Blog Archives: Beth Chatto Gardens

The Beth Chatto Gardens: standing in for the Spanish Pyrenees!

This week, it was planned that I should be leading my regular midsummer trip to the Spanish Pyrenees for Naturetrek, but understandably, COVID has seen the cancellation of all summer plans. So by way of compensation, we headed out to the Beth Chatto Gardens. Could we tell the difference? Well, apart from the absence of mountains, it was sometimes difficult: the gardens contain a wide range of the exciting plants I seek out in the wild for clients. Here is a selection of my old friends from there to here, perhaps not the showiest plants in the garden, but all redolent of the herb-infused air of the mountains and maquis:


And not just the flowers with exotic overtones….while the insects were neither as showy nor as numerous as in the wilds of Aragon, they did include our only Hummingbird Hawk-moth of the year so far, gently sipping at Buddleia crispa. Usually a feature of our Pyrenean garden surrounds, numbers fluctuate from year to year there as here in Essex, and it is remarkable to think that the one we were watching may well have originated from so distant a clime.

Of course it was actually the insects which attracted us to Beth Chatto’s, rather than the evocative hints of half-remembered shores, given that we were supposed to have been running a Garden Invertebrates course there recently. A bit of advance preparation for (hopefully) next year – no names below, so if you want to know, you might like to keep an eye open for future events!


But of course we could not overlook the flowers, a sumptuous display in spite of the past drought, and with enticing sunlight and shadows, a chance as always to delve into the hidden heart of the flowers, as well as more standard portraits.


A different viewpoint always produces surprises, but the most remarkable shouldn’t really have been so surprising. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’?. Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

A breath of fresh air, as rejuvenating as a mountain.


Return to the Beth Chatto Gardens….

After nearly three months of (understandable) closure, we have finally been able to return to the haven that is the Beth Chatto Gardens. And never have the sights, scents and sounds been so welcome, albeit the soundscape of buzzing bees and singing birds being intruded upon by agriculture – gas guns and reservoir pumping.

Despite challenging weather conditions, with virtually no rain for the first two months, the gardens still have a verdancy unparallelled in the semi-aridity of coastal Essex:

Flowers, mostly old friends were there to greet us, but there are always surprises, especially with different camera angles and perspectives:

And so many of the flowers come with evocative scents, so arresting in the warm, still air, our lungs as yet unclogged by post-lockdown pollution; the combination of Philadelphus and Rosa in the Gravel Garden was like a tentacle of scent drawing us back again and again, unwilling to release us:

Of course, a plant is not just a flower. Its leaves and seeds can provide visual delights in their own right:

Even our bête noire Thalia dealbata (see why here) was looking stately (albeit somewhat  stunted) in the pond margins, a whole palette of greens. Let’s hope the plans to reduce or remove any flowering stems and save pollinators will not have been forgotten as we embrace our new normal:

This last weekend should have been our planned ‘Get to Know Your Garden Invertebrates’ course. But inevitably, that fell foul of Covid. Maybe next year, and we now know some of the useful places to search for them. In particular the flowers of composites and umbellifers, with respectively Galactites and Astrantia  currently in pole position.

Aside from the usual suite of pollinators, some of the other exciting insects included the large golden lacewing Nothochrysa capitata, a large rove-beetle with golden bridle and paws Tasgius morsitans, the Black-and-yellow Longhorn Rutpela maculata, and the hairy beetle Lagria hirta.

A smart black and red plant bug was one form of the variable Clostertomus trivialis. First recorded in Britain in London in 2008, this has spread elswehere in the south, although the Essex Field Club map shows only one previous record for the county, from Harlow. However, on reference to our pictures from last year we realised we had see it (in its alternative, yellow marked morph) here in the garden in June 2019.

And finally, the Martagon Lilies in the Woodland Garden. We have never really thought of them as being especially valuable insect food resources, but one hoverfly had different ideas. We watched this Eupeodes luniger visit several flowers and industriously feast upon the pollen. But only the pollen which had been transferred from the anthers to the stigma: maybe the hoverfly isn’t strong enough to dislodge pollen grains from the anther, and so has to rely on other species to do its heavy work?

And as I wrote those words, I was suddenly struck by a thought – ‘don’t adult hoverflies just eat/drink nectar and honeydew?’. A quick search soon reassured me our observation was correct: hoverflies are one of the few kinds of insects that can digest pollen, the surface coating of pollen grains beings resistant to most insect digestive juices. and it forms a protein-rich food source for the developing eggs. Every day is a day for learning!









