BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was broadcast from Beth Chatto’s garden today. You can find the Podcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2008_34_mon.shtml. Beth Chatto was introduced as ‘one of England’s best-loved and most influential gardeners’. She explained that the two main influences on her garden had been her husband, who studied how plants grow in their natural habitats, and Sir Cederic Morris, an artist and gardener who lived at Benton End. Beth Chatto said she did not give much thought to colour harmonies and that her interest in plant groupings derived from an earlier love of flower arranging. She then made friends with, and was influenced by, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stuart Thomas. Her correspondence with Christopher Lloyd, who became her friend, began when he told her off for being ‘cruel’ to her Dry Garden – by not watering the plants. I guess history will judge Christo wrong on this issue. Beth Chatto also remarked that ‘I didn’t read Gertrude Jekyll for, oh, years. But when I did, I felt a real warmth for her’.
She came over as a plain-speaking gardener. On the layout of her garden, the most telling remark was that ‘A path needs to go somewhere’. While full of admiration for her plants, I find the design of Beth Chatto’s Garden disappointing. It is flower arranging on the scale of a garden. There is little imagination and the spatial composition is weak. Indeed, one has to wonder if Christopher Lloyd’s approach to garden design was similar. It could well be that it was the work of his father, and of Lutyens, which give Great Dixter its charm. A dress can be made out of the most beautiful fabric without being well-cut or stylish.
Having long believed that good plant combinations are a key to successful planting design, I was pleased to get a copy of The Encyclopedia of planting combinations by Tony Lord and Andrew Lawson (Mitchell Beazley, 2005). They are both expert photographers and Tony Lord, who wrote the text, is a former Gardens Advisor to the UK National Trust. Unsurprisingly, the photographs are excellent – if not quite as excellent as one might have expected. Disappointingly, most of the text is about the individual plants. Since there are many books on individual plants, this could have been omitted. The plant descriptions are followed by remarks on plant combinations and, as one might expect from a pair of photographers, they have a good eye for line, colour and texture.
The most surprising thing about the book is the appalling standard of the introductory section on ‘The art of combining plants’. It reveals the author to have no understanding of garden design as a fine art and somewhat reminded me of books written in the 1920s. Take the opening statement as an example: ‘A garden’s beauty invariably comes from the plants that it contains, the way they work together, and the overall effect they produce’. Does this apply to the Alhambra, to Versailles, to the Taj Mahal or to Rousham? Of course not. A garden is a composition of five elements: landform, vegetation, structures, water and paving. If one element is strong and the other four are weak you will not have a truly great garden.
After this blinkered introduction, the first sentence is ‘Making a successful garden is a question of balancing what is already there with what is required of the plot’. But what IS ‘required of the plot’. The author does not say. The second section (p.13) opens with the sentence ‘Once any hard landscaping is in place, selection of the plants can begin’. Goodness gracious me! You should not employ a gardener when you want your central heating fixed – and you should not employ a horticulturalist when you want a design for your garden. Similarly, the UK National Trust should employ horticulturalists for horticultural advice and garden designers as gardens advisors.