The Lesson of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden

September 29, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

Troy Scott-Smith  suggested that Andrea Russo and Paola Avesani would be good people to review Beth Chatto’s latest book Drought Resistant Planting. It turned out that language problems were going to make that difficult, so instead they wrote a piece for thinkingardens about their interest in learning from Beth Chatto’s garden.

Anne Wareham, editor

Small Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes

 

 

 

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THE LESSON OF THE BETH CHATTO’S GRAVEL GARDEN: HOMEWORK OF TWO ITALIAN STUDENTS.

It was exactly on August 15th 2009: Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden was to be the final leg of a journey in search of sustainable gardening techniques: maximum scenic and aesthetic effect, minimal use of water resources, elimination of chemicals. In the earlier days we were at Knoll gardens, Denmans, Wisley, Marks Hall and Hyde Hall. In particular Hyde Hall’s dry garden was an introduction to the study tour of Beth Chatto’s drought tolerant scheme.

The test garden that Paola, my other half, and I created from scratch, Ca’ dei Gabri, began to take its first steps in 2006, inspired by a course on grasses performed by UK based Italian garden designer Daniele Altieri. The two first examples that inspired us were the new perennial planting and English cottage garden, but the particular climatic conditions and the soil structure of the Veneto Po Valley had immediately put a strain on either the plants and our forces, physical and economical.

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The main problem has been the long summers, which are typically scorching and with limited rainfall. Even watering profusely, the plants remain in obvious pain and any attempt to bring them back to their best is often a lost battle. We deadheaded the flowers as soon as they started to decline and also tried leaf  reduction to limit evapotranspiration, but the plants still couldn’t cope with the adverse climatic conditions. As a last resource, a late Chelsea chop, in mid-July, regenerates most suffering perennials, but with the unwanted result of dramatically changing  the ratio of the masses and the composition of the area textures.

Our stony ground doesn’t help us, being composed for the first 30-40 cm. of silt and sand with gravel presence. The gravel becomes more and more abundant as we dig. We do not have water logging problems, but the soil’s characteristics significantly affect both cultivation techniques and the border management.

The use of plenty of mulch among the plants is the practice: we leave everything on the ground, from the cutting of grasses and herbaceous in late February, and the various prunings during the course of the season. Irrigation has been reduced to a minimum: we use rainwater stored in two large underground tanks for a single weekly cycle, distributing it in borders through drip tubing, only if necessary and only in specific areas.

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Last variable, the plants: all those wonderful perennials and shrubs selected in books and international magazines have hardly given us an interesting and pleasant garden for 12 months a year. From late May to late August, there is an aesthetic-functional gap due to many wilted plants. In the best cases it is an untidy picture. The luckiest plants spend the fall in slow recovery.

The desire to experiment with plantings of permanent herbaceous perennials, characterised by modest water requirements, able to cope with temperatures of 38°C and still beautiful even after weeks without rainfall was now urgent. To garden with Mediterranean and aromatic plants was the main and most obvious option, but the horticultural experiments with herbaceous perennials conducted by Beth Chatto deserved a careful look. The opportunity to study a mature garden, in the period of maximum water stress, with that particular selection of plants and the possibility of being able to buy directly into the adjoining nursery, was an unmissable opportunity.

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We spent hours in the Gravel Garden taking notes on the compositions and combinations of plants, deconstructing the associations we saw there and mentally reinterpreting them according to our personal ideas; we were having great fun with imagining new associations, knowing that, once back home, we would have dealt with a very different soil and climatic conditions.

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A few meters from us there was the dream of every gardener: the nursery, that we ‘looted’ with enthusiasm, choosing plants that we considered to have the best performance in the hottest months, hoping that they would be suitable for our tests in Italy. We were aware that the 2000 kilometers to the south that separated our site in Italy from Essex could have made the difference. And what a difference it made.

