18 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 79


Gravel allure

Ursula Buchan

hilst the skies wept, rivers rose and. floods inundated, most people, I imagine, scarcely thought of their gardens except to dismiss their welfare as a side-issue. Only people like me, on the threshold of a major autumn planting programme, have been made teeth-chatteringly jittery by so much rain this autumn; those with fully estab- lished gardens concerned themselves, I imagine, simply with clearing away fallen branches and cleaning out gutters until the water seeped away from sodden lawns and flower-beds.

As perverse relief from kicking gloomily at claggy earth, I have been reading a book concerning 'drought-resistant planting through the year'. Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden (Frances Lincoln, £25) is an account of the transformation, since 1991, of the three-quarter-acre carpark at the Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead Market into a garden of beauty and fascination at every season, by the use of drought-resis- tant plants disposed in congruous and flow- ing groups. Beth Chatto combines, as well as anyone at work today and better than most, an eye for good plants, knowledge of their ways and a sensitivity when putting them together. The result is a succession of deft, coherent and satisfying plant group- ings. There is also a short section in the book on the even newer Scree Garden, composed of a number of slightly raised beds close to the house, intended for small alPines which would be easily swamped in the broad sweeps of the Gravel Garden. Beth Chatto has always maintained that she lives in the driest part of the country in east Essex, which in some years receives °My 14 inches of rain, and rarely more than 20. This relative shortage has influ- enced her gardening style. The other great acknowledged influence is her husband, ;Andrew, who died last year. A fruit farmer °Y profession but a plant ecologist by incli- nation, he preached the importance of choosing plants suited by upbringing to the conditions available, long before it was fashionable to do so. Beth began gardening when she married More than 50 years ago, learned a great deal early on from Sir Cedric Morris, the painter and iris breeder, who lived nearby, and was in the van of postwar plantsmen/ gardeners seeking to expand the palette of ,interesting and worthwhile plants, especial- 1Y those with good foliage. She founded a nursery to sell these plants. More than a decade after she gave up exhibiting at Chelsea, her displays still represent the standard to which artistic nurserymen and women aspire.

Gravel gardens are not unusual in this country; the fine one at Denmans in West Sussex, for example, was laid out by Joyce Robinson half a century ago. But the partic- ular fascination of this one, which has made it so famous in gardening circles, is that Beth vowed never to use a hosepipe to water it artificially, but to trust instead to the mois- ture-retentive qualities of dug-in organic matter and the mulching capabilities of grav- el. Beneath is 20 feet of sedimentary gravel, before the clay stratum is reached, giving new meaning to the gardener's expression `free-draining'. Just at present, it is tempting to assume that we will never need to use hosepipes again, since short-termism affects gardeners quite as badly as politicians. How- ever, only three short years ago, in the sum- mer of 1997, we thought our reservoirs would never be full again after three hot, dry years, and it was then, as she recounts, that her resolve was tested. But she stuck it out, and the majority of the plants came through unscathed; partly because the soil was so very well prepared before planting and part- ly because they were mainly natives of rocky temperate regions, such as the Mediter- ranean littoral and Drakensberg mountains, which were suited by evolution to cope with the conditions. Many will consent to grow in richer soils also but look particularly good — compact, neat, taut, requiring little stak- ing — when restrained by thirst and near- starvation.

Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden gives an account of the erstwhile carpark through the seasons, describing plants — shrubs, perennials, bulbs, grasses, even a few trees — which make an impact and how to place them together for greatest effect. The pho- tographs, by Steven Wooster, illuminate the text, which consists essentially of Beth's notes on the garden taken over several years and put in order by Erica Hun- ningher. I particularly like the shot of Bergenia 'Mrs Crawford' in winter when the foliage turns rich deep red, partly because it is a plant she gave me last time I went to see her. (Surprisingly, for a nursery owner, she is generous with her plants.) You would not be wasting time or money if you bought the book, took careful note of the planting plans, and went to see the gar- den, which is open from 9 until 4 on week- days all through the autumn and winter. Even if your own garden has been water- logged recently, there is something worth- while to learn here.

Gravel gardens have, or ought to have, considerable allure for those who garden on heavy soils, even if they take some time and trouble to make. After all, were the river CoIne ever to burst its banks and put south- east Essex under water, the first place to dry out would be the Gravel Garden.