glo­riosa in the fore­ground, could be in gar­den-in­spired flower ar­range­ments. She also dis­cov­ered new cut­ting plants, such the pur­plish flow­ers of Ori­g­anum lae­vi­ga­tum ‘Her­ren­hausen’ and the fo­liage and flow­ers of Ber­ge­nia cordi­fo­lia ‘Pur­purea’, both seen here grow­ing be­hind the S. tenuis­sima. The pink flow­ers of Amaryl­lis bel­ladonna on the left make won­der­fully scented cut flow­ers for au­tumn.

ex­er­cise in colour the­ory than an op­por­tu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate the tex­ture, form and struc­ture of plants in the vase and the gar­den. I’m re­minded that Beth’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show dis­plays pushed the bound­aries of ac­cept­abil­ity be­cause she gave pride of place to fo­liage plants, such as berge­nias, or to the strik­ing ver­ti­cals of bud­ding, but not f low­er­ing ca­mas­sias and al­li­ums. As a sworn dahlia lover, I’ll ad­mit that I don’t al­ways subscribe to this style of ar­rang­ing. So, while Beth and I rhap­sodised equally over sprays of spent Ma­cleaya mi­cro­carpa ‘Spetch­ley Ruby’ or the pur­ple-edged leaves of shiny Rubus tri­color, we also had a long-run­ning dis­cus­sion over the mer­its of ‘ fo­cal f low­ers’.

For a knowl­edge­able gar­dener, ar­rang­ing can be­come an ex­er­cise in vi­su­al­i­sa­tion and as­so­ci­a­tion, in­side jokes and ref­er­ences to place – a mi­cro­cosm of con­ver­sa­tion on and with the gar­den. Some weeks I would bring Beth a small bud vase of pop­pies ( Rom­neya coul­teri, Pa­paver rhoeas ‘Cedric Mor­ris’ and Eschscholzia cal­i­for­nica) from the gravel gar­den or a sin­gle stem of the newly ac­quired Pe­largo­nium gib­bo­sum. I made dainty spring­time wood­land scenes with Uvu­laria gran­di­flora var. pal­l­ida and Mil­ium ef­fusum ‘Au­reum’, or, after a trip to Great Dix­ter, the gar­den Beth con­sid­ered al­most a sec­ond home, an ex­otic gar­den of deep-green fo­liage shot through with a few stems of Salvia con­fer­ti­flora. There were bunches of lilac and lily of the val­ley for scent, and pitch­ers of ‘Cedric Mor­ris’ irises and species Al­stroe­me­ria for colour. One week I used only plants for­aged from the car park bor­der ( Cot­i­nus, Ame­lanchier, Eryn­gium and an un­known Clema­tis); an­other week found me in hip waders pick­ing wa­ter lilies out of the pond – we were all de­lighted to find they smelled of co­conut. In early June, some­what to her dis­may, I brought Beth the first ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia from my lit­tle patch of stock bed – ac­cepted only with assurances that the dahlia plants weren’t vis­i­ble to the pub­lic – but ever gra­cious, she told me the colour­ing was beau­ti­ful.

Mak­ing flower ar­range­ments week upon week from Beth’s gar­den gave me an aware­ness of the gar­den be­yond what I gained gar­den­ing in it. It can be too easy to get stuck into one bor­der or area, but in my quest to de­light Beth and carry on the tra­di­tions of the place, I roamed across the en­tire site. While look­ing for black­ber­ries to use in an ar­range­ment, I came across Rubus ul­mi­folius


‘Bel­lidif lorus’ be­hind the com­post heaps, and I took to ob­ses­sively check­ing the trays of Nar­cis­sus ‘Cedric Mor­ris’ be­ing prop­a­gated in the green­house from bulb chips so that I could take her the first f low­ers and hear the story of how Cedric dis­cov­ered it. In the beds cir­cling the reser­voir gar­den I be­came aware of how the seed­heads of dif­fer­ent species of Euony­mus changed colour and burst open, or how, after f low­er­ing, the sepals of Pole­mo­nium ‘Lam­brook Mauve’ look like lit­tle clus­ters of berries. Time and again I came back to the wood­land for bog-stan­dard Ribes san­guineum, with its drip­ping flow­ers in white and pink, and shapely scented fo­liage that fades to yel­low in au­tumn, only brief ly switch­ing al­le­giance to a neigh­bour­ing Holodis­cus dis­color when it f low­ered in early June.

We lost Beth in May, at the age of 94, and it is a great credit to the staff of the Gar­dens and Nurs­ery that she took pride and en­joy­ment in her gar­den into her fi­nal days. I have no doubt that the team will carry on her le­gacy of hor­ti­cul­tural ex­cel­lence, but also her love of f lower ar­rang­ing, in the years to come. Should you visit, you’ll still find jars in the prop shed hold­ing a ver­i­ta­ble to-do list of stems from gar­den plants ripe for cut­tings or seed col­lec­tion, and the tea room ta­bles are graced with f low­ers from six acres of stock beds. In the pack house there’s usu­ally a hasty ar­range­ment made from plants bound for mail-or­der boxes. Presents are wrapped with tex­tu­ral posies, and mile­stone events such as wed­dings or births are al­ways cel­e­brated with bou­quets. In the days after Beth’s pass­ing the staff filled her house with f low­ers, each vase full of sto­ries of the plants, places, sea­sons and peo­ple that make this gar­den Beth’s.

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Beth Chatto Gar­dens, Elm­stead Mar­ket, Clac­ton Road, Elm­stead, Colch­ester, Es­sex CO7 7DB. Tel 01206 822007, bethchatto.co.uk

Amy San­der­son is a gar­dener and florist based in Canada. She spent two years study­ing hor­ti­cul­ture in English gar­dens, in­clud­ing those of Beth Chatto and Great Dix­ter. You can find out more about her work at amysander­son­flow­ers.com


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