One month ago my husband and I took a weekend trip to Essex. It was a pilgrimage to visit Beth Chatto's home garden and nursery. Beth, who had died just weeks earlier, was one of the greatest gardeners, and garden writers, of the past century, and someone both my husband and I had admired from afar for as long as we've been aware of gardening. I ordered my first book of hers, 'The Garden Notebook,' from England when I was still living in the U.S., and Beth's beautiful, informative writing voice was one of the many that guided me toward the start of my horticultural career. You can read more about the philosophies and gardens she developed during her remarkable 94 years here.
Beth's famous gravel garden greets visitors and invites them to wander even before purchasing tickets to enter the rest of the garden. Originally designed to take advantage of a tricky site (a former car park with free-draining, sandy soil) and the challenges of hot, dry Essex weather, it was created to not require watering even in the most extreme weather. We've just passed the one-month mark with no rain where I now live and garden in southeast England, so there's a lot to learn from this garden that's becoming more relevant by the day.
In addition to being ecologically prescient, the gravel garden it is one of the most visually stunning gardens I have ever seen. It's not easy to combine so many disparate plants in such a pleasing arrangement, and the perfectly considered combination of horticultural skill and visual artistry really moved and inspired me. We spent hours crunching over tawny stones, heads bent low, studying the intricately layered plantings.
I loved the bombast of happy, bright colors that held their own in harsh sunlight, as well as the mix of textures in flowers and foliage. Silver-leafed plants provided a calm Mediterranean vibe, but were punched up with spots of acid-green that kept the entire design awake and pulsing.
I love a good buttery yellow in the garden, and this California poppy (Eschscholzia californica 'Alba') is my ideal shade. A packet of seeds immediately made its way into my clutches once I hit the nursery.
With climate change already well underway, and many gardeners facing hotter and drier conditions than ever before, Beth's gravel garden provides an ahead-of-its-time blueprint for how to have a beautiful garden with minimal inputs. It made me incredibly joyful to see and experience, and I can't wait to try such a garden myself someday.
Up next: Beth's woodland, water, and scree gardens.