Beth Chatto: Queen of green

What better way to mark the re-opening of the London Garden Museum than with a blockbuster show celebrating Beth Chatto, says Emma Townshend
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The Independent Online

You know, she might still be sprightly at 85, but it doesn't feel that weird going into a church to worship Beth Chatto. For her fellow gardeners, she is the tippetty-top, a national treasure. So her life and work is the perfect choice for a blockbuster show to relaunch London's Garden Museum. The show will highlight the museum's elegant new galleries, contained within the walls of the deconsecrated St Mary's Church in Lambeth, eight minutes' walk from Waterloo station's back-door.

Chatto started a nursery and garden with her husband in 1960, on land in Essex that he used to farm for fruit. It has become one of the most famous gardening spots in England, most of all due to Chatto's books, which preach a message of planting according to the situation you have, not what you wish was there. This message might seem familiar to us today, but at the time she first advocated it, it was revolutionary: whether you have a damp or dry garden (she had bits of both), accept it and work with what you have.

Her practice is as good as her preaching, with the result that today the Beth Chatto Garden is one of Essex's most delightful attractions, down a quiet lane in a sleepy village. Walking around this summer, I saw drifts of sea-blue Ceanothus backed by the lime-green tang of Euphorbia wulfenii, on paths leading up to the house: never has a 1970s bungalow surrounded with conifers and crazy paving looked so good. In the woodland part of her garden, a huge canopy of mature oaks shades large-leaved hostas, ferns and unusual arums.

In 1991 Chatto added a gravel garden in a former car park, planted with huge swooshes of alliums and irises rising above fragrant sage and cistus foliage. "The plants must fend for themselves," she famously said. It is never watered, even in Essex's driest of the dry climate, yet is a profusion of flowers and subtle colour.

To fellow gardeners, Chatto has been both formidable mentor – Matthew Wilson and Dan Pearson are just two notables on that list – and good friend (some may remember Christopher Lloyd's delight when Chatto sent to Great Dixter, his family's Sussex manor, that one essential household item – a Magimix). But for everybody she has been an inspiration, popularising unusual plants and welcoming travellers from across the world. There has never been a better moment to embrace this timelessly stylish way of gardening: prepare for an outbreak of Chattomania.

The Beth Chatto show is at the Garden Museum ( gardenmuseum.org.uk) until 19 April 2009. Beth Chatto Gardens in Colchester are open 9am-4pm, Monday to Friday, in winter ( www.bethchatto.co.uk)

Get the look: The best of Beth Chatto

Among Chatto's favourite damp-garden plants is the pink enamel brightness of candelabra primulajaponica (right, £2.60 each) with the lilac wands of persicaria bistorta 'Superba' (below right, £3.60 each). For the gravel garden, try Tulipa sprengeri, a wild red and yellow (£3.60 each) with deep-maroon Euphorbia 'Fens Ruby' (£2.60 each). One of the nicest bits of the Chatto nursery is the wonderful selection of sempervirens. Flourishing merely by rainfall, they range from huge burgundy rosettes to tiny green stars (£1.90 each). All are available from www.bethchatto.co.uk.

Many people's favourite of her books is Garden Notebook (Orion, £8.99) – a wonderful account of a year in her life, competing at Chelsea, taking care of grandchildren and nursery staff, and celebrating the joys of potting compost mixers.

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