The Beth Chatto Garden in Elmstead Market, near Colchester, is one of the “must-see” gardens in the United Kingdom. I find it difficult to put the sensation I felt on my first visit to there. There was an immediate sense that this was right; that it all fitted together; that this was a garden comfortable in its surroundings where design, plants and landscape were a perfect fit. It was love at first sight for me and it is a reaction and assessment which remains true to this day.
Beth Chatto exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and won gold medals for ten consecutive years before devoting her energies to the creating of her garden, plant nursery, lecturing and writing. The garden was in that corner of their land which was considered not good enough to farm, which left her with several problem areas which she tackled in turn and transformed into a garden of outstanding quality and beauty. Areas of bramble, woodland, parched gravel beds and swampy ditches were tackled, were areas for her experimentation and the inspiration for her books and her most frequently quoted garden saying – “the right plant for the right place”
Of course, we now have the benefit of Beth Chatto’s years of experiment and experience which furnishes us with a whole range of planting suggestions and saves us the many frustrating mistakes which can be so discouraging. “Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest” first appeared as “Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden” in 2002 when she recounted the development of a new woodland garden following the devastation of the 1987 storm.
We may not all have a woodland area in our garden but every garden will have an area of similar conditions – a bed to the north of the house, a wall or a hedge or in the shade of shrubs or trees – and it can be a challenge to find plants which do well in such conditions. This book gives wide range of planting suggestions, perhaps not comprehensive, which guide the gardener to make a success of the challenge. On reflection, one aspect of this book which struck me very strongly was the quality of the advice and suggestions given and that they were given with honest and forthright comments on how the plants had performed in her own garden, including difficulties and failures, renewed efforts and eventual successes.
This edition has a foreword from David Ward who is the Garden and Nursery Director at the gardens before moving through the year in a series of chapters:”Starting the Wood Garden, “Awakenings”, “Spring Enchantment”, “Early Summer Profusion”, “High Summer”, “Autumn Sunlit Openings” and finishing with “The Depths of Winter”. A substantial list of “Shade Tolerant Plants” concludes with comments, advice and remarks on performance in the garden. She sums up her seasonal journey through the shade garden stating clearly that the flowers will be in the early part of the year – bluebells, anemones, celandines, ramsons etc – and it is foliage which carries the show on through the year when “what has been unassuming takes on the leading role.”
Along with her often quoted “right plant, right place” there are several other gems through the book which give a succinct insight into Beth Chatto’s gardening philosophy and practice:
“Put simply, my principles of gardening are to provide plants with the kind of conditions for which Nature has fitted them, to arrange them in planned groups, covering the ground with foliage for as long as possible and providing interest with bold plants” and, on similar lines, : “I try to follow nature, not copy her.”
For us, readers and gardeners, I think that should we both follow and copy Beth Chatto’s advice in this book our gardens will be the more beautiful for it.
A final comment: the photography throughout, by Steven Wooster, is excellent!
Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year Round Interest, Pimpernel Press, 2017, Hardback 232 pages, £30.00, ISBN: 978-1-9102-5822-4