For all that we took all the care and attention possible in the planting process, Ca’ dei Gabri garden reacted aggressively to the new British plants. Increasingly hot summers (average of 34°C with peaks of 41°C), and fewer rainy days (up to 39 days without rain recorded in the summer of 2012) certainly didn’t help. In the non-irrigated section (180 sqm.) there was a widespread die-off of ‘drought resistant’ perennials which forced us to look at our observations again and rethink the borders. In other parts of the garden irrigated with drip we got a survival of all the plantings, even if compromised in their integrity and beauty – and also reached the bottom of the large underground tanks,

The lesson of Beth Chatto is clear: the conditions and characteristics of the place where you work are binding. The ‘right plants in the right place’, beyond the fads and whims of style, is the guide phrase that sets up an endless search, based on observation of the critical site, understanding their nature, the soil composition, and the cyclical nature of the weather.

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Above all, it is critical to see the plants not as plants – not as flowers. Where were they originally from? Which are the growing needs? How is the root system? Shape, texture, structure? Is it interesting all year long? These are the questions Beth Chatto had set for each plant in her Gravel Garden and that generated a continuous control and editing process of the border, in order to always have the best for the garden at that particular site.

The garden is constantly evolving, it changes, it adapts to the changes; we have the duty to follow it and care for it over the years. You plant, you move, you change and eventually you have to have the courage to delete and start again, without thinking too much.

Andrea Russo and Paola Avesani

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David Feix October 6, 2016 at 4:53 am

The obvious selection process would have looked to use plants from similar summer dry and hot climates, in particular those from Italy itself and other similar areas throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Particular attention to looking for plants adapted to sandy/gravelly soils. From practice with similar conditions and even longer dry season, it also makes more sense to plant at the beginning of the rainy season (late fall), to get plants best established before the long summer dry season. Best practices also include mulch, mulch and more mulch, particularly if water is unavailable to irrigate with drip irrigation.

It would seem like the approach of the Beth Chatto’s Garden would be more important than the specific plants used, unless they were researched sufficiently to determine that they would do okay in Italy as well. No point getting seduced by particular plants if they won’t adapt to the cultivation and climate one has/can provide. So many great Mediterranean species to choose from, as well as plants from the other Mediterranean climate zones around the world, plus the adjacent deserts. If you can’t water, or have soil such as the Chatto Garden which is tough on mesic loving plants, the lessons from her garden are to look for plants which can take what you’ve got. Fall planting, mulching, adding organic content to the soil are the other key components for success in a hot, dry garden with gravelly soils. In any case, it sounds like it was a learning experience, even if at first not all that successful.

charles hawes October 2, 2016 at 10:14 am

This was a very interesting piece. I really liked the open and honest way in which you acknowledge what sounds, overall, like a failed experiment. Dry Britain is so different from dry Mediterranean and planting regimes have to accept that. I have just come back from a week in Tuscany. Their grey landscape says it all. And yet walking in their woods I found a wonderful diversity of species. Moral; look first to the “natural” landscape before considering the choice of garden plants?

Annette October 1, 2016 at 10:57 am

Dear both, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your article especially as I’m living in an area with very hot and dry summers. This year we were without any significant rainfall for over 3 months and this combined with temperatures around 30/33°C and a desert wind really got me spinning. I’m writing a book on drought resistant gardens at the moment and realize that all literature on this topic has to be considered very carefully as conditions are different everywhere and what works for one, might not work for another person. No doubt you know Filippi’s books and I very much appreciate his work and thoughts but as I’m not strictly gardening in a Mediterranean climate (but almost), I have to pick my way through the design of my new garden on my own. Trial and error and watching very closely what’s growing -and most of all doing well!- around me. Delighted about the rain now, it’s great to see things waking up after their summer hibernation. It’s possible to have a year round beautiful garden in our climate but it certainly isn’t as easy as for our UK friends. Wishing you all the best for your project(s) x

Katherine Crouch September 30, 2016 at 11:02 am

we are such lucky gardeners in Britain, with a temperate climate ranging from Arctic on the Cairngorms to frost-free in the maritime far South West and a good selection of plants for these places and everything in between. It is most interesting to hear of adventures in horticultural beauty in harsher climates.

Diana Studer September 29, 2016 at 10:44 pm

that last – eventually you have to have the courage – is the really hard bit.

That heated battle, delicate balance, between the happy thugs that flourish and smother the opposition and but I SO wanted that sad plant to be happy here!

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