Right Plant, Right Place!

The Beth Chatto Garden in Elmstead Market, near Colchester, is one of the “must-see” gardens in the United Kingdom. I find it difficult to put the sensation I felt on my first visit to there. There was an immediate sense that this was right; that it all fitted together; that this was a garden comfortable in its surroundings where design, plants and landscape were a perfect fit. It was love at first sight for me and it is a reaction and assessment which remains true to this day.

Beth Chatt's Shade Garden
A spot in the woodland garden – Photograph from Steven Wooster

Beth Chatto exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and won gold medals for ten consecutive years before devoting her energies to the creating of her garden, plant nursery, lecturing and writing. The garden was in that corner of their land which was considered not good enough to farm, which left her with several problem areas which she tackled in turn and transformed into a garden of outstanding quality and beauty. Areas of bramble, woodland, parched gravel beds and swampy ditches were tackled, were areas for her experimentation and the inspiration for her books and her most frequently quoted garden saying – “the right plant for the right place”

 Of course, we now have the benefit of Beth Chatto’s years of experiment and experience which furnishes us with a whole range of planting suggestions and saves us the many frustrating mistakes which can be so discouraging. “Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest” first appeared as “Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden” in 2002 when she recounted the development of a new woodland garden following the devastation of the 1987 storm.


 We may not all have a woodland area in our garden but every garden will have an area of similar conditions – a bed to the north of the house, a wall or a hedge or in the shade of shrubs or trees – and it can be a challenge to find plants which do well in such conditions. This book gives wide range of planting suggestions, perhaps not comprehensive, which guide the gardener to make a success of the challenge. On reflection, one aspect of this book which struck me very strongly was the quality of the advice and suggestions given and that they were given with honest and forthright comments on how the plants had performed in her own garden, including difficulties and failures, renewed efforts and eventual successes.

Beth Chatto's Tiarella cordifolia
A woodland scene at the Beth Chatto garden featuring Tiarella cordifolia. Photograph from Steven Wooster.

This edition has a foreword from David Ward who is the Garden and Nursery Director at the gardens before moving through the year in a series of chapters:”Starting the Wood Garden, “Awakenings”, “Spring Enchantment”, “Early Summer Profusion”, “High Summer”, “Autumn Sunlit Openings” and finishing with “The Depths of Winter”. A substantial list of “Shade Tolerant Plants” concludes with comments, advice and remarks on performance in the garden. She sums up her seasonal journey through the shade garden stating clearly that the flowers will be in the early part of the year – bluebells, anemones, celandines, ramsons etc – and it is foliage which carries the show on through the year when “what has been unassuming takes on the leading role.”

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 Along with her often quoted “right plant, right place” there are several other gems through the book which give a succinct insight into Beth Chatto’s gardening philosophy and practice:

  “Put simply, my principles of gardening are to provide plants with the kind of conditions for which Nature has fitted them, to arrange them in planned groups, covering the ground with foliage for as long as possible and providing interest with bold plants” and, on similar lines, : “I try to follow nature, not copy her.”

 For us, readers and gardeners, I think that should we both follow and copy Beth Chatto’s advice in this book our gardens will be the more beautiful for it.

 A final comment: the photography throughout, by Steven Wooster, is excellent!

 Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year Round Interest, Pimpernel Press, 2017, Hardback 232 pages, £30.00, ISBN: 978-1-9102-5822-4

Paddy Tobin







The Spring Thaw!

It began in the first week of October, reached its peak in mid February and should be finished by mid March. This is the annual snowdrop season when interest in the garden is almost completely provided by this one species. Being one of the very few plants in flower it is the one to catch the eye and the attention during these otherwise bleak winter months.

Galanthus reginae olgae 'Tilebarn Jamie' (4)
Galanthus reginae olgae ‘Tilebarn Jamie’ flowers in the first week of October – in the glasshouse as this Greek species does not thrive in our open garden as our summers are not dry nor hot enough. In the glasshouse it can be well “baked” and will flower within a month of being watered in early September.

The reason they endear themselves to people are simple and obvious – they flower when little else is in flower and in spite of the worst weather conditions of our gardening year. However, at this end of their six month season, I do not regret their passing and look forward to the flush of new growth which comes with warmer days.

I wonder if the current interest in snowdrops echoes the era of tulip mania when bulbs sold for enormous sums of money. We see similarly exorbitant prices nowadays on snowdrop bulbs. Even the more common and cheaper varieties sell for around €10 per bulb while more newly introduced and novel varieties may cost several hundred euros per bulb. I imagine that it is a bubble sure to collapse at some stage – the prices are based on current interest rather than on any intrinsic value in the snowdrops themselves, a pure supply and demand situation: there are many people interested in snowdrops at the moment and the small supply of new and interesting varieties does not match the demand and this leads to high prices.

