Getting to the gate …. at Beth Chatto’s Gardens

I suppose there are always gardens you’ve flagged for a visit in your head, but somehow haven’t made it to. On my East of England list I’ve still got: Geoff Hamilton’s Barnsdale Gardens, Blickling Hall, Burghley House and (until now) Beth Chatto’s Garden.

Some gardening friends had visited Beth Chatto’s gardens two years ago and had been underwhelmed, so I’d mentally put it lower on my ‘To Visit’ list.

Beth Chatto's Garden

Tempting view of Beth Chatto’s garden from the September edition of the RHS Garden magazine.

What changed my mind and made me determined to fit in a visit as soon as possible was the article (OK photos – see above) in September’s copy the RHS Garden magazine. So a couple of weeks ago, as a last trip before work and college re-started, we headed to Elmstead Market in Essex to see Beth Chatto’s gardens for ourselves.

Here is a similar shot to the magazine’s main photograph. You can clearly see that our visit was later in the season (and one year on in fact), but the view is still spectacular. The textures and forms are taking over dominance from bright colours:

Beth Chatto Visit

Beth Chatto’s garden at the beginning of September: A lot of the summer colour is now muted.

By the time we arrived on-site the sun was out and we were thirsty, so our first stop was for a spot of tea in the outside section of the café. Unfortunately, this happens to be right next to the nursery and polytunnels, so of course I spent half the time jumping up from the table to check out interesting looking plants. (This retail combination would be lethal if I lived closer).

Suitably refreshed, we headed towards the ticket office, only to be distracted by some healthy looking Althaea cannabina (mine are a bit weedy with few flowers). This was growing in full sun, with sharp drainage. Mine are in a south-facing bed, but the soil is much heavier and they are competing with other plants, albeit towards the front of the border.


A little beyond that there were some pretty pink crinum around the base of a huge, showy eucalyptus, so we carried on to see them. In fact, it turns out that we were being led by the meandering path into the famous gravel garden*, which is outside the ticketed garden gates, created on top of 15 feet of sand and gravel on the site of an old car park.

beth chatto gravel garden

The never watered gravel garden.

An interesting thing about the planting in this area is the generous amount of space given to each plant. Each plant gets to express it self naturally, but when seen together still makes up a cohesive, flowing picture. The area has shown remarkable resilience to drought over the years, supporting Beth’s philosophies of ‘right plant for the right conditions’ and that up to a point ‘secateurs can replace hosepipe’. It is, even now, an area for trialling plants, for instance various types of Diascia and Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’. It is a garden that looks great in winter too, because the grasses and seedheads continue to provide highlights in low sunlight and coated with frost.

So we followed the path on and round the switchback heading back to the gate, admiring the freshly emerged colchicums and backlit verbascum and eryngiums. However, before we entered there was one final thing to stop to admire. This was an amazing, old oak (the woman on the entrance said it’s about 500 years old).


It has a wide bole that splits into a goblet structure of branches that reach up and up into a beautiful green canopy.


It was probably the star of the visit for me. In fact the garden contains many mature oaks and the woodland garden is largely underplanted oak.

Well, we’ve finally made it to the entrance, but since I’ve already written more than enough about a well-known garden I thought that for the rest of this post I would just add some photos of favourite views and plantings which may encourage you to visit too:


Very Monet! The top pond in the Water Garden


The lawns were immaculate, framing a series of island beds and beautiful specimen trees like this birch.


Middle pond in the Water Garden, Thalia dealbata has proved hardy here and stands proud on either side. Eupatorium puffs up in pink in the background.


I was very taken with this Sinacalia tangutica. It was lighting up the understory in a corner of the Woodland Garden


Ducks stroll across this colourful walkway between the ponds in the Water Gardens


A hotspot of colour and form in the corner of one of the ponds: Eupatorium, Ligularia and Pennisetum

I loved the gardens and would definitely visit again. Overall they have an old-fashioned feel to them, which I think comes mostly from the island beds and lawn design. Steve loves lawn, so here is a final photo taken by him of one of the main grassy vistas in the gardens.


In the Water Gardens: specimen birch, island beds and me (being a tourist)

*The Gravel Garden was planted in 1992 as an experiment in drought tolerant plantings. No irrigation is has ever been provided to this area, although compost and gravel mulch are used to retain moisture.


About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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10 Responses to Getting to the gate …. at Beth Chatto’s Gardens

  1. What a great post, it appeals to me as I’m still an Esat Anglia girl at heart and as gardener grew up on the legend that is Beth Chatto. I’ve never visited this garden and felt disappointed. Great to see you enjoyed your day as a ‘tourist’.

  2. Julie says:

    I think you have to pick the time of visit very carefully, I went in late spring this year, bulbs were just going over in the woodland and I was surprised at how small the plot is. But the never watered garden was inspirational. Plus the plant shop was brilliant!

    • Oh, that nursery was like an Aladdin’s cave! Good thing I had some birthday money to spend. Yes, the plot was relatively small (and for that matter so was the house), but the scale made things relatable and my favourite bit was the gravel garden outside anyway.

  3. Wonderful write up and photos. I have never been either. I just never seem to be in that part of the country. However, like you I have been inspired by the RHS piece, so thanks for an additional prod in the right direction! (PS must leave wallet and/or car at home else it could be fatal!)

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    Great review and photos. You’re fortunate to have access to so many lovely gardens!

  5. pbmgarden says:

    It looks like a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year.

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