In continuation of our Roots & Radicles event series, back in October the Young Propagators Society assembled at Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens. Our speakers were John Little, designer, author, green roof and brownfield expert and all-round visionary, and the Gardens’ own Head Gardener, Åsa Gregers-Warg. In addition we were treated to a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the nursery and prop areas by David Ward, Garden and Nursery Director and also Trustee of the Beth Chatto Education Trust. We were also delighted to be joined by Beth’s granddaughter, Julia Boulton, who does sterling work as the Gardens’ Managing Director, and who across the day very kindly shared some of her own memories of the garden and of course of Beth herself.
Left to right: John Little, Åsa Gregers-Warg, and David Ward
We kicked things off with John’s talk in the beautiful Willow Room, accompanied by some truly excellent biscuits (thanks Dave). John’s enthusiasm is infectious, and listening to him speak is captivating because of how he knits together his wide-ranging expertise not only as a designer but also as an experienced gardener, wildlife expert, policy critic - I’d settle on ‘innovator’ as the best word to describe him, but ‘provocateur’ would not be far behind...
Having dedicated many years to maintenance gardening in East London, John began by noting the system changes that are needed to move us to a new paradigm, away from the tyranny of the ubiquitous strimmer (where 'maintenance' is equated to wantonly cutting back). He spoke passionately of the need to essentially invert funding models, committing the bulk of funds towards continued maintenance by skilled horticulturists rather than one-off cash allocations for ‘shiny’ new projects which are unlikely to have been co-created with the community. This was not the only resonance between John’s words and what Carole Wright and Richard Choksey explored at our previous Roots & Radicles, on community gardening: John also talked of how currently the nature of typical maintenance work does not encourage any engagement with residents of the estates managed, but that there are both horticultural and social rewards for fostering this relationship.
Here’s John giving an example of how, inspired by conversations with local people, he introduced a favourite plant for them:
John’s idea of making use of the existing structure of the railings is a perfect illustration of his resourcefulness, and he expanded on the role of physical structures in landscape design later in his talk.
Questioning the status quo and seeing opportunities in unexpected places is something John proposed may be down to his not having followed a traditional education in horticulture - food for thought, though I suspect whatever environment John might have found himself in, he would always have had radical tendencies! Throughout the day it seemed so fitting to have these conversations in the embrace of Beth Chatto’s Gardens - after all, as Åsa illustrated in her own talk later, Beth herself repeatedly faced censure for her own joyful experiments, wildly before their time. I think particularly of the story of when Beth first entered RHS shows and was almost disqualified for showing ‘weeds’; now much-beloved plants in many a garden.
Seeing the potential of the unappreciated was a running theme, as John gave the example of how - distracted by our obsession with ‘scraps of ancient woodland’ or meadow - we overlook the potential of new landscapes for supporting wildlife. He cites ex-dumping ground (of dredging waste) Canvey Wick, now one of the most biodiverse areas in the whole of the UK, noting that a full 20% of SSSIs are located on ex-sites of mineral extraction such as chalk pits.
Alternative substrates to soil is one of John’s areas of expertise (which reminded me very much of Tom Freeth telling us about 'pumice prop' at our very first Roots & Radicles at Chelsea Physic), and he brought along a cornucopia of samples he says all support strong and healthy plant growth, the most bonkers of which was probably the ceramic mix made of crushed up toilets and sinks:
What's inspiring about listening to John talk is his conviction that system change is possible if we first broaden our perspectives then set our minds to it. Here he waxes lyrical about the overlooked potential of road embankments, and describes how thanks to recent policy change, they could become rich new habitats for plant- and wildlife, all while saving costs:
Indeed, like all the best innovators, John's experiments begin at home, where he is continually trialling new media for plant growth which in turn create habitats for wildlife.
A recent feature he's created in his own garden are some 'piles of sand' (purchased from waste from the very same A13-widening project), now providing habitats to more than 20 species (at the last count) of solitary bee.
He also referenced the Great Dixter Biodiversity Audit, noting that biodiversity is not only boosted by the year round buffet of flowering plants providing food, nor the (beneficial) disturbance to the landscape by gardening processes, but it is also the structural diversity provided by old barns and buildings which adds complexity and in turn supports biodiversity.