Lockdown diary: the Beth Chatto Gardens on this day in 2007

Another time travelling blog, courtesy of  OneDrive, this time to the Beth Chatto Gardens in 2007. Fifteen years may not seem a long time in the lifetime of a garden, but it has changed – while still recognisable as the garden it is now, the plantings seem so much simpler. lacking the architecture which comes with time.

However most of the flowers I chose to photograph that sunny Spring afternoon are still there, many having become old friends. And I look forward to post-lockdown re-acquaintance. Hopefully today’s long -awaited rain will help them to look their best…


Lockdown diary: The Beth Chatto Gardens – rewind five years…

Any time of year, the Beth Chatto Garden is worth a visit, but never more so than in Spring when the damburst of the year floods the garden with blooms, colour, scents and wildlife. We miss that so much this year under Covid lockdown…

…but we can relive what it was like with OneDrive’s ‘On this day’, where we are transported back five years to 2015. Happy memories, and a hopeful reminder of the botanical, entomological and artistic joys to come when the nightmare is over.

Beth Chatto Gardens – on this day in history…..

Today sadly, but very sensibly, the Beth Chatto Gardens announced they are to be closed for the foreseeable future, part of the collective effort to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But the blogs can go on. OneCloud has just introduced an ‘On this day’ function, whereby it shows you all the digital photos taken on this day, in our case going back some 16 years. And so it was today, when I was informed we visited the Beth Chatto Garden on 22 March 2012, 8 years ago. And it was seemingly a lovely sunny day, just like today…

Here is a selection of photos from that occasion, the usual mix of plants and other wildlife, and all photos which would otherwise have remained unlooked-at on our computer. This provides a great chance to dust some of them off. And it is wonderful to see, comparing these with my last blog, how the seasons keep on turning, life is renewed, irrespective of the evident problems we cause to the planet.

No words, just photos of one of my favourite places:  we’ll be back as soon as we can!

Beth Chatto Gardens – springtime antidote

With the horrors of coronavirus looming and everyone being instructed to implement social distancing to try and contain its spread, getting out into parks, gardens and the countryside has a huge part to play. It’s easy to keep others at safe distances; it can and will lift the spirits.

Maybe this enforced circumscription of our lebensraum will have its positive outcomes. Hopefully we will start to appreciate the natural world immediately around us for what it is and for what it does for us, and when the virus has been conquered leave us with more respect for it.

So this is little more than a collection of photos from one of the first springlike days of the year, the Beth Chatto Gardens looking at their very best. First up the insects and other invertebrates which make their home in the garden:

Big or small, bright or subdued, all were welcome, but none more so than the male Brimstone fluttering around the Woodland Garden – one of four butterfly species, the others being Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell – treating us to a fantastic display of nectaring and basking, and ‘disappearing’ as it landed on the perfectly colour-matched Primrose petals:

And so to the plants. First the flower portraits:

… then those plant portraits which rely as much on foliage, stems or fruit as the flowers themselves:

… and finally the innerscapes, those close-up and alternative views in which may help us to see the world in a different way, a renewed joy in our surroundings.

So as long as we allowed to, please keep visiting places like Beth Chatto’s Garden. Treat yourself to the restorative value of nature, keep safe and keep healthy.

Beth Chatto Gardens – is it Spring yet?

Early March, after the winter that never was. And seemingly the spring ushered in on a weekly conveyor belt of ferocious Atlantic storms, periods of very high winds and very heavy rain with barely a day or two of calm between them: yes, it’s record-breaking time again (and not in a good way) …

So when the chance at last arose to get to the Garden, it was all looking a bit bedraggled and weatherbeaten, crushed carpets of Crocus, with the just the most recent emergees spearing through:

And water everywhere, soggy underfoot, with the reminders of the most recent rain glistening as quicksilver drops on Euphorbia leaves…

…and on the saw-toothed spectacle that is Melianthus. One of the most dramatic plants to photograph, I simply cannot ever pass this one by!

All the Aconites and many of the Snowdrops were over, so now we are into high spring, with showy blooms at every turn:

However, visual showiness is not everything. Certainly not from the point of view of the, admittedly few, insects. An occasional hoverfly or bumblebee was sipping at the Squills, but most of the insect activity, largely flies, was around the greenish flowers, often furnished with a strong scent in counterpoint to their ‘lack of colour’:

Of course, to suggest that green flowers lack colour is to denigrate that most underrated of hues. Flowers and foliage alike make spring shine with greens of all kind.

