True grit: Horticulturalist Beth Chatto's remarkably hardy gravel garden


To get to Beth Chatto's house you turn down an unremarkable lane just near a petrol station in the heart of Essex. Here is the celebrated gardener's residence itself: a white suburban bungalow that sits plump on well-mown green turf. And though it's signposted well, it remains a surprising prologue to one of Britain's most interesting and exotically original gardens.

Chatto's interest in horticulture began when she was a 1960s wife, mum and flower-arranger with an enthusiasm for odd-looking shapes to fill up a vase. She found her heart swelling with love for these unusual plants, and she started to grow and sell them, beginning to fill up polytunnels rather than vases. As her nursery grew, so did her own garden. You can see the archaeological traces of the middle-England golf-course-garden, if you look hard enough. There are long swathes of lawn, a perfect golf-ball-swallowing pond and small trees and shrubs dotted along island beds. But the plants themselves are a real surprise.

It's a particularly great place to visit in hot, high-holiday summer. Here is an excellent mid-August lesson in how to survive the season: trees in the main garden provide a wonderful body of shadow to walk under, and the water is hovered over by dragonflies.

The effect is captured beautifully in the new book A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto's Gardens (£16.99, Frances Lincoln), which shows off especially nicely Chatto's finest summery achievement: the gravel garden, finished in 1992, when she was almost 70. (Gawd, I hope I can manage anything like that at 70: just the digging, the digging…)

The gravel garden had a fairly unpromising start. For one thing, it used to be the car park. But where better, as talk circulated about global warming in the final years of the 20th century, to find a flat spot to show gardeners how to manage without a hosepipe?

Chatto and her husband Andrew were fascinated by wild plants and their adaptation to native habitats; rather than fighting Colchester's North Sea winds, baking summer sun and average 20 inches of rain, this garden would embrace it. The Chattos chose plants from similar areas of the world, with one requirement: the garden would never get watered.

That's a strict rule to lay down, but Chatto knew what she was building: a garden to inspire and inform those suffering under hosepipe bans. It sounds a horribly practical remit. Yet take a look at the gravel garden today, with tall soft grasses just starting to seed, spiky yuccas and ferocious sea holly in flower; it would be very difficult not to be seduced.

Plants here are not confined to flowerbeds, but are planted under the gravel itself. This adds another layer of informality, and of water conservation: the tiny stones act as an excellent layer to stop evaporation and keep roots cool and moist even on boiling hot days. Colour is important; though many of the garden's denizens are silvery and grey, there are strong splashes of lime green from little euphorbias, and mauves and yellows zing out against each other.

The yellows are particularly interesting: I'm not a big fan of yellow but Chatto's pale-primrose hollyhocks can creak me into enthusiasm, especially in combination with metallic-purple allium sphaerocephalon and the brighter yellow of verbascums going to seed.

There are even trees here, despite the baking dryness. One very pretty leaf you may recognise is Rhus typhina, the stag's horn sumac. Its leaves hang in little triangles like bright-green bunting, turning a spectacular red in autumn. Sumac trees are a close relative of those producing the tasty Lebanese salad spice, but I wouldn't recommend harvesting these: their lovely red fruits are worth keeping on the tree, anyway. (A tree from is £13.99.)

And in the very hottest of weather, the garden is a fantastic way to round off a visit. Looking delicious as dark pools of shadow spread over the gravel, there's no better place to spend an afternoon.

The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex, are open daily. Autumn colour walks take place in October; see for details

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power