Beth Chatto has undoubtedly been the most influential British gardener of the last half-century. It seems obvious now, but back in 1960 when she started her garden at Elmstead Market in Essex, the idea that garden plants thrive best in situations similar to their original natural environment was a novel one. Beth’s earliest books for gardeners say it all: The Damp Garden, The Dry Garden, The Shade Garden.
But how did Beth know what to plant and where, in her rather challenging garden (much of it too dry, to wet or too shady for conventional gardening)? The answer was that Beth relied heavily on her late husband Andrew’s knowledge of plant ecology. Those in the garden world knew that Andrew spent a lot of time researching the writings of plant hunters, travellers, scientists – in French and German, and that he taught himself Russian, in order to read the literature on the plant ecological associations of the vast USSR where many good garden plants come from.
Now, thanks to the Internet, and some enthusiastic typists, we can all read what Andrew Chatto wrote. When he died in 1990 he left behind some half a million words on the plants and ecology of most of the temperate world. Not just notes, but eloquently, at times poetically, written text. He would take a place: Japan, the Altai Mountains, The Caucasus, and trawling through a great many sources would summarise the climate, a basic description of the vegetation and list of prominent plants, especially the ancestors of garden plants. When Beth got hold of a new plant he could look it up and tell her where it came from and what its habitat was like. So…. the idea of ‘the right plant for the right place’ was born.
For many years, Beth wondered and worried about what to do with Andrew’s text. She discussed it with well-known garden writer Noel Kingsbury, who suggested that he could help. A note in the newsletter of the Hardy Plant Society brought forward 55 responses, from which he selected eight to type up the notes into a digital format – mostly retired people, skilled copy-typists, all familiar with scientific plant naming. The next stage was to put the text online, so that anyone can read it. It is hoped that in the future plant names can be checked and brought up to date. It is also possible that the Andrew Chatto papers could be the basis of a Wiki-project, whereby others might continue the research into the natural homes of plants enabling us to give them the conditions to which they have become adapted, especially with global warming in mind.
Gardeners reading Andrew Chatto’s work will understand so much more of where their plants come from. Anyone who travels with an interest in ecology or plant life or just wild places will find much to interest them, and perhaps to provide them with a way of understanding what they see. They will do so in the knowledge that Andrew Chatto put in place what before would have involved a whole library.
Andrew Chatto’s research can be found at http://www.bethchatto.co.uk/.