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
BETH ACCEPTED MY ‘CAFÉ AU LAIT’ DAHLIAS ONLY WITH ASSURANCES THEY WEREN’T VISIBLE TO THE PUBLIC – EVER GRACIOUS, SHE TOLD ME THE COLOURING WAS BEAUTIFUL
‘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
I OBSESSIVELY CHECKED TRAYS OF NARCISSUS ‘CEDRIC MORRIS’ SO I COULD TAKE BETH THE FIRST FLOWERS AND HEAR THE STORY OF HOW CEDRIC DISCOVERED IT
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