Blog Archives: Beth Chatto Gardens

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the slide into Autumn…

What a difference a couple of weeks makes! Compared with my previous walk The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife, the third in my series of  ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens coincided with a rather dull, blustery day; that and the advancing season combined to reduce the insect activity substantially. Nevertheless, there was more than enough for all who joined me strolling around and looking at nature.

Butterflies in particular were well down from their superabundance of the past month, with just a few Small Whites, Holly Blues, Gatekeepers and Red Admirals on show.

And the available insect food sources have moved on with the season.  Buddleia, Lavandula and Eryngium are all but over (though where any flowers remain they are still exerting strong attraction) ……

… Bistorta, Nepeta and Origanum are perhaps starting to fade but a major draw nonetheless ….

… and now the daisy family is really beginning to assert itself as a force in the garden. Echinacea in particular is a magnet for bees, hoverflies and many more.

Of course we are lucky to have the space and different ground conditions to grow plants that provide sequential nectar and pollen resources through the year, and at the moment there is a whole host of others sharing the  role:

Honeybees, bumblebees and hoverflies are among the most numerous of insect visitors …

… while parasitic tachinid flies also seem to be especially abundant at the moment. While often overlooked, their role in parasitising lepidopteran and other larvae cannot be overstated. The more the garden supports predators and parasites, the more its insect abundance (what some may call ‘pests’) are kept in check without recourse to poisons. Let’s hear it for our army of tachinids, ladybirds and wasps!

Dragonflies, damselflies and bush-crickets are also part of this predator realm, albeit relatively minor players numerically. This normally camouflaged Speckled Bush-cricket showed up remarkably well on the vivid Lythrum flowers …

… and damselflies included both the typical late-season Willow Emerald and this beautiful lilac-fronted form of Blue-tailed Damselfly, echoing the colours of its chosen perch.

But the bonus from their being fewer insects on show was that there was more time to talk about other wildlife, plants in particular. Coming into late summer, many are in fruit, and none is more distinctive than the unique churro-like seeds of Meadowsweet:

And although it may be a stretch too far to call planted plants ‘wildlife’, certainly anything that has embraced its wild side by spreading itself around the garden deserves that name. In the Gravel Garden, Fox-and-Cubs is doing that in such an artistic way that surely Beth would have approved…

… while in the same area, Sickle-leaved Hare’s-ear weaves its filigree fronds as a golden thread, linking the beds thematically and also through the years: once native to Essex, and only to Essex, when its habitat was threatened by roadworks half century ago it was rescued by a band of botanists – and it is likely that some of the seed came into Beth’s hands, and garden.

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this walk (weather permitting) on 1st September, between 1100 and 1300. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me! Nearer the time, if the weather is looking at all dodgy, please feel to contact me using the Contact tab above to check it is likely to be running.

While one can never predict what nature will deliver, my guess is that with the end of the season firmly in sight, it will be the copious nectar and pollen sources of members of the Asteraceae and also just-now-opening ice-plants of the genus Hylotelephium (perhaps better known as Sedum) that will be sustaining late breeding attempts and provisioning others for hibernation.

Blogs of previous events in this series can be found at:

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza! | Chris Gibson Wildlife and

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!!

Yesterday it was the second of my ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens – strolling around and looking at wildlife (insects in particular) for a couple of hours and showing it to any interested visitors.

Insect abundance was not quite as great as the first, two weeks ago, and many of the butterflies were distinctly worse for wear after the downpours of the past week, but there was more than enough to fill our time, helped by the sultry, warm, humid, still weather, more jungle than Essex summer. Much better weather in fact than the forecast for thundery showers – the sun was patchy, but very warm when out, a thunderclap mid-morning preceded a very light shower until five minutes after the session finished when the heavens opened with what was probably the spikiest rainstorm of an already wet summer.

The star performers plant-wise were Bistorta and Lavandula, especially for wasps/hoverflies and bees respectively, and Origanum for the whole spectrum of insects. And the favourites from last time, Eryngium and Buddleia, although fading fast still have serious pulling power…

But of course these plants were only a small selection of the resources on offer to our insects, as the photos below show:

Showiest of all the insects of course were the butterflies, with 14 species logged, including a major emergence of second-brood Holly Blues, although the very best, a stately Silver-washed Fritillary didn’t hang around for a photo!

