The eco marvel that is The Beth Chatto gardens

Set in the Essex countryside The Beth Chatto gardens are an ecological marvel which has earned her much deserved praise.

While I went to visit the gravel garden I was equally excited by the Woodland and Water gardens.

I was so impressed by the shape of the borders particularly how manicured everything was – it was almost as though it had been painted by one of the great masters. There were no tatty plants or visible weeds and as I wandered around I got a fantastic waft of fragrant plants.

It was my first visit to the gardens at Elmstead Market near Colchester but I would rate it among my top three favourite gardens.

The gardens began their life in 1960 as a garden attached to the Chatto home on land that had previously been the family fruit farm.

The five acre site had not been farmed as the soil was considered too dry in places and too wet in others

Beth, now 91, used flowers and foliage from her garden to create flower arrangements as a way of showing different types of designs and quickly came to the attention of other gardeners for use of unusual plants.

Her celebrated informal gardens were guided by her late husband Andrew, a  botanist, whose life-long interest in the origins of plants have been Beth’s driving inspiration to create a place that puts plants whose native habitat closely resembles the soil and climate conditions.

One of her biggest experiments was in 1991 when she turned an area of land used as a car park into a gravel garden now world renowned for its plant collection.


Beautifully shaped gravel garden


A contrast of planting styles

‘The gravel is 20 feet deep under here and it’s been an experiment to find plants that survive these conditions,’ Beth explained in an interview with Essex Life magazine. ‘We don’t water anything.’

Unlike most garden designers Beth doesn’t plan on paper and shaped the outlines of beds and paths, which are inspired by dried-up river beds seen on her travels, using lengths of hose pipes.

Borders were improved with homemade compost to get plants off to a good start as Beth likens the ‘soil’ in the gravel garden as similar to the beach at nearby Frinton on Sea.

Look out for the relaxed shape of the edges which are defined by plants, the beautiful use of colour – most notably silver and purple. The rhythm and repetition particularly how the plants such as the yellow of the Euphorbia carries your eye.

The trees in all the beds are just slightly off centre and there is a great use of height to create a drift affect which is extremely pleasing to the eye – framing each bed. The gravel acts a a winding dried-up river bed and grasses are also used to great affect.

Star performers that stood out for me include:

  • Alliums
  • Camassia
  • Papava
  • Weigela florida ‘Bristol Ruby’
  • Pulsatilla vulgaris
  • Phlomis

AND  of course the obligatory Iris.




Weigela florida ‘Bristol Ruby’



I was also impressed by the magnificence of the Eucalyptus dalrympleana with its attractive shaded grey bark which was was stunning and begs to be painted by the likes of Hockney.


Eucalyptus dalrympleana

The gravel garden is free to see and you have to pay an entrance fee to see the rest but it is definitely worth it.

The Water gardens are serene and the Woodland gardens offer an amazing sense of calmness as well as a selection of planting you are unlikely to see elsewhere.

In 1976, Beth exhibited her nursery for the first time at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, gaining a silver medal.

She then went on to win 10 consecutive gold medals at the show over the next 10 years before declining to do any more show work as she wanted to concentrate on her own garden and family.

The gardens do have a real intimate  feel to them with the family’s cats  freely wondering around the gravel garden. The gardens are also  a great haven for wildlife: bees, butterflies and its very only family of ducks and ducklings.

I also much enjoyed looking around the nursery and buying a number of my favourite plants including this wonder an Aeonium Schwarzkopf (pictured below)which happened to attract my eye at the till as I was about to leave. Everything you see in the gardens you can buy at the nursery.