Old Fashioned? Review by Mark Laurence

September 15, 2016

in Book Reviews, Reviews

One of the earliest books I bought was Beth Chatto’s ‘The Dry Garden’  (1978) – no idea why since I garden in the wet West. (I did buy ‘The Damp Garden’ too though.) Dry gardens are still her theme thirty eight years later. Wonder if you’d be better off with the first one?

This review will be followed next by a post by two Italians who visited Beth Chatto’s to learn about – drought proof planting. Is it best to actually visit her garden? (see also Tim Richardson)

Anne Wareham, editor

Small Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes



PS I understand from our Comments (below) – thank you Kathy Whalen – that this book is actually a reissue of “The Dry Garden”.


Drought Resistant Planting by Beth Chatto, reviewed by Mark Laurence.

I looked forward to reviewing this book and was excited when it arrived.  As a landscape designer whose garden is on a gravel soil with sections of old driveway under my “dry garden” area, I thought this book would be very useful.  I was quickly disappointed by it however. I consider it to be armchair reading for those who like to hear of other people’s garden stories, rather than a book for those wanting useful information.  Whilst there is undoubtedly much knowledge presented in the book, you have to wade through so much that finding what you want to know becomes a matter of chance.

I have a very great respect for Beth Chatto and consider her a very great plants-person but the story of this garden has been told in previous books and the context and content felt old-fashioned, left behind by the modern movement of natural planting design and practice.  Information that I seek regarding modern plant selection for dry gardens (and I sometimes have to dig up old tarmac driveway to plant into a free-draining alluvial soil) takes searching to a level that is served better by books such as “Planting Design for Dry Gardens” by Olivier Filippi, a book I will review in due course.  That book is cutting and current, although Mediterranean-focused and I had hoped this book might be a UK equivalent.  Suffice to say it is not.

Why is it “old-fashioned”?  I think that Beth has spent many years finding out what grows for her and I get the sense that there is little concern for creating groupings of plants that have any dialogue or connection between them other than visual attractiveness; by that I mean there is no acknowledgement or placing of plants from a sense of climate-type or geographical location.  Whilst we all have different gardening aims, I firmly believe that to create a sense of connection to a place, the plant groupings should have a certain deeper relationship.

Conifers and bergenias en-masse do not resonate well together, placing this composition firmly in the past.

To illustrate this, there are six Mediterranean zones around the world –  in most of California, parts of southwestern Australia, southwestern South Africa, sections of central Asia, central Chile and of course, the Mediterranean basin region. It becomes easy therefore to mix these different groupings and they have a climatic if not geographical relationship, but even then not everything automatically relates.

Planting Yucca next to Protea or Cistus might not give the best harmonics; mixing temperate plants or prairie perennials in with them definitely brings disharmony, even when they tolerate the same conditions.  Perhaps this is the difference between creating a garden over a landscape, or of being a plants-person rather than a designer, but for the kind of planting we need in the 21st century I find too much mixing of different plant-types here.

I know they all share an ability to survive the dry conditions but to create deeper meaning, we should feel deeper into the subject, moving beyond mere foliage contrast or other simple aesthetic.  Plants that originate from a defined region and relate to the same conditions somehow resonate to a higher vibrancy when placed together. In a well grouped planting I find this quite tangible.  I’m not being purist in any strict botanical sense – far from it – I’m just wanting a more rewarding and subtle experience.

Next there are aspects of garden layout and design and here the book really shows its age.  This again illustrates the difference between a plants-person’s garden and a designed landscape.  Modern design practice amalgamates the two far better than we see here, as evidenced by the photos of island borders edged with broken concrete slabs.  No.  I mean, just NO.  I’m all for recycling and repurposing materials (and indeed have long pioneered sustainability and materials re-use) but not in this way.


We just don’t do this anymore: there are better ways to edge a border.  In fact we don’t need borders.

Finally, the hand drawn illustrations and groupings of plants are straight out of the 1970’s.  When today we are debating the merits of drift planting verses repeated intermingling of complimentary species, small island borders with over fifty species in may be a plant-person’s delight but are a modern natural-landscaper’s anathema.


Things have moved on from this style of plant arrangement, there are just too many species and cultivars.

All in all, a well-illustrated book that looks back and celebrates past achievements but which doesn’t advance the cause of the modern drought-tolerant gardener.  New books need to point the way forward to help create better landscapes and gardens and unfortunately this book doesn’t do that.

Mark Laurence


Mark_Laurence-5 Portrait

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