Hoverflies too were everywhere, and included two of our largest species Volucella zonaria (Hornet Hoverfly) and Volucella inanis, among numerous other species…

… along with other flies from a whole range of families:

Honeybees, bumblebees and wasps, including the locally scarce Median Wasp on Ruta, as seems to be usual, added to the pollinating hordes…

… along with less celebrated but no less important pollinators such as beetles.

Of course not all insects are subsisting solely on nectar and pollen: in our garden jungle there are also predators. Below is Kite-tailed Robber-fly with a Marmalade Hoverfly dinner and a Bee-wolf wolfing a bee!

When flowers are on offer, it is always too easy to overlook other wildiife action around the garden, or perhaps more aptly ‘inaction’, sitting around on the foliage basking, looking for food, or nesting…

So, another wonderful two hours immersed in the Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens …

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this (weather permitting) on 18th August and 1st September, between 1100 and 1300 each day. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me!

While one can never predict what nature will deliver, my guess is that, as we slide gently towards autumn, it will be members of the daisy family such as Echinacea and Eupatorium that we will be celebrating next time!

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza!

Last week, I held the first of my ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens – strolling around in the sun, looking at wildlife for a couple of hours and showing it to any interested visitors. An awful job, but someone has to do it! And the discussions and questions covered a whole series of topics from choosing the right plants to attract butterflies and how to identify the insects in the garden, right down to the practicalities of managing Phormium.

And quite fortuitously, this session coincided with what was the best day for butterflies and other insects I have ever experienced in the garden in 30 or more years of visiting it. At least 15 species of butterfly, some in their hundreds, plus a whole raft of others, from moths to bees, flies and dragonflies made for a very entertaining and engaging morning.

Insects were everywhere, but as always there were a number of stand-out plant performers., one being the Butterfly-bush Buddleia davidii, especially the one in the Scree Garden, next to the fast-fading Buddleia crispa on the house wall, a star performer earlier in the month.

At one time I estimated a couple of hundred individual butterflies of eight species around this one bush: it was almost like a window back into my youth, that almost-forgotten time when in my mind’s eye every Buddleia was covered in butterflies all summer long.

Especially in the Gravel Garden, plants in the mint family Lamiaceae were those drawing in the pollinators. A carpet of Teucrium x lucidrys was literally humming with bumblebees, perhaps 20 in a couple of square metres, many deep within the foliage, giving themselves away by vibrating the shoots….

Together with Origanum, Thymus, Betonica and Lavandula, this family fills the garden with life, sound, movement and scent, with Brown Argus butterflies and Mint Moths in addition to the more numerous species.

In the damper areas of the Water Garden, it was the genus Bistorta doing the heavy lifting, with social wasps and Honeybees in vast numbers:

And so to the Reservoir Garden and the star performers to beat them all, Eryngium. At their very peak, the sea-hollies (especially Eryngium planum ‘Blaukappe’) were covered in an array of bees, wasps (including dramatic Bee-wolves), beetles, butterflies and lacewings, greenbottles, tachinid flies and hoverflies, including the very largest, the Hornet Hoverfly.

Particularly in the latter part of the summer, it is members of the daisy family Asteraceae that will take over lead responsibility for feeding the flocks, and all through the gardens this is starting to happen, including Hummingbird Hawk-moths on Cirsium.

Aside from all the plants mentioned above, so numerous were the insects that they were visiting the whole range of available flowers. A Brimstone enjoyed Dianthus, and Small Whites were frisking and frolicking wantonly on the Verbena

Deep in the day-lilies, hoverflies were browsing on pollen. Although we usually think of flies supping nectar, they do need a pollen meal to get the nutrients needed for sexual maturation, and of course this contact with pollen is what makes them as valuable as bees for pollination.

And then on the Ruta flowers, and only those specific flowers so far as we could see, several examples of a large, unfamiliar wasp. These were Median Wasps, first found in Britain in 1980 and spreading, albeit still uncommon in Essex.

Of course, flowers are not everything, and there were invertebrates everywhere, including several Willow Emerald damselflies and an impressive Labyrinth Spider.

