Places: The Beth Chatto Gardens

After such a long hiatus (take a look at my Published work to see what I’ve been up to), I couldn’t help but write about a long awaited trip to a very special garden.

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Stood with in earshot of the A120, and less than 15 minutes from the centre of Colchester, it is difficult to imagine that a garden could so easily transport you away from the present moment. And yet among the island beds of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, I could have been stood in the mountainous foothills where she found inspiration.

The Gravel Garden was started in 1991, converting 0.35ha (¾ acre) of parched grass car park into a new garden. Faced with low average annual rainfall and poor quality, heavily compacted soil there was uncertainty about whether anything would ever grow. However, instead of despairing at the conditions Beth used these to her advantage. This included taking into consideration the changing weather patterns, with hotter, dryer summers and milder winters.

By early spring 1992 the first plants started to fill dry riverbed-inspired design. Beth used hosepipes to define the beds, creating two long outer borders with a series of sinuous island beds between. The pathways looped their way around the garden with no formal direction or shape.

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Bergenia and Poa labillardieri (left); Allium sphaerocephalon (right)

Every plant was dunked in a bucket of water until saturated, planted and watered again, after that only Mother Nature would provide further watering. To begin with Beth experimented with plants that grew wild in countries bordering the Mediterranean; tolerating free-draining soil and dry summers. She knew that not every plant would be able to cope with the irrigation-free conditions and at the end of the first summer wrote: ‘Not all plants will be successful, some may die, other may prove unsuitable, or simply it may be I won’t like the effect, or the way one thing smothers out another.’

Exploring the borders

In a dry, gravel-covered garden, especially on a hot summer’s day, the atmosphere could have felt arid. However, the Gravel Garden is anything but. The planting is abundant and vivid, combining herbaceous stalwarts with unusual neighbours. Swathes of purple and silver, including Allium sphaerocephalon, Eryngium giganteum and Verbena bonariensis mix with airy grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima and S. gigantea. The planting is a magnet for wildlife too, with pollinators hopping between blooms and birds taking cover in the plants.

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Sedum telephium (Atropurpureum Group) ‘Karfunkelstein’; Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’; Origanum laevigatum

Many of us are driven by colour when we garden, but in the Gravel Garden dramatic combinations of texture and shape are the main focus – even in the height of summer. At the edge of one bed the almost succulent leaves of Bergenia, with their stout, upright stems of flowers are set against a background of the fine billowing New Zealand blue grass, Poa labillardierei.

Elsewhere, Verbascum bombyciferum seeds freely around the garden. As a biennial, the silvery leaves create architectural rosettes, before throwing up triffid-like spires of yellow flowers that tower over the borders. The rosettes, which almost look like a Sempervivum on steroids, are such a contrast to the surrounding plants, including the strap leaves and arching blue heads of Agapanthus, and delicate, scented Origanium. Somehow everything is harmonious, yet the considered planting design means that every border is punctuated by a glut of shape and texture.

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Verbascum bombyciferum

With such a varied and rich use of plants, the gravel plays an important role in keeping the whole area securely linked together. Although the borders and pathways have clear definition, the sea of gravel that creeps between the spreading plants softens any hint of a line.

In many ways the Gravel Garden doesn’t feel like a garden at all. It is an ongoing plant study, living art installation, nod towards our changing climate and sickening proof that so many of us could spend less time watering. If the ‘right plant, right place’ adage needed a mascot the Gravel Garden would surely be it. Flaunting the rules of planting may seem like fun, but if following them can create a garden as beautiful as Beth’s then I’m happy to oblige.

Photos taken: early August 2016


Visit The Beth Chatto Gardens website for more information.

 

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BBC Gardener’s World Live – A confession

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Wrapped and ready to go

I cannot start work on my Beautiful Border soon enough. Even though a large part of me just wants to be at home in sunny Somerset and celebrate my first sweet pea flowers opening, if I worry about how I’m going to place my plants for many more days I will be grey-haired by the time the show opens.

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I’ve been appearing here, there and everywhere.

Yesterday I visited New Forest nursery to select the plants I will be using in the border. Everyone was hugely helpful and even more patient as I wondered back and forth between row upon row of plants, trying to make firm decisions. I am really happy that the plants are now sorted and I have got some beautiful things, but it was hard. There was no one there to hold my hand and it felt weird that I just had to make my mind up.

So, having previously spent my time worrying about not having any plants, I am now worrying about the plants I do have and I am feeling a bit embarrassed.

Is a public show really the best place to bring my first ever planting design to life?

I should have probably done something behind closed doors first, with out prowling TV presenters and judges with clipboards to look at what I’m doing. I have plenty of books about planting design and I have spent far too many hours adding hundreds of garden photos to my Pinterest account, but nothing compares with practice and experience.

Trying to think a bit more positively, if I can, for want of a better phrase, ‘pull it off’, then it hopefully proves that anyone who wants to have a go at designing his or her own border absolutely must give it a try. However, unless they want some added pressure, maybe in the familiar surroundings of their own home first.

