GARDENING IN THE LANDSCAPE; PART 5: BETH CHATTO GARDENS, ESSEX; In the final part of his series on British gardens, Michael Leapman meets Beth Chatto, a plantswoman who persuaded an unpromising landscape to work for her
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The words "Essex" and "landscape" are seldom spoken in the same breath. The other gardens in this series have been sited close to beauty spots - the beguiling Conwy Valley to the north of Snowdonia; Scotland's craggy south-west coast; the gentle Cotswolds; the low, open hills of Northumbria. But Essex? Adjectives that come to mind are flat, bleak and suburban.

Like most stereotypes, it is unfair. Beth Chatto's renowned garden at Elmstead Market, near Colchester, owes more to its landscape than any of the others I visited. It was 36 years ago that she and her husband, Andrew, decided that a spring-fed stream with overgrown and entangled banks, running through a notoriously dry and often cold part of the country, might be the right place to build a house and start a garden.

"I thought it would be wonderful to be able to grow primulas and hostas and so on, which are normally hard to grow round here," she recalls. So she conceived a plan to have a house built close to the stream and make a garden around it. The beguiling garden around the hollow, and the surprisingly mature-looking woodland beyond, have been created over the last 36 years, and so has the house on the west-facing slope, perfectly placed to command ravishing views of her plantings. South of the house is the drier Mediterranean- style garden, within a frame of stone walls and paving. More recently Beth has added a gravel garden on higher ground, where she copes with arid conditions. The five-acre gardens and the adjoining plant nursery are a mecca for serious gardeners from all over the world.

Walking around, Beth, now 73, recalls vividly how unpromising the ground by the stream looked when she first saw it 53 years ago, before it was tamed: "It was a low, narrow tongue of water meadow covered in bramble and soggy, boggy grass. It wasn't farmed because it was thought too wet, so it had become a wilderness."

Water runs down into the stream from the adjoining fields and the spring ensures that even in the driest weather it is always flowing. One of the first jobs was to realign the stream slightly and dam it to create three ponds, around which many damp-loving plants are now grouped.

At the same time Beth decided that she needed to plant trees to shelter her new garden, to supplement the existing native oaks - some of them more than 300 years old - and the low, sprawling hollies. Among her introductions were the willows, birches and swamp cypresses that adorn the garden today. Several are at the south-western edge of the property, around a reservoir which is not part of the garden but forms an intrinsic part of the view. Shelter from the cold north-easterlies is provided by a 15ft screen of the fast-growing Leyland cypress. The trees are now beginning to die, either because of drought or fungal disease, or perhaps both, and she is replacing them with hornbeams.

Although she is best known for her attachment to herbaceous perennials, there are shrubs to break up the plantings (not roses, which are not to her taste). "I'm a plantswoman at heart but I knew it couldn't all be plants, so I put in just enough trees and shrubs to give shelter and a framework," she says. "And without them there would be nothing in the winter. I always say that the conifers are the church spires in my village."

Walking alongside the stream, Beth points out the plants that she could not have considered growing without the constant moisture: the bold yellow leaves of lysichiton (skunk cabbage); arum lilies; delicate snake's head fritillaries; even snowdrops, which find it too dry in many parts of Essex. Later in the year the gunnera will spread, and hostas and ferns will be at their best.

In designing this part of the garden Beth was conscious that, because it essentially follows the line of the stream, there was a danger of it looking too long and thin, so over the years she has opened up diagonal views across it, giving the impression of extra width. She has also been careful to preserve the unity of what are in effect several gardens with different attributes: those by the stream and pools, the woodland garden beyond, a nook beneath oaks for shade-loving plants (hellebores, Alchemilla mollis), the sunny Mediterranean garden by the house and the gravel garden higher up.

"Hopefully they all blend and you aren't aware of passing from one to the other. I'm interested in harmony in foliage, in making things flow."

Certainly, for visitors, the transformation from the stream to the woodland garden is smooth and unforced. The soil in the woods is less damp than nearer the edge of the water but still moist enough for charming woodland plants that would perish from thirst a few yards away: plants such as wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), trilliums, uvularia, ajuga (bugle) and symphytum (comfrey).

There are examples here of the carefully thought-out planting that is Beth's trademark. The yellowy leaves of the symphytum contrast beautifully with the bronze epimedium alongside it. Bowles' golden grass (Milium effusum aureum) mimics the colouring of the adjacent spiraea and bamboo. Bright colours are rare, but there is more to it than that: it is not just a matter of colour but of shape. The billowing elegance of the ornamental grasses and ferns carries the eye from one clump of plants to the next, and the relative height of the groups is subtly varied.

She describes her planting philosophy thus: "I like plants that set each other off and I keep out those that I think look aggressively cultivated. In gardening you can't stick strictly to nature. A garden is a matter of selection, of choice. It's like painting. Everyone may have the same palette but they all do it slightly differently."

In the Mediterranean garden, south of the house, the palette is different from that used in the hollow, but the meticulous planting schemes are clearly the work of the same artist. Shrubs such as cistus, buddleia and Cytisus battandieri (pineapple broom) provide the height and structure to support plantings of Euphorbia polychroma, anthemis, kniphofia, verbascum and the deep purple Fritillaria persica, looking tremendous alongside purple sage.

The average rainfall in this part of Essex is only 20 inches and last summer it was 15 inches. This year has been exceptionally dry again, with no significant rain since December. Perversely, in 1991 Beth decided to dig up the former car- park, the highest and driest part of the property, and create a gravel garden. Her motive was the same as what led her to make the garden by the stream - to explore the limits of the possible.

"In the gravel garden I'm discovering what I can grow that will stand the cold of winter and the heat and drought of summer," says Beth. "I hope that by discovering plants that can survive those conditions I'm doing something to help people who have hosepipe bans. I do agonise about the drought - you can feel the hard ground underfoot - but I'm not going to irrigate."

Some of the plants are the ones she has already tested in her Mediterranean garden. Among those that do well are lavender, santolina (cotton lavender), poppies, Crambe cordifolia (seakale), bergenias and many varieties of euphorbia. In early spring there is a range of alliums, flowering at different heights.

Although she stands firm against irrigation, she gives her plants the best possible chance in other respects. Soil is carefully prepared, with plenty of manure and compost, and liberal mulches to retain what moisture there is.

Beth is as proud of her plant nursery as of her garden. She started it in 1967 and it is now the main family business. Walking round the sheds and greenhouses, she delights in the orderly rows of carefully raised seedlings.

"This garden has grown like an oak from an acorn," she reflects. "I like to think of it as a teaching garden. Though it isn't big like Hidcote, I hope people can identify with the planting and feel they can do something like it themselves. It's taken me 36 years to transform the wilderness. It was a dream I had, and I still feel there's something dreamlike about it." As soon as you step into it, you know exactly what she means.

! The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex (01206 822007); Mon-Sat 9-5 until end October, Mon-Fri 9-4 in winter. Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays.

A PROFILE OF THE BETH CHATTO GARDENS LOCATION: The gardens cover five acres of ground in Elmstead Market, four miles east of Colchester in Essex. CLIMATE: Relatively dry throughout the year, particularly over summer months. Cold north-easterly winds. Winter temperatures moderate to cold. Yearly rainfall: 20 inches average. SOIL: The house and garden are on the banks of a stream where the area's generally chalky boulder clay has become moist and silty. IDEAL FOR: Moisture-loving plants like hostas and fritillaries can survive next to the stream. In other areas, plants such as lavender and santolina that do not mind dry conditions thrive. VISITORS: Around 20,000 per year.