He returned to this idea with the example (supported by this study: 'Litter provides habitat for diverse animal communities in rivers') of discarded shopping trolleys in waterways as a fantastic habitat for all kinds of creatures, given many of the natural structural complexity such as fallen tree limbs or mixed water plant communities are often lacking. What if we capitalised on those findings and intentionally designed that structural diversity into the landscapes we create?
Here's more on John's vision inspired by shopping trolleys:
The idea of designing art for animals (like John's example of a sculpture which is intentionally a habitat) is such an intriguing one - it prompted me to think of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg's new project at the Eden Project, 'Pollinator Pathway' which uses algorithmic design to create a garden optimised specifically for pollinators, both in layout and planting. Our next Roots & Radicles event (later this week on 5th March, in East Sussex - details here) will explore the links between gardening, art and creativity - so maybe this is something we'll have time to explore further then.
John's ideas definitely raise the question of authorship and responsibility: since we're unavoidably agents in the landscape - manipulating it, unbalancing it, disrupting it - can we make our influence on other life around us a positive one? Especially since we're already responsible for the destruction of many of the naturally occurring features which sustain life.
With that in mind, John rhapsodised on intentionally badly pruned trees and dead-hedges as examples of how we can try to artificially construct some of that lost natural structure:
'In the right place, badly pruning trees is the best thing for wildlife [...] often, dead trees are better than live trees. Because we've got a lot of live trees, and very few dead trees standing, and this is what we're missing as a habitat. It's one of those counterintuitive things'
Left: a tree John is experimenting with in his own garden - he clarifies he's 'not trying to kill this one, just make it a bit unhappy'. To the right is an example of John's showing how dead hedges can be a design feature as well as a sustainable use of materials and habitat.
Photo credits: John Little
John is clear that considering the needs of other forms of life even in human-centred landscape design is something that must be baked in from the very beginning of the process - if something's deemed necessary for the humans in the landscape, how can we make it beautiful, and especially how can we make it serve a purpose for the rest of the living landscape too? Here's John talking on bin stores, bike shelters and bird hides (do check out his Grass Roof Company for more examples):
And here he describes collaboration at the construction stage and re-use of local materials to create open mosaic habitat in a car park:
That probably sums up John's approach: a zeal for spotting opportunities in even the most surprising places, mixed with a certain disregard for the status quo - a kind of 'iconoclasm with a purpose' - and all meticulously researched, referenced, and trialled.
The horticultural potential of car parks is a topical segue since after John's talk, we set off with Åsa for a tour of Beth's world-renowned Gravel Garden, which itself used to be a car park.
Åsa explained that where the Gardens are located in Essex it is in fact one of the driest parts of the UK, with average rainfall of 20 inches, roughly on par with Israel! Although soil conditions vary widely across the whole site (which includes for example the shady Woodland Garden, boggy Water Garden etc), in the case of the Gravel Garden, this consists of very sandy, stony soil to a depth of 5-6 metres, below which is clay. What this adds up to is that growing conditions in the Gravel Garden are famously dry and free-draining.
'Beth really wanted to show people that you can create a beautiful garden that doesn't need irrigation. So it all comes down to a bit of soil preparation, and also the plant choices - that's really the key thing'
Åsa on the origins of the Gravel Garden
Åsa described how Beth originally created the garden in 1991/92, removing the turf and then using a subsoiler to break up the heavily compacted ground (due to its life as a car park). In this audio clip she also talks about the role of organic matter and the importance of getting the balance of this right:
With the gravel acting as a moisture-retaining mulch - and becoming the perfect germination ground - it was interesting (and slightly terrifying) to learn that there is no weed-suppressing membrane used anywhere in the Gravel Garden. Here Åsa expands on the challenges of managing a garden that tends to cheerfully propagate itself in situ:
There are other aesthetic challenges too. Though people sometimes think of the Gravel Garden planting as 'Mediterranean', Åsa points out this is a misnomer, as the plants come from all over the world, including South Africa, North America, Australia etc. The common theme is of course Beth's ethos - 'right plant, right place' - what all these international plants share is their preferred growing conditions. In practice, this means many of the plants used have special adaptations to prevent water loss, such as foliage which is silvery, hairy, succulent or smaller-leaved. Here Asa describes how to achieve variation and balance given these restrictions:
Even though these plants are well-adapted to dry conditions, Åsa outlined the approaches they use to ensure that they thrive:
The mulch is topped up 'at least once a year' - usually after getting a big 'winter weed' done, cutting things back to see what's there and removing unwanted self-seeded plants. Inevitably this is when some gravel is unavoidably removed or dislodged, so it's after this that it is usually topped up, though it's also added to on an ad hoc basis throughout the year.
