If I were about to start a new garden, I would not choose the site of the Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market in Essex. The surrounding land is flat and windswept and the soil unpromising, either thin gravel or soggy bog, with very little that is workable in between.
The fact that Elmstead Market is now a place of pilgrimage for thousands of plant lovers is a story of triumph over adversity, of hard labour reaping just rewards. Next year, the garden Mrs Chatto made here will be 50 years old, and a retrospective exhibition opens in London this week to celebrate the achievements of this queen of nurserywomen, this painter with plants, this dynamo of energy.
"You must be proud," I said unnecessarily, when we met last week. She threw me one of her sharp, quizzical looks: "I feel like a butterfly being pinned out on a board," she said. "And I thought retrospectives only happened when you were dead." But there's a lot to celebrate: the garden, the nursery she started when her husband Andrew Chatto retired, the talks, the books, all sending out the messages that no gardener should ever forget. The form, texture and structure of a plant are more important than its colour. And habitat is more important than anything.
That last message was spelt out in two of her most famous books The Dry Garden (1978) and The Damp Garden (1982). But her own favourite is the Garden Notebook she published six years later. Written as a kind of diary, it allowed her to be more discursive, episodic. It's a very personal book, packed with snippets of information that you snatch up as eagerly as a dog lurking under the dinner table.
For those of us who chug through life in middle gear, Beth Chatto seems like a woman powered by rocket fuel. Though now in her mid-eighties she is still very much in charge at the garden and the nursery. She knows the monthly balance sheets off by heart, has the most intimate knowledge of the state of the stock beds and can tell you, even from the terrace outside her sitting room, exactly which helenium we are looking at across the pond on the other side of the garden. I'm impressed by this; I sometimes find myself gazing even at a foxglove, thinking "I know I know you, but who the hell are you?"
I first saw her in action at the Chelsea Flower Show where she put up an initial display in 1976 as a way of publicising the then still newish nursery. First thing in the morning, the day before the show opened, you'd see her standing alone in a jumble of pots, boxes and sacks of mulch. When you next walked by, the skeleton of a good garden would already be in place: some small trees with good foliage, pittosporum, bamboos, large cistuses, grey-leaved ballota and santolina. By the end of the morning, the whole thing would be finished with spires of verbascum in cool lemon yellow, elegant Paeonia mlokosewitschii, groups of Jacob's ladder planted with purple-leaved violet, all overhung by the vast rhubarb leaves of Rheum palmatum. "Cameos," she says, when I mention these astonishing conjuring tricks that she used to pull off.
One year, George Harrison tried to buy her entire Chelsea stand to take to his garden at Friar Park, where a Victorian coal millionaire had once recreated the Matterhorn, complete with lesser alps and chamois. She tried to persuade him it wouldn't work – "a postage stamp on a tablecloth". He persevered, sending his chauffeur later that week to bring her to the garden to see for herself, but it made no difference. She still didn't think it was the right place for her plants to be.
On the subject of her fame, acquired in the second half of her life, she is equivocal. She has enjoyed the doors it has opened for her, the friends it has made her, the travel and honours that have followed. That first Chelsea display was followed by 10 more, all of which won Gold Medals. When the Royal Horticultural Society had got over the shock of her turning down an invitation to sit on their Council, they gave her the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest award that a gardener can hope for in her lifetime.
But living right in the middle of the great thing she has created, she is inevitably close to any passing problem, as well as the pleasures of the place. When you have bought a Chatto plant, it is tempting, if you see the woman herself, walking briskly through the nursery, not to want it baptised as it were. Beth gives a good deal. She's quick, warm and not half as formidable as her early association with the flower- arranging movement might suggest. She was a founder member of the Colchester Flower Club, the second in the country to be set up, and can still give you a good run-down on the principle of the asymmetrical triangle.
The principle is at work in her garden too, as she explains with quick, darting sweeps of the hand: the tall plants painting the sky ("church spires in my village"), slanting lines of shrubs pulling the triangle out to a long base, the emphasis (as in flower arranging) on building up a good framework of branches and greenery, before adding the flowers.
The Chatto look comes from a certain style of planting and a certain type of plant (many of them species). She is the present carrier of a baton handed down from William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and most of all from her East Anglian neighbour, the painter Cedric Morris, who had a huge influence on her taste for particular plants.
Forms and textures of leaves are important in creating "the look", as is bold planting in groups rather than singles dotted about like a bad attack of measles. Contrast is paramount: lacey artemisia held in focus against some more solid neighbour, perhaps the dark leaves of Cistus cyprius. Her respect for habitat, what you might call an ecological approach to gardening, was ahead of its time, but is common sense to her. By understanding what a plant needs, we will be able to grow it more successfully. This approach dictates to a large extent what will go with what, and in this Beth Chatto is as severe as any dictator of the Parisian fashion scene. Never sedum next to hosta. The one demands a hot, spacious situation, the other cool, moist, dappled shade.
Tall vertical plants are Chatto trademarks: verbascum, acanthus, pokers, foxgloves of all sorts, galtonia. So are plants of architectural form: alliums, crambe, eryngium, euphorbia. Because of this, the garden looks good whenever you visit. See the exhibition, which opens on Tuesday at The Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB, but get yourself to the garden as well.
Beth Chatto: A Retrospective opens Tuesday until 19 April; admission £6. The Garden Museum is open Tue-Sun (10.30am-5pm). Call 020-7401 8865. The Beth Chatto Gardens and Nursery, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB, are open throughout the winter, Mon-Sat (9am-4pm); £4.50. Call 01206 822007 or visit bethchatto.co.uk