One group of plants merits its own mention at this time of year: the Hellebores. All from the same floral mould, apart from the frilly ‘Party Dress’ hybrids, but the infinite variation in ‘petal’ (actually, sepal) colour from white to green to pink to purple, plain or with spots or blotches or stripes is surely one of the wonders of a woodland garden spring.

As always the garden provided welcome respite from the tribulations of a stormy planet, an oasis of relative calm, made ever more restful by the sweet song of a Mistle Thrush serenading the spring.

Gardening with Wildlife in Mind

One of the regular talks I give to groups throughout East Anglia is on the topic of ‘Gardening with Wildlife in Mind’. The most frequent thing I am asked for is a list of the plants mentioned in the talk, and at long last, here it is!  This is far from being a comprehensive list of garden goodies (and baddies), just the ones that anyone who has seen the talk will have seen pictures of.

If you need more inspiration, there’s plenty out there, such as the website of the Wildlife Gardening Forum. Or better still, take a trip out to somewhere like the Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, a few miles east of Colchester, wander round the garden on a warm day, see what the insects are visiting, and then go into the nursery and buy it, assuming your garden has the right conditions. Nature generally will point the way!

Non-native but valuable nectar/pollen sources; also fruits and seeds

Juneberry Amelanchier canadensis/lamarckii/laevis

Himalayan Honeysuckle Leycesteria formosa  (left) and Giant Viper’s Bugloss Echium pininana (centre and right)


Early season food sources for insects

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

Hellebores Helleborus spp.

Late season food sources for insects

Michaelmas Daisies Aster spp. (left) and Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (right)

Useful leaves, for larval feeding and nest-making

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica

Mulleins Verbascum spp. (Mullein moth caterpillar,  right)

Roses Rosa spp. (leaf-cutter bee, right)

Double flowered plants to be avoided (cultivars)

Kerria Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’ (left) and Guelder-rose Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’ (right)

But the original wild -types are useful…

Shelter – breeding and roosting (and often much, much more…)

Leyland Cypress xCupressocyparis leylandii

Ivy Hedera helix

Gardening in the Global Greenhouse

Closing the winter nectar gap

Mahonia Mahonia sp. (left) and Laurustinus Viburnum tinus (right)

Drought-tolerant, insect-friendly, beautiful: the borders of the future

Sun-roses Cistus spp.

Sea-hollies Eryngium spp.

Giant Herb Roberts Geranium palmatum and G. maderense

Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis  (left) and Lavenders Lavandula spp. (centre, right)

Jerusalem-sages Phlomis spp.

Sages Salvia spp.

Possible pests – ones to watch…or ideally avoid

Hottentot-fig Carpobrotus spp.

If you want to know more, glean a few more  ideas, and  find out the reason why my talk is called Gardening with Wildlife in Mind (as opposed to Wildlife Gardening, for example), you can always book me! My rates and a full list of talks can be found here.

Murder at the Garden Pond: Thalia dealbata – the (not very) beautiful assassin

An evergreen, marginal aquatic perennial forming a clump of long-stalked, erect, narrowly ovate leaves to 40cm in length, covered with white powder, and slender stems bearing panicles of purple flowers 2cm across’. This, from the Royal Horticultural Society, neatly sums up the rather statuesque plant that we encountered in Beth Chatto’s garden last summer: Thalia dealbata.

As per usual, when in gardens we seek out insects to photograph and were immediately aware that this plant was covered in SO many pollinators. But dead pollinators. On closer examination, each flowerhead was actually riddled with corpses – hoverflies, lacewings, bees, wasps and blow flies, amongst others – a glistening mortuary for those valuable garden assistants, pollinators and predators alike, all stuck headfirst into the mouths of their nemesis.

The scale of the carnage was, quite simply, shocking. Some, still alive, like this Honeybee we managed to release, but most were dead. Lost to the world.

Reference to the internet shows this is a recognised phenomenon. The plant has no reason to kill its visitors – it doesn’t digest them like a truly carnivorous species: it seems that the flowers have an elastic style, used in explosive pollination which can and does trap insects.

In its native central American/southeastern USA range it is normally pollinated by large and powerful Carpenter Bees, capable of extricating themselves from the flower’s fatal embrace. Anything smaller is trapped and starves, mere collateral damage, cannon fodder in the battle for life.