Åsa explained that one problem is that since the gravel on the paths is the same as the
gravel around the planting - which does of course contribute to the Gravel Garden's particularly beautiful, undulating sightlines - visitors can unwittingly trample plants underfoot, not realising they've strayed into the borders. Here Åsa talks about some of the ways they mitigate this:
After Åsa's talk, and a quick pause, we went on for some brilliant tours of the rest of the Gardens with Åsa and of the nursery and propagation areas with Dave, peppered with anecdotes about Beth, like her granddaughter Julia talking of spending her summer holidays riding her bike around the site, watched over by her 'very tolerant' grandmother!
It was during the Gardens tour that Åsa described how it can in fact be a positive way to engage visitors if interpretation or information signs are added, for example to advise them not to step onto an area where there are dormant bulbs hidden in the ground ready to appear later in the season, or to explain about an aspect of maintenance such as reseeding areas or chopping plants to reinvigorate fresh growth. Not only does it allow visitors to learn about the life of the garden and all the work that goes into it, but it can also engage them in the continued transformation of the garden over time, e.g. bringing them back to visit when the bulbs will be in bloom. On the tour of the nursery and prop areas too, Dave told us that online in the Plant Shop they always specify 'propagating' or 'growing on' rather than simply saying 'out of stock'. It was thinking about how much care is taken over these small details that gave an insight into why Beth Chatto's Plants & Gardens continues to be so fiercely cherished by its visitors and customers.
For a garden that's now 30 years old, it was fascinating to hear about how the Gravel Garden has changed over that time, partly due to how much richer the soil was in its earlier years due to the manure Beth had incorporated, which supported much more lush growth and allowed plants such as Achillea to thrive more readily than today. New plants have been introduced over the years, including real showstoppers such as Romneya coulteri, or the silken feathers of Stipa barbata, neither of which were part of the original planting. In any case there's no such thing as a garden which stays the same, and neither should there be. Additionally, as climate change affects weather patterns, the planting will continue to be tested, and tweaked accordingly.
On Dave's amazing nursery tour we learnt a lot then too about continual experiments and improvements to their propagation methods in keeping with changing times, including some smart new buildings, using recyclable taupe pots instead of non-recyclable black, changing to an entirely peat-free potting mix, and trials for peat-free propagation mix. It was not at all surprising to hear that ideas and results for these kinds of trials are regularly discussed with other nurseries, since often the only thing horticultural types like sharing more than prop material is knowledge.
Here's Dave talking about moving to a peat-free potting mix, and Beth's love of grit:
Dave and Åsa shared a lot more on their tours, and there was plenty of ideas-sharing among the rest of the group too! Åsa had earlier talked of the origins of the Gardens as part of Beth and her husband Andrew's fruit farm, and noted that Beth herself was 'very fortunate early on to have such good gardening friends' to share ideas and indeed cuttings with, such as artist and iris breeder Cedric Morris, and of course the great Christopher Lloyd (of which a new issue of their correspondence is now available). Walking around the Gardens today, it's almost impossible to believe the site was once considered 'desolate wasteland':
‘Most of it was deemed unsuitable for growing anything in. It's quite amazing to see how much times have changed, and how general attitudes have changed. Beth and Andrew were really pioneers’
Åsa on the creation of the Gardens
All in all, it was a masterclass in thinking differently - and what could be more fitting at such a location? Thank you so much again to John, Åsa, Dave, Julia and everyone who came along and made it such an inspiring and enjoyable time.
Hope you can join us at a future Roots & Radicles!