Islington Gardeners News
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Our trip to Beth Chatto’s Garden, Essex
To see some pictures from our trip, visit our gallery here.
To reach Beth Chatto’s gardens you turn off the road to Clacton down an unprepossessing lane in Essex and there they are – built around an ordinary little bungalow where she still lives at the age of 94.
It is a surprisingly unassuming home for one of Britain’s most interesting and inspirational gardeners, as we discovered when we visited by coach on a 29 September, a day that began wet but mercifully dried up before our arrival. There is no grand mansion; instead you ramble through a series of contrasting gardens – gravel, water, reservoir and woodland garden – created to encourage plants to grow where they are happiest.
This commitment to the idea of “right plant in the right place” is what Beth is best known for. She is a serious plantswoman, an ecologist who believes that plants should be grown in environments that suit them best. “We’re not a Sissinghurst or a grand stately home,” explains Sally, one of the gardeners who takes us on a guided tour.
Beth and her husband moved to the spot in 1960. It was derelict land between two farming areas in Elmstead Market, near Colchester, that belonged to her husband’s family. Undeterred by the fact that it was immensely inhospitable and not good enough for farming, full of boggy hollows with poor soil and covered in brambles and nettles, Beth set about making her seven-acre garden. It was to be her life’s work, for which she won Gold at the Chelsea Flower Show over 10 consecutive years.
This part of rural Essex is about the driest bit of England. The gravel garden, where we start our tour, is a supreme example of “the right plant in the right place” philosophy. Built on a former carpark and never watered, the beds are planted with drought-tolerant plants such as amaryllis, sedum “red cauli”, gaura, bergenia and colchicum “rosy dawn”. All were flowering in late September, the sedum giving wonderful splashes of magenta in amongst grasses, verbascum and verbena boniarensis.
Beth has her own firm ideas about where and how to place plants. In the gravel garden she plants in ones rather than the fashionable threes but she repeats the single plants throughout the garden. Planting in ones means that you can see the whole plant. She puts tall plants in amongst smaller ones rather than layering them in the herbaceous-border style, so you can look through and see something else.
As you walk down the hill to the water garden you feel you are entering another world and a different climate zone. A series of ponds flow down to a reservoir; the plants are bigger leafed, more thuggish and there is a preponderance of ferns, a gunnera and beautiful lawns. Herbacious borders make an appearance but the planting is in a tapestry pattern rather than the block planting you get in today’s borders.
“It is incredibly damp down here,” says Sally. The plants seem to love it. We gaze at several astrantia, some beautiful but poisonours aconitum and brightly-coloured asters. Beth creates her beds by simply listing the plants she would like to include and then planting them free form. There are no diagrams or drawings. The gardeners are fairly easy-going with the plants, leaving them to grow and self-seed where they like and weeding where needed to keep beds tidy.
But these are not low-maintenance gardens, Sally emphasizes. A lot of weeding goes on. And the gardeners are not purists. There has been some watering this year to keep water-loving plants such as hydrangeas alive. They use spray occasionally against insects and employ slug pellets to protect the hostas.
The reservoir garden has an open, sunny aspect and is a recent creation, showing off bedding plants, roses and an enormous phormium tenax, a New Zealand native that is thriving in the newly enriched soil.
Beth no longer gardens actively, having handed over the running of her business to her granddaughter four years ago, but she is still interested in what goes on and ventures out into her domain to dispense advise. A couple of gardeners now do the work she once did, using the tried and tested ideas that have served her so well.
Summer Picnic at Olden Garden Saturday 28 July 2018
For the first time this year, and jointly with De Beauvoir Gardeners for whom this is a regular annual event, we held a summer picnic at the Olden Garden for members of both clubs. We were lucky with weather. A thunderstorm on the Friday temporarily cooled down the heatwave and Saturday was dry, sunny and a comfortable 25C or so.
About 50 of us got together to eat cucumber sandwiches, cake and other goodies members had brought, drink wine, tea and Joy’s fruit punch and talk about plants and gardens. We also had an interesting tour of the Arvon Road allotments which face the Olden Garden on the opposite slope of the railway embankment. Chris Ashby, IG and DBG member and a founder member of the allotments association led this and described how the association was set up. You clearly need to be fit to garden there as the area of level ground at the top is quite narrow and the gardens then slope quite precipitously down in terraces towards the railway line with soil which tends to wash downwards partially held in place with recently installed gabions (strong wire cages filled with rubble). It was fascinating to see the variety of vegetables being grown and how they were faring in this summer’s heat. So many tomatoes already ripe at the end of July.
The picnic is definitely a function to be repeated. This year we booked Olden Garden’s last available summer date before the start of the football season at nearby Emirates. Next year we will get in early with our booking to get a date before schools break up and some members leave for holidays so that some of you who missed it this year will be able to come. Alison
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