Beth Chatto: A Life with Plants

by Catherine Horwood

A personal review by Judith Ladley

The main garden – picture from the HPS holiday 2016

On looking through the April edition of the RHS magazine recently I noticed two book reviews by Fergus Garrett which looked particularly interesting.  The first was a book about Jimi Blake, a recent lecturer at our last Conference, and the second was Catherine Horwood’s biography of Beth Chatto and her life with plants.  This proved the more tempting and having just had a win on the premium bonds (£25!) I treated myself via e-bay.

It is an extremely comprehensive coverage of Beth’s life, telling of her  childhood love of gardening, her education, early marriage to Andrew Chatto and later the many and varied personalities in the world of horticulture who became her friends.   I was particularly interested in Beth’s friendship with Cedric Morris and, later, her association with Christopher Lloyd.

I first learned about Beth Chatto and her nursery through flower arranging classes in the 1970s and by the early 80s decided it was time to take a trip down to Colchester.  Along with three flower arranging/gardening friends the visit was arranged and we decided to call at Bressingham Gardens, then in its heyday, to break our journey.  After a night spent in Diss we progressed on to Colchester and Elmstead Market and after a picnic in the car park (now the gravel garden) we toured Beth’s beautiful garden before progressing into the nursery area (bliss). 

Picnic in the car park – now the Gravel Garden
The Gravel Garden as it is today

  In her book Catherine tells of Mrs Desmond Underwood’s great friendship with Beth.  I do know we visited Mrs Underwood’s nursery, where she specialized in silver plants, but I did not realise she had such a great influence in starting the nursery.

After a night spent in Colchester we set out for home.  My Austin Metro was crammed full: four ladies and over 60 plants.   It was a long hard drive, but well worth the effort.

Laden car

I am reading this delightful book slowly – something to look forward to each day, it could not have come at a better time.

Judith Ladley

Publication details

Beth Chatto: a life with plants

by Catherine Horwood

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: Pimpernel Press Ltd; (5 Sept. 2019)

ISBN-10: 1910258822

Timing is Everything

In common with many horticultural periodicals and websites, we like to highlight a ‘Plant of the Month’.  However, with our climate changing so rapidly as witnessed by the past few mild, wet winters, how do you chose such a plant; should it be one that we would usually expect to flower in the month in question, or one that is actually flowering that month, even though we would not normally associate it with that month?

A few years ago, at another HPS Group’s Day Conference I listened to a fascinating talk entitled ‘When will it flower?’.  After an hour, our very erudite lecturer’s conclusion was basically ‘we don’t know’!  I was reminded of this when recently, at the request of his son and daughter, I have been removing plants from our senior member, David Barnes’, garden.  As many of you know he has recently moved to live with his son, and as the fate of the garden is not known, they were keen that some of David’s plants should be rescued.  On March 2nd, the friend who was helping me, came bearing a huge clump of Paeonia mlokosewitschii – ‘Molly the Witch’ to you & me – about 15’’ tall, in full leaf, and covered with buds!  It must have been in a very sheltered spot, as my clump at home – an earlier gift from David – was only just peeping through the ground.

In other years, when we have been preparing to create an exhibit at Harrogate Spring Flower Show, there has always been the agonising problem, what will be in flower for the Show?  As you know, we aim to use as many plants as possible that belong to members, but as amateur gardeners we do not have the facilities of the professional exhibitors who can put their plants into cold storage and then on a pre-planned day, bring them out into a controlled temperature to ensure that the plants flower just in time for the Show.  Not that this always works.

In 2009, I was absolutely thrilled when, for the first time, one of my plants was used on our stand at Harrogate.  It was Epimedium ‘Lilafee’ (fig.1) and was completely smothered with dainty mauve flowers.  Being shallow rooted it had transplanted very easily, without disturbance, only a day or two before the Show.  It was a bit of a squeeze to fit it in to the top of a 3lt pot, and I rather begrudged all the compost that I had to use to fill the pot, but no matter, it looked stunning on the stand and created a lot of interest and admiring comments.

Fig 1: Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’

As we were doing Chelsea the following year, it was decided that it would be sent, along with various other plants that wouldn’t normally flower towards the end of May, to a nursery in Norfolk who had agreed to look after them, holding them back or bringing them on, as appropriate, so that they would flower for Chelsea.  However, not even the professionals get it right, and by the time we   got to Chelsea, ‘Lilafee’ was well past her best and never made it onto the stand.

Fig 2: Amelanchier lamarckii

Although not not for use at the Show, each year at this time, I hope that my Amelanchier lamarckii (fig.2) will be in flower to use as part of the Easter flowers at church.  Of course this is not helped by Easter being such a ‘movable feast’, but I think in the more than 10 years that I have had it in the garden, I have managed to use it just once, possibly twice at the most.  It really could do with pruning, but I am reluctant to do so as I am always confident that next year will be the one, and I will be able to cut lovely long branches of the delicate white flowers.  This year with, as I write this, just over a week to go to Easter, it looks as if it may be just about right, but of course, thanks to Coronavirus, there will not be an Easter service at church.  C’est la vie!  However, if I were asked to make a choice, it would still be a contender, in my mind, for ‘Plant of the Month’ for April.

How often have we said, when walking round our gardens with friends, ‘you should have seen it last week’ or ‘in a day or two that will be lovely’?  No matter how we try to control nature, in the end plants will do what they want, but surely it is one of the great pleasures of gardening that there is always something to look forward to.

Sue Gray.

Images courtesy of HPS Image Library

Plant of the Month: April


by Eileen Shone

I don’t know when I became aware of these bulbs but certainly for the last 20 years I have had some in the garden. The first were a Mother’s Day gift and they were ‘Pagoda’, a nice green leaf with some light white marbling and sunny yellow flowers that are still going strong under the beech tree in the back garden. Currently I have about 5 clumps all with buds promising flowers in early April.

E. ‘Pagoda’
E. ‘White Beauty’
‘Joanna’ in bud

Searching around plant fairs and our visiting speakers stalls I have found others such as ‘Joanna’ which has yellow flowers that age to an apricot colour. Curious as to their parentage I discovered that ‘Joanna’ is a cross between Erythronium tuolumnense and Erythronium revolutum. Pagoda is also a cross with E.tuolumnense but the other parent is E californicum ‘White beauty’.  I have E tuolumnense and its flowers are smaller and more delicate looking than ‘Pagoda’ and I like its simple beauty. Buds are forming in that one too. I think they appreciated the damp autumn.  Like many genera the plant breeders are busy raising new hybrids.

Then I noticed the leaf form of others like E. dens canis, mottled and spotted making them very attractive.  One of the common names for Erthronium is dog toothed violet and this comes from the shape of the bulb which resembles a dog’s canine tooth. They are also called trout lilies due to the markings on the leaf that look like the markings on the side of a trout. But I digress, soon I was on the lookout for different ones. One of my favourites is ‘Purple King’, which despite having a bearded iris growing on top of it, has come up and is flowering well in the middle of March. 

E. ‘Purple King’
Flowering slightly later is ‘Kinsfauns Pink’