WILDERNESS TIPS

A few miles away from Elmstead, Rosie Skeet has transformed an over- grown, neglected field into a garden with echoes of Beth Chatto's style; GARDENING IN THE LANDSCAPE
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The Independent Culture
Rosie Skeet has been Beth Chatto's secretary and office manager for 12 years. Two years ago, she and her husband Ray bought an early 18th- century cottage a few miles from Elmstead, with a garden suffering from long-term neglect. When Rosie came to redesign and replant the garden it was natural that she should make use of the insights she had garnered from working with one of our most notable plantswomen.

"I've learnt several things from Beth," she says. "Before I went to work for her I would have made more obvious choices, but they might have been quite unsuitable for the conditions. And I've learnt from Beth to look for a more natural planting style, akin to wild flowers - my first love in any case. And things like putting golden-leaved plants in dark corners."

The Skeets' new garden occupies about three quarters of an acre on the north, south and west sides of the cottage. An old holly hedge, 3ft thick, runs down the east side, insulating the garden from the road and the coldest winds. When they took it over, the garden was just a field with waist- high grass, dotted with ancient oak, willow and apple trees.

"It had charm as a wild field," Rosie admits. "It almost felt like an act of vandalism to put the spade in and plant the first plant."

The transformation is still in progress. About half of the south lawn and rather less of the north has been dug up as flower beds with attractive sinuous contours. Some of these will be enlarged and new ones created to make room for more plants.

Rosie and Ray, both with busy professional lives, have done all the work themselves, at weekends and on summer evenings. They did not enlist the help of a garden designer, nor did they draw up any design plan.

"We didn't put any plan on paper," says Rosie, "because if you do that, unless you're very experienced you can't see all the possibilities to start with. Things open up as you're working and suggest themselves to you."

For example, when they pulled down an old hut near the back of the garden they discovered it had masked an appealing view over fields. Now she plans to exploit the view by building an arch and smothering it with roses.

Growing roses is a sign that Rosie does not follow Beth Chatto's principles slavishly. "Old-fashioned roses are something Beth and I don't see eye- to-eye on," she concedes.

Yet such disagreements are rare and the great majority of her plant selections have been inspired by Beth's garden. She makes considerable use of euphorbias, incomparable for winter foliage. She enjoys the evergreen Tellima grandiflora odorata, whose soft almond-coloured flowers give off a charming scent in May. Then there are aquilegias, skimmia, heuchera, hellebores, pulmonaria, lamiums for ground cover and the Arum italicum, very much a Chatto plant, with its cream-coloured flowers in spring and red berries in summer.

Rosie is keen on growing vegetables and has designed what she calls a "poor man's potager" in the shape of a wheel, divided into compartments by brick paths. The vegetables will be interspersed with marigolds and sweet peas for decorative effect.

The soil varies in different parts of the garden. The original cottage garden was expanded many years ago to take in part of an old pig farm, and here the soil is richer. Where the old pond has been filled in the ground remains fairly moist, but the rest of the garden is as dry as much of Essex.

It will be some years before the garden reaches maturity. But there is plenty to admire already, in particular her use of wild and familiar flowers, such as forget-me-knots, foxgloves and ox-eye daisies, to blend with more esoteric plants. Where a public footpath passes along the north end of the garden she has sown wild flowers, too, for the enjoyment of walkers. It is a way of making a connection between the garden and the landscape beyond, and perhaps of assuaging any nagging guilt about taming the unruly field.

"We had to knock the wildness out to start with to establish the basics. But if you garden like Beth does, some of that wildness, that lovely blowsiness like an Edwardian lady, comes back in - but in a controlled way."

HELPING NATURE OUT

PLANTS THAT FLOURISH IN BETH CHATTO'S GARDEN

PRIMULA

Primulas need rich, moist soil, so Beth Chatto plants them close to her stream and ponds, where they thrive.

TRILLIUM (WOOD LILY)

Thrives given rich soil and light shade. Most varieties are about a foot high. Flowers appear in late spring.

SANTOLINA

Low-growing shrub that likes full sun and does not mind drought. Valued for silvery leaves and yellow flowers.

SALVIA

The name covers many forms of shrub. Beth Chatto grows Salvia officinalis. Needs sunlight and good drainage.

ALLIUM

Related to the onion, alliums come in many colours and shapes. They need plenty of sun and a free-draining soil.

CORYDALIS

This Alpine with its bell-like flowers is not easy to grow. It needs a cool position, partly shaded, in an acid soil.

EUPHORBIA

Most euphorbias are evergreen. All prefer poor soil and plenty of sunshine. They come in various shapes and sizes.

FRITILLARIA

The snakeshead fritillary is about 10 inches tall, with chequered bell- shaped blooms. Prefers a damp soil.

CISTUS (ROCK ROSE)

Pink, yellow and white flowers appear in June. Needs well-drained soil in full sunshine; may not survive severe frost.

ASTILBE

Astilbes like a soil that contains some moisture but is not too boggy. The flowers last longer in partial shade.

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