Casual Gardener: Beth Chatto and a life dedicated to plants

A new book charts the life of plantswoman Beth Chatto who transformed our approach to gardening...

Beth Chatto in her garden in the late 1980s

BETH Chatto died in May last year at the age of 94. She left behind a gardening legacy that lives on both in spirit and at Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens in Essex, a nursery-cum-horticultural centre of excellence run by her granddaughter, Julia Boulton.

The gardens have become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of fans, many of whom, in a era before the internet, gained much of their horticultural knowledge through books and magazine articles.

From her first book, 1978’s The Dry Garden, Chatto’s style was lively and enlightening. In 1998 the Garden Writers Guild recognised her contribution by giving her a lifetime achievement award. She continued to write and publish in later life with books such as A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Gardens (2012) and 2016’s Drought-Resistant Planting.

Chatto’s gardening philosophy could be summed up in the phrase ‘right plant, right place’, a common sense approach, yet one that delivered stunning displays, winning her ten successive gold medals at the RHS Chelsea flower show in the 1970s. In addition to her skills as a plantswoman and designer, she was also a inspirational public speaker and lecturer.

Her methods are all the fashion these days, but once upon a time, in the not too distant patriarchal past, her ideas about providing a habitat for garden plants which mimicked that of their wild counterparts were seen as ground-breaking. Chatto’s eco-friendly, organic techniques were also ahead of the curve when she first appeared on the scene, but by the end of her long career had become the mainstream.

Beth Chatto: A Life with Plants by Catherine Horwood is not a gardening book per se, but a book about a gardener who in one way or another influenced everybody from Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don to Dan Pearson and Jimi Blake. Alongside her close friend Christopher Lloyd, she was responsible for a paradigm shift that saw the dominant post-war style of regimented formality eschewed in favour of layers of texture and naturalistic abandon. As the book notes, she memorably caused a stir among the snooty RHS judges by “showing species plants that some thought were ‘weeds’”.

The book charts its subject’s early life, her marriage to Andrew Chatto, the creation of her first proper garden on a dry, windswept site and the subsequent transformation into international influencer and charismatic, proto-celebrity gardener. It was her garden and the challenging, arid conditions of south-eastern England that provided the palette on which her life’s work was based.

Some years before her death, Chatto authorised Horwood, a social historian with a passion for plants, to write her biography, providing access to an archive dating back decades.

Featuring many previously unpublished extracts from notebooks and diaries, and drawing on broadcast material and numerous interviews with friends and collaborators, the book brings its subject back to life, enabling those previously unfamiliar with Chatto’s work and influence to understand the context in which her ideas were formulated and excelled.

There’s even a small section dedicated to those men who sought to woo her, both on the basis of her gardening skills and her sexuality. One extract tells of the efforts of Paul Aden, an American hosta collector who “lunged at her suggesting they become lovers” while she was a guest at his stateside home in the 1980s.

Notably, only two men that we know of succeeded in winning Chatto’s affections – her husband Andrew and soulmate ‘Christo’ Lloyd, who with the benefit of hindsight, we can conclude was most definitely gay.


:: Beth Chatto – A life with plants by Catherine Horwood is published by Pimpernel Press.

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