But at times of an Extinction Crisis, that is one pressure our array of pollinators, necessary not just for the plant’s but for our species’ continued existence, can do without, dozens of pollinator lives being extinguished unnecessarily for each flowerhead. We raised our concerns with the Beth Chatto gardeners, and they promised to investigate, perhaps to remove the spikes of (to our eyes, rather unlovely – they often don’t seem to open fully) flowers, leaving only the stately leaves to give emergent architecture to the water margins.

And to their credit, the Beth Chatto online sales catalogue does at least draw attention to this antisocial behaviour attribute of Thalia: ‘Please note that the plant has an unusual mechanism for pollination which results in some pollinating insects remaining trapped within the flower, where they can perish. Hover flies appear the most affected.’

No other suppliers that we came across made any such references to the ‘special properties’ of Thalia, so we started a bit of a Twitter campaign to raise awareness, and perhaps get restrictions on the sale of the species, or to at least persuade suppliers to inform potential customers of the plant’s fatal attraction. And perhaps in response to this, we note that six months on, the RHS website now contains the following sentence: ‘Although not carniverous [sic] as such, this plant may trap and kill small insects such as hoverflies and small bees during the pollination process.’ Not the unequivocal recommendation not to buy and grow it that we might have hoped for, but a start nonetheless…

The RHS also provides a list of recommended stockists, of which six are noted for Thalia, one in France and five in the UK (including Beth Chatto’s). Two of those seem no longer to list it on their catalogues, but that still leaves three well-known British aquatic plant suppliers who do without hesitation, one even noting it is ‘much frequented by butterflies, moths and other pollinators’ without giving the full story. And of course other UK suppliers are available, though in the first three pages of a Google search, none referred to Thalia’s nasty little habits, save for World of Water Aquatic Centres which in its information table asks ‘Perfect for Pollinators?’, and gives the answer ‘No’, albeit without explanation.

We shall be contacting suppliers to try and persuade them to at least mention this issue, if not withdraw it from sale , in the hope that insects can be saved and eco-conscious gardeners are not upset at the behaviour of their latest purchase. And future updates to this blog may include a ‘name and shame’ as well as a ‘Hall of Fame’!

Beth Chatto Gardens – sunlight and shadows

The winter thus far remains stubbornly at arm’s length, save for a few frost-washed mornings. The crisp blue light of a midwinter morn has been hard to come by too, temperatures held up and spirits lowered by seemingly unremitting gloom.

But at last today the skies cleared and the garden once again came into its own.

Sunlight and shadows….

Seedheads and sprinkles…

Subtle splendours…

And scentwaves and snowdrops.


Beth Chatto Gardens: the reawakening of the year

‘Reawakening of the year’ hardly seems appropriate, as hitherto the winter slumber has been barely discernable, with few frosts, and bees and other insects around us all the time. As worryingly now seems to be the norm.

Maybe ‘renewal’ is a better term: last year’s leafy growth is playing its final role as a blanket protecting the coming seasons’ primordia from environmental extremes, before breaking down into the nutrients they need to fulfil their potential…

…while tussocks of grass and other plants again provide shelter for overwintering invertebrates, and sources of food to seed-eaters. In too many gardens – happily not Beth Chattos – these would have been ‘tidied up for the winter’.

New spring greens are already coming through, with added colour from variegations and coloured bark, perhaps more obvious and appreciated at this time when flowers are at a premium.

And likewise now is the time to appreciate the trees for what they are, liberated from the distraction of blowsy flowers all around. Standing for decades, centuries even, like old furniture they are so often ignored, but what a delight they are, hinting at the riches they have already given us and promises for the future.

Structure and texture are best appreciated when the sun shines, and this is when their trunks play a role for the few insects on show, sheltered spots for basking flies, even on a cold day like today.

On a warmer day, no doubt many more insects would have been evident, roused from winter torpor and needing to feed to replenish resources for any cold snaps to come. Herein lies the value of a garden: in January, the countryside is pretty much devoid of pollen and nectar sources apart from Gorse. But in a good garden, the ‘winter nectar gap’ can be closed, an essential feature in these times of climatic disruption.

Moreover, some of those plants have a scent that intoxicates even the most jaded human snout, from spicy Wintersweet to rich Witch-hazel, the delicate lily-of-the-valley fragrance of Mahonia to the ultra-sweet wafts of Sarcococca.