Galanthus plicatus ‘E. A. Bowles’ is a rather special snowdrop. It was found in the grounds of Myddleton House, the home of the renowned gardener and garden writer, E. A. Bowles and is unusual also for its shape – with all six segments of the same size. It is presently one in very high demand and, consequently, of a high price so when a friend sent it as a gift it was especially welcome and greatly appreciated.

Of course, in parallel to this snowdrop market traditional gardening practices continue apace where gardeners share their snowdrops with other enthusiasts and friends and snowdrops received in this manner have a value far beyond their monetary price.

A phenomenon I notice with people new to growing/collecting snowdrops is that they often have the most recently released snowdrops – which come at a high price – but might not grow the old reliable varieties which have proven themselves as good garden plants, grown for decades and longer, and still worth their place in the garden among the newcomers.

The thaw will continue for this year; it will soon be time to lift some bulbs to post to friends and to look forward to our post woman bringing packages of new snowdrops for our garden and then we will have six months to dream of how they will look when they flower in the next snowdrop season!

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A random selection of snowdrops which have proved themselves in the garden and which are not expensive!

Paddy Tobin

Snowdrops at Altamont Gardens

Few gardens survive the death of their creator. They will be changed by those who follow them, who will garden in their own way, with their own enthusiasms, likes and dislikes so that the vision of the creator gets gradually fudged and eventually lost. This is a criticism regularly levelled at National Trust properties in the United Kingdom; that the gardens are managed to a corporate formula and lack individuality. There is some truth in this criticism, almost an inevitable truth and while a visit to such a garden may well be very enjoyable there is a certain disappointment of not seeing it in the hands of the original gardener.

Altamont (2)

Altamont Gardens, outside Ballon in Co. Wexford, was the creation of the late Mrs. Corona North and is now in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW). It is almost twenty years since Mrs. North passed away (7th February, 1999) and it is to the great credit of those who garden Altamont now, particularly Head Gardener, Paul Cutler, who worked with Mrs. North, that Altamont is still in the spirit of its creator. Were she to walk into her garden today I believe her reaction would be one of delight that her garden was being kept so very well. She would recognise it as still quite clearly her garden – dare I say, now a little better maintained – and certainly still loved and tended and her special plants still growing well.

Altamont merits several visits each year and, while I love it in all seasons, I especially love to visit for the snowdrops in February. The annual Snowdrop Week is now a well established event in the Irish gardening calendar and one which is loved by the many visitors who attend and this is very easy to understand. The gardens are so well prepared for the event – they are immaculate, to be honest – so the visitor immediately feels appreciated and welcome and the gardeners give of their time so very generously to give guided tours of the snowdrop collection. (And it’s free! – where else would you have it!)


The annual Snowdrop Gala, organised by Robert Millar (Altamont Plant Sales – in the walled garden at Altamont) and Hestor Forde, blends perfectly with events in the garden so visitors can go to the plant sales area afterwards and take home some choice snowdrops for their own gardens. Robert has the best selection of snowdrops on sale in the country along with a selection of other choice plants – hellebores would be a feature at this time of the year.

This year’s Snowdrop Week runs from the 12th to the 18th of this month but I dropped in to the gardens recently to have a preview and a leisurely and quiet walk around the snowdrop collection. The gardeners had obviously been busy, very busy, for the gardens have been perfectly prepared for the event and the snowdrops are looking marvellous. My fancy was tickled by one snowdrop  – Galanthus ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ – for I was given a snowdrop under this name many years ago by a gardening friend but when I grew it on I found that it was a more common snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and I have never managed to locate ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ since. It was nice to see it in the flesh as I have only grown a label with that name on it for over twenty years.


Two snowdrops took my fancy in Robert’s plant sales: Galanthus ‘Hercule’ and Galanthus ‘Byfield Special’. Both are snowdrops with connections and this, as well as their intrinsic beauty, is what attracts me. The latter was found by Andy Byfield who gardens in Devon and with whom I have exchanged snowdrops and is what I would call a good garden snowdrop – it is attractive, big and grows well. The other is one grown and named by Mark Brown in France, another with whom I have exchanged snowdrops. The story of the name is that Mark brought plants to a snowdrop lunch in England and, because it is a big leafy plant, a friend exclaimed that it looked like a leek. The French word for a leek is “poireau” and so, with Agatha Christie’s hero in mind, the snowdrop was named ‘Hercule’.


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Take a walk around the garden!

Best wishes to the gardeners at Altamont and to all those visiting for the Snowdrop Week. I’m sure it will be the success it has been for many years now.

Paddy Tobin