Readers of these blogs may remember one from 2020 Murder at the Garden Pond: Thalia dealbata – the (not very) beautiful assassin | Chris Gibson Wildlife. This detailed the antisocial, pollinator-killing habits of Thalia dealbata, and led to my increasing involvement with the Beth Chatto Gardens. One of the talking points during my garden session was this, as the ‘killing fields’ had just been initiated as the flowers opened. However, very much to their credit, the staff were straight in there removing the flower-stalks, to save the insects from a lingering death while allowing the stately beauty

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this (weather permitting) on 4th August, 18th August and 1st September, between 1100 and 1300 each day. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me!

Marvellous moths morning at Beth Chatto Gardens – late July

Our second ‘Moth Morning’ of the year at Beth Chatto’s was a great success! The first one (see here) a few weeks ago had turned out to be rather disappointing moth-number-wise, so we were doubly delighted by the number of winged beauties that graced our trap this time.

We set the trap on a reasonably warm night, and luckily Chris’ Heath Robinson waterproof cover was assembled ‘just in case’. Although the BBC forecast 0% chance of rain, we had a huge shower late evening, which would have proved fatal for an unprotected hot bulb! The following morning we arrived to find the trap cover and surrounding sheets dotted with moths of all shapes and sizes and a quick peek in the trap itself was very encouraging.

Our group who had signed up for the morning event were pleased and interested to see the moths as they were unveiled from the trap one by one. See here Beth Chattos moth morning 22 July 2023 for the full list of species; clear highlights were Elephant Hawk-moth, several Rosy Footmen and a Ruby Tiger, all in their red and pink shades:

Naturally there were plenty of ‘standard’ brown moths like this Dun-bar, but even some of those were remarkably colourful. We have never seen such a richly marked Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing before…

Yellow-brown shades came from Scalloped Oak and Buff Ermine…

… while largely white ones included Least Carpet, Clouded Border and Brown-tail.

We didn’t concentrate too much on micros, although there were several Ringed and Small China-marks (reflecting the proximity of the ponds) and three species of small ermine (Willow, Spindle and Apple Ermine).

And finally from the trap, two views of a pristine Pebble Prominent, one to show its namesake prominent scales in profile and the second to show its remarkable camouflage against a woody backdrop.

In the event a total of some 40 species of macromoths plus a dozen or so micros were logged, and released unharmed. To these we must add the ‘bycatch’ of  green lacewings, caddisflies and a tiny, rather attractive non-biting midge Microtendipes pedellus. Why remark on this? Well, it seems to be very scarce in Essex indeed, the Essex Field Club distirbution map showing only two previous locations, neither of which is anywhere near us!

One bonus of these Moth Mornings is that our group has exclusive access to the garden between 9 and 10am. We had hoped for a sun-dappled, warm morning – the reality was dull, overcast and unseasonably chilly – but at least no rain (unlike later in the day!)…

We spent a very enjoyable hour walking around the garden, looking at plants that were attracting insects even at that early hour and in somewhat adverse conditions.

There were bumblebees, Honeybees and social wasps  galore, especially among the Bistortas, and a range of hoverflies, including the largest of all (if rather fleetingly) the Hornet Hoverfly. Pond-life was represented by Willow Emerald and Blue-tailed Damselflies:

Our personal favourites the true bugs were represented by some ‘teenage’ Green Shield-bugs and a Tarnished Plant-bug, and the galls by some emerging knoppers on developing acorns:

… while the few early butterflies included Red Admirals and Gatekeepers, and a confiding Brown Argus.

And to complement the moth trap, we found some ‘free-range’ moths, including Latticed Heath on the Eryngium,  the case of a tiny base-bearer Coleophora sp., one of the ‘bird-poo micros’  White-backed Marble, and best of all the Scarce Forest Tubic, an uncommon moth in Essex and the country as a whole, typically an inhabitant of ancient woodlands.

If you are interested in such events, please keep an eye on the Beth Chatto website for similar events next spring and summer. Provisional dates are 22nd June 2024 and 20th July 2024. These are run by and in support of the Beth Chatto Education Trust, established by Beth to carry forward her passion for plants and the ecological approach to all.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: after a summer soaking….

After a June with no rain, good soakings during the first few days of July have brought the garden back to life, made lush and green by that which falls from the sky rather than being reliant on unsustainable, artificial watering.