Today I have been packing the van with everything from tea to topsoil and then tomorrow morning I am off to the NEC to start work on my blank canvas. I’m wondering when it’s going to sink in that I’m actually bringing my design to life, hopefully sometime in the next 24hours…

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Not everyone is quite so worried

Places – Rousham Gardens, nr Oxford

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It’s funny how the simplest of things can transport our nostalgic memories back to our childhood and in a matter of seconds we have gone back in time all just from a taste, smell, place or object.

When I visited Rousham Gardens, I found myself fondly recalling countless hours spent playing in water. Whether pointlessly collecting broken china from a neighbour’s stream, building dams in rivers or exploring the bed of an empty reservoir. There is something about water that brings out our playful inner explorers!

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Water is definitely a prominent feature at Rousham. Created by William Kent in the 18th Century, the gardens are unaltered, making them the purest example of the English Landscape gardening style. It’s easy to forget that what appears to be a very natural parkland with rolling lawns and huge trees, was in fact all carefully planned, to make the most of views and really heighten our expectation and surprise as we explore.

The garden is full of amazing, grand classical buildings and sculptures, which really did blow me away with their size and craftsmanship. They are anything but dainty. In fact, the whole garden has a huge presence that overshadows the very beautiful house, even though the majority of the garden is tucked away.

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My favourite part of the garden absolutely had to be the rill leading to the Cold Bath. The rill winds its way through a simple piece of woodland, flanked by laurel, to a crystal-clear, octagonal cold bath. The idea of an octagonal shape in the garden sounds quite strange, however it just seemed to sit so perfectly with in the setting. The rill and bath is Grade II listed and is the earliest example of the Rococo theory, ‘Line of Beauty’ being applied in Garden Design. Line of Beauty is a term that describes an S-shaped curved line. The theory behind it is that curved lines create a liveliness and excitement that attracts attention, where as straight lines signify inanimate objects and more dramatically, death. Funnily enough, it was as I skipped back and forth either side of the winding rill that I had my nostalgic moment. It was a very quiet day, I was genuinely skipping and knew nothing about the ‘Line of Beauty’ theory at the time!

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A separate walled garden, much closer to the house, has a large fruit and vegetable garden, box parterres, a dovecote and long herbaceous borders, including one dazzling border of just dahlias. It is also where you will find all these various pictured doorways and archways, which could not be more charming.

Rousham has definitely escaped the 21st century and remains a quiet and unspoilt place with plenty of hidden corners and meandering pathways to tempt your inner child.

Visited September 2014

PLACES: Piet Oudolf @ Hauser & Wirth

 

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Layers and layers of planting

I couldn’t quite believe it when I found out that one of Piet Ouldolf’s newest garden designs was a stone’s throw away in the quaint village of Bruton, Somerset. The renowned designer and plantsman has worked on some truly incredible projects, from The High Line in New York to the Serpentine Gallery, London. A leading figure (he basically invented it) of the New Perennial movement, his design style is effortless, natural and unlike any other. For many designers he is someone to idolise and aspire to.

The garden in question, at Hauser & Wirth gallery, has been planted with no less than 25,000 plants! All carefully placed around the modest 1.5-acre site. It is a perfect example of the New Perennial movement, layered swathes of grasses and herbaceous perennials with sinuous pathways that guide you around the space. I wish there had been places to sit with in the garden. With out places to pause it felt like I was on a conveyer belt, being slowly led around the garden with all the other visitors. However, it was still a delight. Each turn created a completely new perspective of the garden and a new collection of plants layered together.

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Looking up the garden from the gallery

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A small selection of key plants

Alongside the garden there is an exhibition of Oudolf’s planting plans, an insight into how he creates and develops his signature style of planting. They are definitely worth seeing and a great reminder (particularly for me) that it is best not to be too precious about your work. If something needs changing, grab a pen and change it!

What also interested me, as I walked around the gallery of felt-tip pen planting plans, was this idea of gardens as art. To go and visit an art gallery to appreciate scribbles and lines on tracing paper. It is probably a subject with no perfect answer; I definitely don’t know where I stand. However, it did make me wonder whether placing garden design in hushed, whitewashed rooms would unlock horticulture to new audiences. Does linking gardening and contemporary art make it appear youthful and trendy? Or does it just raise Garden Design up another step higher on the social ladder?

I could probably dedicate an entire blog to debating the subject and perhaps still end up with no definitive answer. If you like art, wear those peculiarly cool-but-oversized-glasses and haven’t heard of Piet Oudolf then the exhibition is probably a good thing. If you are a 16-year-old school leaver with a slight interest in horticulture, but you don’t know how to pursue it, then a pretentious art gallery probably isn’t for you.

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Perfect colours even in the dull weather

It’s hard to end a post when I cannot even come to a conclusion with myself. Promoting garden design and horticulture in new and unique ways is obviously a good thing. However, I hope garden design never looses sight of the dirt under its nails.

Not forgetting Piet Oudolf and his marvellous new garden, here is a lovely and rather apt quotation from his book Designing with Plants. ‘In the same way that a painter works with a palette of coloured pigments, so the garden designer can select what plants to use from the palette of plants’.