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Obituary: Beth Chatto OBE VMH

The acclaimed plantswoman died on 13 May, leaving the legacy of her famous garden and books

Beth Chatto OBE VMH, the acclaimed gardener, writer and plantswoman, died peacefully at home in Elmsead Market, Essex, with her family by her side, on the evening of 13th May 2018, aged 94.

In a gardening career spanning six decades, her many awards included 10 successive Gold Medals at RHS Chelsea, the Victoria Medal of Honour, and the RHS Lawrence Medal, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Garden Writers Guild, and two honorary doctorates, from Essex University and Anglia Ruskin University. In 2002, Chatto was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours, and her most recent honour came in 2014 when she received The John Brookes Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Garden Designers. The Beth Chatto Gardens and her gardening ethos will continue through the work of the Beth Chatto Education Trust, established to inspire the next generation of gardeners.

Chatto was born on 27 June 1923 in Good Easter, Essex. She trained to be a teacher at Hockerill College, and in the early 1940s, she met fruit farmer Andrew Chatto. Their shared love of plants brought them together and they married in 1943. A close neighbour, Mrs Pamela Underwood, who ran a nursery, encouraged her to become involved with flower arranging; and she learned about plants from Sir Cedric Morris. By the late 1950s, she persuaded her husband to build a house on part of his fruit farm at Elmstead Market. The site, with its slope from dry gravelly soil to a boggy, stream-fed ditch gave her the combination of conditions on which to create what has become one of the most famous gardens in the world. 

In 1967, she opened a small nursery called ‘Unusual Plants’. Although she claimed never to have coined the phrase ‘right plant, right place’, this was always the abiding tenet of her planting philosophy. The gardens and nursery soon became a place of pilgrimage for keen gardeners. In 1978, she wrote her first book, The Dry Garden, and in 1982 The Damp Garden. Her Gravel Garden, on the site of the old car park, was to become her most famous achievement, displaying plants carefully chosen to cope with ultra-dry conditions which have never been watered other than by light Essex rainfall.

She leaves behind her two daughters, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. The garden and nursery continue to thrive under the direction of Beth’s granddaughter, Julia Boulton.

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