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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Norma September 30, 2016 at 11:18 am

I plant for a mix of what I like, what I can afford bearing the attrition rates and what suits my soil and aspect. Bearing in mind what tends to survive and give me pleasure. I respect the reviewer for his knowledge and thoughtful analysis. If I want planrs ranged according to climate, zone etc then I go to a Botanic garden.

David McMullin September 30, 2016 at 2:33 pm

Norma, I think the name of the blog is “thinkingardens”. That implies that there is intentional discourse and critique. Your willy-nilly approach to gardening is great, but we are here to engage in a deeper conversation.

Kathy Whalen September 27, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Just returned from a visit to Beth Chatto’s garden, where this book was, not surprisingly, featured in the shop. Also prominent were the signs explaining that this is a reprint of her earlier book The Dry Garden (I think that’s the title), with a new intro and some new photos. To me, this review doesn’t make that clear. I agree with lots of what Mr Laurence says, but it’s a shame it is said in what felt like a condescending way. I think we do want reviews on here, but perhaps more even handed and measured in tone, next time. (Editor?) After all, one man’s nostalgic regression is another’s historical perspective.

annewareham September 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for this, Kathy, but I’m not sure the book itself makes its origins clear. And, given how much anodyne niceness is published in the garden world, I do prefer to let people have their say on here, provided it’s publishable and argued cogently. Xxxx

Mark Laurence September 29, 2016 at 7:32 pm

Hi Kathy, the book itself doesn’t make clear that it is a reprint and I wasn’t aware of this fact myself or I might have said things slightly differently. My over-riding sense was of the old-fashioned nature of the book; I now see that had this truly been a new book it might have been different.

As I have mentioned in another reply, I am on a personal search for greater meaning in the way we tackle dry landscaping in the UK and still strongly feel this was a book that could have said a lot more in that respect. I think there is a movement, which is not a fashion, or a fad, towards something deeper than mere ornament and I want information on that approach. This was my hope for this book, as I have said before.

Mark Laurence September 30, 2016 at 8:52 am

It turns out that it’s a reprint of “Gravel Garden” but it certainly doesn’t make this clear, as comments on Amazon have pointed out.

skr September 20, 2016 at 4:22 pm

I also wonder if this notion of ‘sense of place’ by only planting from a specific biome is really all that contemporary an idea. We could go back to Pope’s embrace of the genius loci but I think Norberg-Schultz is probably a better frame of reference and his book on the genius loci came out almost 40 years ago. To me that’s a nostalgic regression.

skr September 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm

It’s quite fascinating to hear what other people think is harmonious. But why would mixing praire perennials with yucca be disharmonious? Yucca is a prairie/savanna plant. We even have a yucca whose common name is prairie yucca. Is it that people outside of the States erroneously only see Yucca as a desert plant?

I also don’t see what the problem is with having 50 species of plant in a bed. Looking at that list I see a lot of plants that are in the same genus. Now that particular bed is a little all over the place but one way to get visual texture in a massing is to use a massing of the same species with different varieties or create a mix of similar species within a genus. A massing of one variety of Sempervivum is horribly boring. A massing with 20 types of Sempervivum has texture. What we want to avoid is the fruit salad garden with one of each.

David McMullin September 20, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Just a comment about yuccas…
Yes, unfortunately most Americans perceive the genus Yucca as being solely appropriate in arid southwestern motifs. But the genus is represented in almost all of our drier habitats in practically every corner of the continent below the coldest zones.
Where I live in Georgia there are scads of yuccas in our pine woods, open fields, roadsides, beach dunes and stone outcrops and their structure and versatility and lovely flower spires are so useful in gardens and there are many from which to choose – from diminutive to massive and many variegated and improved selections.
I digress from the topic I know, but I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to cheer for an underused and under appreciated garden plant.
And yes, they are perfectly placed in combination with prairie forbs.

Mark Laurence September 30, 2016 at 7:31 am

Hi David, interesting points you raise about the diversity of habitats for Yucca. In my article, I worded that sentence badly and was really referring to the mixing of species from different continents. I have done plenty of that in the past but am now gradually refining this by removing or re-grouping plants within my own garden. The next time I use yuccas, I will carefully study their natural habitats and plant associations. That, I guess, is the essence of what I am saying in my review. How far I, or anyone, might take this approach, is up to each individual but I think it merits consideration and I think the outcome is more powerful for it.

Andrew Wilkie September 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm

This isn’t a helpful review, in fact, it’s not really a book review at all. I would have preferred to have been informed about the contents of the book and left to make my own judgement. Instead the reviewer used it as an opportunity to demonstrate his superiority as a “modern” designer. In addition I found the self righteous tone somewhat shrill and aggravating. It made me want to dash out and load my van with broken bits of concrete slab and turn my meadows over to island beds. For the purposes of developing an argument he has set up a false opposition, criticising a garden for not being what it never aimed to be. Would we really want to see Beth Chatto pull up her conifers and bergenias, just because they didn’t figure that much at Chelsea this year? None of my favourite gardens have been designed by professionals for the consumption of magazines and clients. None.

