12 December 1997

Gravel garden with a charm of its own

EVEN on a grey Novembers afternoon Beth Chattos gravel garden has a charm of its own: Textures and shapes in shades of soft greens and greys; sand-coloured grasses; leaves and seed heads burnished by frost and the brave appearance of crocus and snowdrops – all set against a clipped dark evergreen hedge.

Crocus had provided colour for weeks, explained Beth, and the snowdrops were also of an autumn-flowering variety.

Stocked with drought-tolerant plants from far and wide this corner of her 4.8ha (12-acre) Essex garden is an experiment, she says. Here she is developing a garden that will need no irrigation – and in doing so resisting the temptation to water when plants look thirsty. In one instance she cut down drooping blooms and the plant made a fresh ones.

She explains this in her newly launched video* in which she tells how the water gardens were created; how borders are developed and maintained; how plants are propagated and how the woodland garden was created after the hurricanes of the late 80s.

Beth and her husband Andrew marked out the woodland paths between them, Beth walking in front of the tractor which Andrew drove marking the route with the scraper.

Bracken-bearing wasteland with a spring-fed ditch is what they took on in the 1960s when Andrew retired from fruit farming and they had time to pursue their interest in the ecology of plants and the cultivation of unusual ones.

Now in his 89th year, ill health curtails Andrews activity, but Beth is still involved in the maintenance and development of the gardens and nursery despite having a large staff. Even in the winter months about 20 people work on the enterprise which is a centre of employment in the village of Elmstead Market, near Colchester.

The gardens and the nursery complement each other, says Beth, who holds the Royal Horticultural Societys Victoria medal of honour and won gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show in 10 consecutive years.

Both are world famous and draw a large number of visitors and customers each year. The video will no doubt increase the numbers and tea-rooms are among Beths plans.

"We have always resisted having tea-rooms for fear they may draw the wrong kind of people, but we can see that we need them now to encourage people to stay longer," she says.

But its hard to imagine how anyone can tear themselves away – especially in summer when the herbaceous borders are at their best – but when they do leave it is bound to be with a batch of plants for their own gardens and lots of ideas. AR

*The Beth Chatto Gardens, VHS video, about 55min, Beth Chatto, Farming Press (£15.99). Available from Farmers Weekly Offers, PO Box 261, Slough SL2 3RU. Add £2.95 p&p.

The gravel garden (above) is an experiment says Beth Chatto who resists temptations to irrigate. The woodland garden (right) is underplanted with many unusual species.