Beth Chatto – A life with Plants – Review

Sandy Felton reviews a new authorised biography of Beth Chatto, written by Catherine Horwood, celebrating the life of this world-renowned plantswoman.

I never had the privilege of meeting Beth Chatto in person, my only claim to fame was seeing her from afar at Chelsea, but several of her books sit on my bookshelf and from my earliest gardening experiences, Beth was always there beside me in print if not in person.

In this new authorised biography of Beth, ‘Beth Chatto – A Life with plants‘ – Catherine Horwood more than does justice to this iconic gardening legend. Some years before her death in May 2018, (aged 94) Beth authorised Catherine to write her biography with exclusive access to her archives – the result is a delightful memoir of a remarkable woman. (pictured left as a child).

Beth Chatto’s gardens and nursery have influenced gardeners across the world and today her writing still continues to guide new generations.

The inspiration behind ‘right plant, right place‘, Beth’s ethos lies at the heart of modern gardening. Her best-loved books, including The Dry Garden and Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, are bookshelf essentials and certainly influenced me over the years.

The biography includes extracts from Beth’s notebooks and diaries, never before published, bringing her own distinctive and much-loved voice into the book. Most of the photographs, from Beth’s personal archives, have also never been seen in print before.

Beth’s granddaughter, Julia Boulton, writes the Foreword to the book, in which she points out that Beth left a large footprint: her gardening philosophy and beautiful gardens, her extensive plant nursery and most recently her Education Trust.

In writing the book, the author has used three main sources – Beth’s vast archive, both personal and professional; her private diaries and her travel notebooks – the result is an extremely entertaining and detailed work highlighting much personal detail about this fascinating plantswoman, her determination and success.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Family and Friendships, especially relating to Beth’s long friendship with Christopher Lloyd (Christo). Their relationship was founded on their joint fascination with plants and they remained friends right to the end of Lloyd’s life.

Their joint publication Dear Friend and Gardener (1998) is iconic, containing a series of letters to each other, wherein we glean not only an important insight into their particular gardening worlds but into their personalities as well. I loved the anecdote about Christo inviting Paul and Linda McCartney to lunch and asking Beth to do the cooking because he ‘didn’t do vegetarian’! Of course, Beth obliged.

On the endpaper of the book Fergus Garrett, pays tribute to Beth as one of the most influential gardeners in our history: “This extraordinary person will touch generations of gardeners to come. Gardeners from all over the world have taken her lead on the right plant, right place and have had our eyes opened to texture, shape and form,” he said. Alan Titchmarsh says that of all the gardeners he knows, it is Beth that he feels the deepest respect for.

This is a carefully crafted and honest book taking us from Beth’s birth through to her marriage in 1943 to Andrew Chatto, whose input inspired Beth’s interest in the provenance of each plant. Andrew’s life-long interest in the origins of plants perfectly complemented Beth’s talents coming to fruition in the 1960s when the couple built their new home on a wasteland that was to become Elmstead Market.

Beth’s writing career, her show success and her travels – all carefully recounted in chapters devoted to her travel diaries – through to her final years are recorded in meticulous detail. She was honoured with an OBE and the Victoria Medal of Honour, won 10 gold medals at RHS Chelsea in the 70s and 80s and produced several gardening books which not only became best-sellers but also remain a vital source on ecological planting to this day.

In the final chapter on her Legend and Legacy, the author points out that Piet Oudolf (himself famous for his planting schemes), saw Beth’s legacy as being truly international and crucial to the development of the New Perennial movement. Her nursery at Elmstead Market, Colchester, remains a major source of some of the country’s leading gardens for rare forms not available elsewhere. Today, the garden and nursery have been entrusted to her granddaughter Julia Boulton who continues to run the business. (Julia pictured left with Beth).

Catherine Horwood, is a social historian with a passion for plants and gardens and author of several books including ‘Gardening Women‘ and ‘Potted History: The Story of Plants and the Home.’ She also writes for various newspapers and magazines.

Beth Chatto – a Life with Plants’ by Catherine Horwood is published by Pimpernel Press Ltd – – in hardback at £30.00. It is beautifully illustrated and superbly written, enabling the reader to discover Beth’s personality, her thoughts and gardening passions and is a fitting tribute to one of horticulture’s most iconic plantswomen.

All photographs are strictly ©Beth Chatto Estate

A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publisher.