Mark Laurence September 29, 2016 at 7:06 pm

Hi Andrew, sorry you didn’t like my review. I think you’re misunderstanding what I was trying to say. I am certainly not superior and as I made clear, I have great respect for Beth’s huge plant knowledge. Yet I stand by my search for something deeper, more profound in the way we relate to plants and use them. I want this for my own inner being, my own garden, not for shows, nor clients, it is very much a personal search and I didn’t find what I had hoped for in this book.

Ed Morrow September 17, 2016 at 8:52 pm

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read Mrs. Chatto’s most recent book (it’s on order), nor the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Chatto’s gardens first hand; but I have read (and read again and again ) Mrs. Chatto’s two previous books on dry gardens —”The Dry Garden” (1996) and “Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden” (2000). Anyone interested in drought-tolerant gardens will benefit from reading these books. Olivier Fillipi cites both books in his “The Dry Gardening Handbook”. I suspect that Mrs. Chato’s new book, more generously illustrated, will be just as beneficial to those who can’t find the older books.

Mr. Lawrence’s complaint is that Chatto’s garden has been ..”left behind by the modern movement of natural planting design and practice.” Well, so have the gardens of Le Notre and Capability Brown, but their designs and plantings still provide instruction and inspire admiration.

Mr. Lawrence, however, touches on a more subtle problem in his disappointed hope that Mrs. Chatto’s book might be the UK equivalent of M. Filippi’s new book that is focused on ground covers.

How to plant a natural, up to date, drought-resistant garden in the style favored by Mr. Lawrence is not as clear cut as one would think. The amazing gardens produced by Ouldof and others in the New Perennial movement all share the same mesic or dry-mesic plant pallet composed of mostly perennials from northern Europe or the midwest prairies in the US. This pallet, unfortunately, is a non-starter in a dry Mediterranean climate.

In California, where I live, most of the population resides in a Mediterranean coastal sage scrub environment (think of Los Angeles). We get no rain for almost six months, that’s even less rain M. Filippi gets in Mèze. A naturalistic, New Perennial style, unirrigated garden that looks good throughout the year is a California gardener’s holy grail. Judging from the pictures of the naturalistic plantings in the unwatered Gravel Garden, Mrs. Chatto’s books are a good place to start the quest.

One minor note, the raised beds, edged in the no-no recycled concrete, that are Mr. Lawrence’s modern natural-landscaper’s anathema, are in the Scree Garden, not the Gravel Garden. These were intended as demonstration beds. To quote Mrs. Chatto, “The Scree Garden has been designed to provide a home for the many small plants which would be out of scale in the main Gravel Garden.” ( “Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden”, (2000), p.163).

David McMullin September 16, 2016 at 6:04 pm

I have read Beth Chatto’s books and have visited her iconic dry garden. I too was hoping for some guidance because I committed a couple of good acres of dry sandy soil to a heavy gravel mulch and set out to grow the plants that have always intrigued me from such places and develope a discernible and cohesive design that would resonate on my rural Georgia (USA) farmland.
Unfortunately the systems Ms. Chatto put in place didn’t relate to my extremely hot, humid and extremely dry site. (80+ days over 90 degrees F and still going in mid September!)
But that’s ok by me because I immediately understand that England provides a perfect climate for growing plants and, even the most adverse of English habitats is far more accommodating to garden growing than the best that my area offers.
It is fair, Though, to remember that she is a plantswoman and her garden is in the grounds of a nursery and offers plants in display because she is selling them. A simpler planting of a few species would be contradictory to her goals.
Yes, her garden is old fashioned if you consider that she was a pioneer of the form and that it has evolved, but it’s always smart to return to the guru from time to time.

Janna Schreier September 16, 2016 at 12:06 pm

Having written a review of Beth Chatto’s garden on my blog just two days ago, it was very timely to read this today. I visited the garden for the first time last month and came away with two words on my mind. ‘Old-fashioned’ and ‘innovative’. The former was my overall impression of the design – in particular, the layout and structure – and the latter was primarily my knowledge from prior reading. Both words seemed to apply in equal measures, representing different points in time.
As Tim mentions, ‘individual’ gardens do bring something that professionally designed gardens never can and I liked this garden for it. As a designer myself, I do, however, completely agree with Mark that plants should relate to each other in as many dimensions as possible. The one flip side to this is that if we are to continually push the boundaries of garden design, sometimes we need to bring in new plants to new situations. For example, to me, Agapanthus is quintessentially Australian, as lupins are to New Zealand. Both introduced relatively recently but are now so ubiquitous they create a very strong sense of place and are perfectly (admittedly, sometimes too well) adapted to their new environments. I believe innovation, by definition, often looks a little out of place on day one, but it’s only by trying new things that we broaden our outlook and it can be necessary to go through an ‘out of place’ phase in order to come out the other side with richer and more ecologically sound ideas (that eventually look ‘in place’).
The comments on my post about Beth’s garden were all overwhelmingly positive and as designers I think we need to recognise that not everyone interested in gardens lives and breathes them quite as much as we do and that this can create a slight disconnect. I read a PhD thesis last year which had quantified the planting tastes of around 1,500 people and my key learning was that tastes change over time with continued exposure to design and that designers need to be very in tune with this, designing for their clients, not themselves. All in all, it is horses for courses. Beth’s garden may not be cutting edge today, but it’s still an immensely popular and relevant garden.

