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Horticultural Trainee Blog: A week at Beth Chatto Gardens

By Georgie Johnson, Horticultural Trainee

As part of their Horticultural Traineeship at the Garden Museum, Georgie Johnson has the opportunity to do week-long placements at some of the most influential and exciting gardens across the country. Their latest placement took them to Beth Chatto Gardens:

I’ve only worked in horticulture a short time, but you don’t need long to clock how influential Beth Chatto Gardens is. If I hadn’t received such a warm welcome from the minute I arrived on a suspiciously wintery August morning, I might be more nervous.

I’m spending the first half of my placement with the gardeners, who are gathered in the mess room pulling on boots and catching up: Malin, Cathy and Scott, and head gardener Åsa, who has been at Beth Chatto for over twenty years. The tour she gives me while the rest of the team do their daily morning tasks is full of the memory and insight that only decades of tending to a place can give you. We start in the celebrated car park-turned-gravel garden. The gravel mulch on the surface that gives the garden its distinctive look is only a couple of inches deep, but beneath that lies five to six metres of sandy gravel: incredibly free draining, low fertility, the kind of soil that most gardeners in Beth’s position would have scraped away and replaced. But Beth and her husband Andrew looked to plants around the world that thrived in similar conditions, plants like Stachys, Ballota, Eryngium, Stipa, Phlomis, Santolina, many of which are now familiar to UK gardening but were strange new arrivals to this corner of Essex twenty years ago.

Asa explains that the gravel garden is commonly misconceived as being ‘low maintenance’, because it isn’t watered. But so many of these plants are enthusiastic self-seeders, so it requires a constant, attentive practice of editing out seedlings and pulling back spreading plants to keep the peace between neighbours. You have to use your imagination to garden here, to see into the future and know what will be three feet wide and seven feet tall next year if you leave it in. There is the added difficulty of not being able to simply cut things back before they set seed; the nursery collect seed from the garden to sow and grow on to sell, so my days with the gardeners are punctuated with regular calls to propagation expert Emily Allard to see what she needs.

Separated by a thirty second walk but a change in elevation of five to six metres, descending to the water garden is like entering a different biome. The silvery leaves and scrubby forms of the drought-tolerant planting give way to sparkling green lawns and enormous, luscious marginals. You can see why Beth Chatto is so associated with that all-important principle of right plant, right place. As our tour continues around the rest of the site, I learn some of Beth’s sayings; she thought of planting trees as ‘painting the sky’, and spoke of ‘making the picture’ being as much about what you take out as what you leave in. In the reservoir garden, Åsa tells me about Beth’s later years, when she was bed-bound and fading, but when Åsa popped her head round the door to let Beth know that something special was flowering in the woodland, she would be straight into her wheelchair and out the door to go and see.

Today we are working in the scree garden (similar to an alpine garden), doing what Scott calls ‘micro-weeding’, using our hori knives to tease out the tiny, fiddly weeds from the gravel. I cut back lavender and gypsophila in the hopes of a second flush of flowers, and dig out self-seeded verbascum, choosing which to keep by imagining how the bed will look when these gangly giants with their enormous rosettes of furry silvery leaves shoot up next summer.

They ask what I want to learn while I’m here, anything I haven’t done before. This is how Malin and I end up wading slowly into the silt-bottomed ponds to cut flowers off the wonderfully named powdery alligator flag (Thalia dealbata). These beautiful but macabre flowers close around pollinating insects when they come foraging for nectar, so as to ensure that the insect gets sufficiently covered in pollen before it flies off. But whereas its main pollinator in its native habitat is large enough to break out of this petal prison, lots of insects here are not, so they get trapped and die. The gardeners periodically take off all the flowers to reduce the insect body count. We find a handful of flies, wasps and spiders half sticking out of the delicate two-tone purple blooms.

I end my stint with the garden team by helping them hunt for their arch enemy: arum, with its cheerful red and orange berries, which seems to multiply the second your back is turned. It goes on the ‘bad compost’ pile.

After lunch I head to propagation, where I am again treated to a tour, this time with Emily who has been working at Beth Chatto since she was a teenager. We go from tunnel to tunnel lined with plants at different stages of growth, and looming over everything is the recent decision to completely stop using peat. I hadn’t seen up close how complex a challenge it is for growers, and it makes the move all the more admirable. The team are effectively having to redesign practices and processes that they have followed for decades, and adjust all their long-held expectations about how long everything takes. Emily shows me trays of peat alternatives they’ve been testing, with varying success. We run into garden designer Daryl Moore who is working with the nursery on environmental issues, and we chat about the politics of peat, how large industrial nurseries actively lobby against regulations that would reduce or ban its commercial use. It’s a sobering conversation, but at least small places like Beth Chatto are trying, and Emily tells me there are other nurseries they swap learnings with, in the way that gardeners always do.

I get to work pricking out seedlings, taking leaf cuttings, collecting and cleaning seeds, and getting disproportionately excited by the label printing machine. By the end of my time in propagation, I am weighed down with gifts: seeds, seedlings and plugs both for my balcony at home and for the Garden Museum. This kind generosity captures the salient impression of the gardens and nursery I will leave with. The culture there, at least from the perspective of a visitor, seems to really value collaboration; the garden team take it in turns to be in charge of what needs doing each week, they’re always on the phone to prop, they take garden trips together. Both Åsa and Emily have an extraordinary amount of knowledge between them, but without a whisper of arrogance. It was an idyllic three days and I am deeply grateful to everyone I met for their time and care (especially Malin, who hosted me at her place, gave me lifts every day, and took me for a much-needed post-work scenic pint on the river). The leaf cuttings sat on my kitchen table are beginning to produce little plantlets already, and I look forward to taking care of them for years to come with the same attentiveness and skill that I learned from everyone at Beth Chatto.

The Garden Museum’s annual Horticultural Traineeship is generously funded by the National Gardens Scheme. Find out more: Horticultural Traineeship

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