And the other wildlife too, insects in abundance  – more bees and butterflies than I have seen all summer: the warmth and the recent rain have brought the season back into some semblance of ‘normality’. The plants this week doing the heavy lifting of feeding the hordes of pollinators were Lavandula, Eryngium and Teucrium: good for wildlife, drought-tolerant, beautiful (and therefore good for us) – they tick all the boxes! No words, just let the pictures speak for themselves…

But absolute maestro of our floral show was Buddleia crispa on the side of Beth’s house. Six species of butterfly visiting included four or more lovely, pristine Painted Ladies, one of the welcome stars from the south of any summer garden.

#RewildYourMind and #LetNatureintoyourLife: nowhere better to do that than the Beth Chatto Gardens! Visit Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens for more information.

Marvellous Moths morning at Beth Chatto Gardens – early June

It was the first of our new Marvellous Moth mornings in Beth Chatto Gardens. It was early June, the start of the peak season for moths, in terms of both number and variety. Usually! But this year, the seasons have other ideas. The perfect storm: a cold north-easterly airflow for the last six weeks has delayed Spring by several weeks, on top of last summer’s record high temperatures and drought which fried the larvae of many insects, all coming after eight post-war decades of pesticide profligacy … perhaps it is not surprising that the contents of the moth trap we ran the night previously were very meagre.

Of course there were some, but almost all were at the brown end of the normally diverse moth colour spectrum. Most common was the Treble Lines, followed by Common Swift; other species included Heart & Club, Rustic, Vine’s Rustic, Marbled Minor, Flame Shoulder, Small Fan-footed Wave and Light Emerald. In total, a paltry 13 species, totalling some 30 moths. We tried!

But star of the trap show was the single Cockchafer, a lovely large beetle…

Not wishing to dwell on doom and gloom, there are very good reasons why this event was not hugely productive. And the good news is that with luck and a successful breeding season, insect populations can bounce back very quickly, providing the environment is still there for them. And if the habitats are not there in a garden like Beth Chatto’s, essentially organic with a wide range of plants from all over the world providing nectar, pollen and leaf resources, then the planet is in very dire straits.

The other good news for our band of eight visitors is that a shorter time emptying the trap gave us more time to walk and enjoy free-range insects and other wildlife in the garden, first around the main garden in the solitude of that precious hour before the gates opened, and then later around the Beth Chatto Education Trust’s conservation area, away from the public gaze.

Before the influx of visitors, the birds are much more in evidence, and today included Song and Mistle Thrushes, singing Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches, and a fly-through Kingfisher. Several day-flying moths included the Mint Moth, Nettle Tap and disco-dancing parties of male Gold-barred Longhorn-moths…

… while the butterflies were Holly Blues, three displaying couples of Speckled Woods, and a single, resplendent Green Hairstreak, the very first one we have seen this year of a butterfly that often puts in its first showing as early as late April.

As far as other insects are concerned there were several leaf-beetles and hoverflies, Dock Bugs (and their beautiful golden eggs), Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, three species of damselfly, and a whole host of other bits and pieces, including galls (caused by a microscopic mite) on Lime tree leaves, and the interesting case of a case-bearing moth larva.


For other caterpillars we were looking at the Mullein leaves, holes in which are made by the beautiful larvae of the Mullein Moth. While much effort and many poisons are expended in lots of other show gardens to present a vision of leaf perfection to the public, in our garden those holes and the mobile adornments are a badge of honour, a sign that our garden is seeking to work with nature and not against it.

And once again, the highlight of this part of the event was a beetle, this time a confiding Wasp Beetle, a dramatically coloured yellow-and-black wasp-alike, its colours evolved to try and dissuade a hungry predator to try and turn it into a meal.

Otherwise we were looking at the plants that were delivering for bees and other pollinators, chance to plan purchases in the nursery to make our own gardens better places for wildlife: Sicilian Honey-garlic, Peruvian Squill, Rock Crane’s-bill, Giant Fennel, Tassel Hyacinths, foxtail-lilies, spurges and a whole lot more…

Do keep an eye on the Beth Chatto website Courses & Workshops – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens if you might be interested in joining us for one of the Marvellous Moths events we have tentatively planned over the rest of the summer. We cannot promise more moths, but we would be surprised if there were not greater numbers and variety, and irrespective, an insect-themed educational wander round the gardens in the still of the morning before the gates open to the public is always a precious moment.


