The first thing that strikes me on entering garden designer Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex early in the morning is the scent of herbs. Thyme? Marjoram? Sage? They are here in abundance because this sandy, non-fertile, and never-irrigated garden is just what they love.
Growing plants only in the conditions to which they are specifically suited is key to Chatto’s philosophy, developed over more than half a century of experimentation on her own fifteen acres of land. In one of her many popular gardening books, Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, she described successful techniques for drought resistant planting. Here, thriving in her own dry garden, are some of her favorite flowers:
Photographs by Kendra Wilson.
Above: A sign at the entrance to the garden reads: “The Gravel Garden is not irrigated. It is a horticultural experiment where we hope to learn which plants survive extreme conditions, as a help to all gardeners facing hosepipe bans.” (For readers outside of the UK: a hosepipe ban is a British term for water restriction regulating the use of garden hoses).
Chatto’s gravel garden was created on the site of a former car park, of just under an acre. The grass in this part of Essex–England’s driest county–used to go “toast brown” by midsummer, since the ground is made up of sand and silt. “It’s like gardening on the beach,” Chatto wrote in her book on drought-resistant planting. After moving the car park to an adjacent field 20 years ago, she plotted out her new rectangular space using hosepipes to delineate island beds. This is rather ironic if you read on.
Above: Eryngium Giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ with purple sage.
Named after the 19th century gardener Ellen Willmott (who “liked to secretly sprinkle seeds of these plants in other people’s gardens,” according to the Royal Horticultural Society), these sea hollies prefer poor soil and full sun. Bless them.
A plant in a 9-centimeter pot is £4.99 from the RHS Plant Shop. For US gardeners, Eryngium Giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ in a 4-inch pot is $7.95 from Annie’s Annuals, available seasonally.
Above: The pale pink poppy Papaver ‘Juliane’ is £4.95 from Beth Chatto Gardens; ships in September. For US gardeners, a pale pink poppy to consider is Papaver ‘Coral Reef’; a packet of 40 seeds is $3.75 from Seedman.
If the first sensation upon entering the gravel garden was the lovely scent of herbs, the second is the color. This dry garden does not look like a desert.
“I aim to make pictures with form, texture and color,” said Beth Chatto when I sat down with her in the gravel garden last summer. “However,” she added, “form and texture are more important than color.”
This is a very English garden, despite the generally desert-like conditions. Yes, there are grasses and euphorbia but also: the dark sedum ‘Ruby Glow’, nepeta, common chive, and lamb’s ears. Ordinary plants put together by an artist.
Above: Allium Nigrum is $18.25 for 25 bulbs from Brent and Becky’s. For a very wide selection of allium bulbs in the UK, try Bloms, where, for example, Allium Cristophii is available; £7.10 for ten bulbs.
Cool colors in a hot garden: allium Nigrum is planted with veronica ‘Kapitan’, stachys byzantia, and a. cristophii.
To create the gravel garden, Chatto used excellent soil. The beds were dug two spits deep and filled with homemade compost, spent mushroom compost, and ash. The plants were soaked and watered in “for the first and last time.”
Above: Parahebe Perfoliata ‘Digger’s Speedwell‘ is $7.95 for a 4-inch pot from Annie’s Annuals; available seasonally.
Drought tolerant after it is well-established, parahebe perfoliata is a spring bloomer that will repeat in early fall if deadheaded.
Repetition is key, says Chatto, to avoid a “moth-eaten carpet” effect. Yellow verbascum bombyciferum provides a useful vertical to spike through a herbaceous planting scheme which, bar the alliums, is mainly horizontal.
Above: A hardcover edition of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden is $26.69 from Amazon.
For more of the Beth Chatto Gardens see England’s Most Influential Gardener?
Finally, learn how to successfully use gravel in a hardscape project with our Hardscaping 101: Gravel guide.