Diana Studer September 19, 2016 at 3:20 pm

interesting to read that our Agapanthus are flourishing in Australia. Back home in South Africa ‘traditional’ gardeners are losing swathes of easy low maintenance Agapanthus to caterpillars.
Changing the face of our gardens as box blight does in other countries.

Kristin Landfield September 16, 2016 at 11:53 am

I feel torn reading this review. Mr. Laurence’s interest in subtle planting communities resonates strongly with my personal design interests; however, I think there is a place for both this and a more de facto development of gardens. By which I mean the way most gardens actually progress for anyone deeply interested in cultivating plants. Many gardeners have neither the space nor the immediate resources to plant and plan with big sweeps– and let’s face it, for many it’s just too fun to bring home beguiling delights from the nursery. Understanding how to narrow the range of plantings into a palette that thrives in the particular space may be a more realistic method for the home gardener who can’t resist the clever tight vignette. In that case the design goal may be to create an overarching framework in which the plantsman’s collection can maintain intention and order. Mr. Laurence’s perspective certainly makes a compelling case for tapping into a sense of cohesion and relation beyond charming vignette. Perhaps the more useful text for the modern gardener is one that challenges us to consider such deep connectedness when selecting a constellation of plants. As I said, there is a place for both in the conversation and I appreciate Mr. Laurence’s challenge. Not yet having read Chatto’s recent book I’m not in a position to comment on whether the text seems dated. However, Chatto’s long-lived and long-loved garden must still have some wisdom to offer the modern gardener, if simply to challenge us to examine which aspects seem dated and which read as timeless 40 years after the initial vision. Certainly, those interested in modern sweeps can benefit from asking what aspects of the more current trends themselves will read as dated in 40 years. I’m grateful to have this question stimulated by Laurence’s review.

clive nichols September 16, 2016 at 10:28 am

Is this book new ? I thought she wrote this book years ago ? Or am I also behind the times ! I remember visiting and photographing her gravel garden back in the 1990’s and I thought it was amazing – before that I had only seen the usual English herbaceous borders that all looked the same – but here were sedums, alliums etc all combined in a more naturalistic way…………………………

Abbie Jury September 16, 2016 at 12:10 am

That strikes me as an ungracious review. Shame on Beth! At the age of 93, she has failed to keep up with the reviewer’s expectations of cutting-edge modern theory and style – ergo she should not have been published this time?

annewareham September 16, 2016 at 10:17 am

I think the issue is more whether the reader would want to buy the book?

Abbie September 16, 2016 at 10:39 am

I am sure the book buying public is quite capable of determining that. And it is likely they will buy it. I suspect this is more a case of “do I think the reader SHOULD want to buy this book?”

annewareham September 16, 2016 at 12:32 pm

Interesting point – do we need/want reviews at all, you think?

Diana Studer September 16, 2016 at 11:39 am

Since I haven’t and cannot visit the garden … yes the book could substitute for a feet and eyes visit. I would choose a fynbos related book for a how to manual for my own garden.

Diana Studer September 15, 2016 at 10:43 pm

coming from the South-Western Cape’s mediterranean climate, I am now curious about the Central Asian bit. I have lemon verbena for Chile. Bit wary of Australian plants as they tend to be invasive here.

Tim Ingram September 15, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Interesting review because if you read Beth Chatto’s writings she refers always to her husband and that very connection between place and plant that Mark Laurence stresses. I think this shows a distinction between an established garden and nursery made by an ‘individual’ (personal/plantsperson’s/artist’s) which very many people will relate to precisely for this reason – i.e: something they can consider making themselves – and ‘garden and landscape design/architecture’ which is broader in concept and less personal. There is huge artistry in Beth Chatto’s garden – it is a work of Art – which is surely its great underlying quality, not something of the past that plantsmanship is moving on from as Mark puts it, but the way a garden/a planting evolves as much from the individual as it does from wider ecological concepts and rigour. I can see that gardens move on inevitably, like any form of Art, but it takes something special to move on from a garden as remarkable as Beth Chatto’s!

Katherine Crouch September 15, 2016 at 6:15 pm

ah, the discord of ill matched plants. I shamelessy plant for beauty and am restricting my tendency to plant too many kinds into a scheme (the clients sometimes neglect the result to bring the planting down to ideal numbers). I do not often consider the origins of species before place, character, scale and texture. However, conifers and bergenias are two plants I cannot recall the last time I bought. Just seen a garden locally with bamboos neatly bordered with heathers – no, no and thrice no! And broken paving border edges….groan….

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