How A Wasteland Became One Of Essex's Loveliest Gardens

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 22 months ago

Last Updated 18 July 2022

How A Wasteland Became One Of Essex's Loveliest Gardens

Not many people could turn wasteland into something living, let alone transform it into one of the best gardens in south-east England, but Beth Chatto Gardens has gone against nature's odds to thrive.

To the horticulturally-challenged, the name Beth Chatto probably isn't familiar, but to those in green-fingered circles, the ten-times Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner is something of an idol.

Her eponymous gardens, described as "incomparable" by Monty Don, came about in 1960, when Beth and her husband Andrew built a new bungalow on wasteland which had once been part of the family fruit farm. Tricky conditions including a local microclimate with low rainfall levels meant that growing anything was far from easy, but the couple persevered.

The bungalow in which the Chattos lived

Beth Chatto OBE herself passed away in 2018, but those interested in her work can still visit her eponymous gardens, home to over 2,000 plant species and open to the public just outside Colchester in Essex. The Chattos' bungalow still sits in the centre of the gardens, surrounded by six different garden zones.

The Gravel Garden - originally a car park

Visitors begin their exploration in the Gravel Garden, born as an experiment by Chatto and her team in an area previously used as a car park. It's never been watered, and its dry soil has allowed several species of drought-tolerant plants to thrive, including the most fragrant rosebush we've ever encountered.

The Old Kiosk in the Gravel Garden

The Old Kiosk serves as a gateway to the rest of the gardens. Check the chalkboard as you wander past, as the gardeners often update it with information about which plants are currently thriving. Head down the wooden slope and onto the lawn (one of the most perfectly manicured lawns we've ever had the pleasure to step on, FYI) of the Water Garden.

In early June, alliums are abundant

A small lake, segregated by grass walkways, is surrounded by moisture-loving trees and bushes. A petite row boat floats at one edge, its untarnished woodwork suggesting it's present for ornamental rather than practical reasons.

Flora isn't the only thing thriving at Beth Chatto Gardens, as it's something of a haven for wildlife. A duck shepherds her many ducklings around the central pond, completely unperturbed by the interest their presence generates in human visitors.

The gardens are home to plenty of wildlife

Blue dragonflies hover over the water, and the lavender of the Reservoir Garden supports a crescendo of bumblebees buzzing as they go about their business, occasionally punctuated by that increasingly rare sound, real birdsong.

Throughout the gardens, almost every plant, tree, bush and flower has a label revealing its variety. Keen gardeners could spend hours reading each one, while the more casual visitor can simply revel in the beauty and tranquility of the gardens. Though children are permitted, this one feels more like a garden for the grown-ups, and not just because of the unenclosed lakes.

Views over the Water Garden

The Reflection Garden is a wonderful peaceful spot, designated as a Silent Space for reflection at certain times of the week, and the adjoining Woodland Garden is a shady haven on a warm summer day.

But for us, the beautiful Reservoir Garden is most worthy of exploration. Flowers and plants of varying colours, heights and textures vie for your attention, and while the finished effect is far from the manicured, colour blocked borders of, say, London's Royal Parks, you're left in no doubt that every plant has been intentionally chosen and precisely placed for maximum effect.

Splashes of colour in the Reservoir Garden

Our city-dwelling habits have furnished us with the most limited of horticultural vocabularies, but even we can appreciate an unusual plant — such as the Kent Pride iris, a deep red compared to the purple of its more common counterpart — when we see it.

The Kent Pride iris in the Reservoir Garden

Flower and plant beds are intersected with curving paths, allowing visitors to insert themselves into the colours and scents, rather than admiring them from the edges. Benches are dotted around, some visible, others hidden entirely until you hear a rustle in the bushes next to you, and stumble across other visitors sitting and enjoying the view.

A quiet spot to enjoy the view

The final area to be admired is the Scree Garden, located right in front of the modest bungalow where the gardens began. Less colourful than the Reservoir Garden, it houses Alpine-dwelling plants, with a charming stepped footpath leading visitors back down to the lake.

Beth Chatto's bungalow in the centre of the gardens, with the Scree Garden in front

Inspired to do something impressive with your own green space? There's an adjacent nursery selling all manner of plants, with 90% of those on offer grown on site by the Beth Chatto team. There's a cafe and small shop too, but really, Beth Chatto Gardens is a working garden first and visitor attraction second. Still, we'd be willing to bet it's one of the prettiest days out in Essex.

Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Clacton Road, Colchester, C07 7DB. There's an entrance fee to visit the gardens, but the nursery, shop and cafe can be visited for free. Pathways around the gardens are mainly lawn, so wear appropriate footwear in wet weather.

Find other places to visit and things to do in Essex (including nearby Clacton-on-Sea) or take a look at our map of ideas for day trips from London.