The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a Great Awakening…

There comes a time in any year when the passage of Spring suddenly accelerates into a headlong tumble into Summer. Today was that day in the garden. Held back for so long by the April cold winds and gloom, today the celebration of life and the new season was palpable. Aided by the stilled air and the humidity which culminated in some very spiky showers and ferocious grumbles of thunder, bird song was everywhere, from warbly Wrens and Blackcaps, through wheezing Greenfinches and tinkling Goldcrests, to a stately Song Thrush and the most beautiful of all, several joyful Blackbirds.

Insects, for the first time this year, were everywhere. Six species of butterfly included lots of Orange Tips and our first Speckled Wood and Holly Blue of 2023. But much more of interest, many of which again were the first we have spotted this Spring, from bugs…

… to damselflies, a tiny first-instar bush-cricket nymph, a scorpion-fly and Alder-flies…

…. and a whole array of spiders, beetles, wasps and flies.

But more than the creatures, today’s walk was full of the sights, sounds and smells of a world reawakening from its slumber. Plants, floral vistas and whole landscapes vibrant in the sporadic sunlight, the spring oak greens rendered especially dramatic by the smoky blue backdrop of thunderclouds.

Spring is likely to be telescoped this year as a result of its late start and the heat that seems to be heading our way from Iberia: enjoy it while you can. And where better to do so than in the Beth Chatto Gardens. A place for plants and for people, but also a haven for well-being and wildlife!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: Euphorbia euphoria…

Spurges (Euphorbia) are one of the staples of gardens such as Beth Chattos that pride themselves at being water-wise. With their often acid-green inflorescences, they form many a backdrop, but too rarely take centre-stage. But they do have much of interest, not least because they are all so easily recognisable as close relatives with a wholly unique flower structure, called a ‘cyathium’ (one for the pub quizzers and crossword buffs). Here in the garden we have half a dozen or more forms flowering right now, with a whole range of others to come throughout the summer season.

Within the bowl of the cyathium lie not only the naughty bits but also the nectar glands, often distinctively coloured and/or shaped, and which are important features for the identification to species.

And along with the pollen-bearing stamens, the nectar glands are the source of sustenance for insects. Given their open inflorescences, with no way of restricting access to potential pollinators, spurges help support a vast range of insects, as shown today with hoverflies, other flies, pollen beetles, ladybirds and mini-miner bees all basking in the largesse.

The temperature was still on the chilly side, so there were in fact rather few insects around although lungwort was drawing in those species with long-enough tongues to get deep into the flowers and find the nectar. Queen bumblebees and Dark-edged Bee-flies were prospecting,  but most numerous were the Hairy-footed Flower-bees, with jerky flight and relatively high-pitched buzz, the larger, almost black females often being shadowed by a smaller, gingery male… Spring in the air!

Otherwise, the (mostly) blue grape-hyacinths and squills and yellow mahonias seemed to be the preferred forage sources for Honeybees…


But as can be seen from the photos below, there are many more nectar and pollen sources waiting in the wings for the burst of insect activity which should be on its way very soon. For insects, it is a case of ‘Right Plant, Right Place, Right Time’; given the endlessly variable interplay between the floral availability, insect emergence and weather conditions, this is where gardens like Beth Chatto’s (and indeed any garden that is not poisoned with pesticides, manicured to death or choked under plastic grass) come into their own.


The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: rest and recovery…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that green space and nature are good for health, heart, soul and mind. Never more needed than after our first bout of Covid: as soon as we felt able, it was out to feel the recuperative effects of Spring, even if lingering post-viral fatigue made it feel like wading through treacle…

Bulbs of course are at their best in the gardens now and for the next month:

But other perennials are starting to add their form and colours to Nature’s palette:

So too the early-flowering shrubs, each wafting its own unique scent into into the air.  ‘Well-scented’ is the order of the season: given the expected temperatures, they do have to throw whatever they can into their attraction to pollinators.

And of course, in doing so giving us the chance to explore the effects of Covid. The good news is that any olfactory damping seems to be over, with only the spicy aroma of Witch-hazel proving difficult. But I find that a bit evanescent and elusive at the best of times…

Despite still-freezing overnight temperatures a few insects were out, from ladybirds nestling in the Euphorbia heads to Honeybees raiding the open nectar-vats of Winter Aconites. And, true to its name, a male Spring Usher moth…

Otherwise, it was time to appreciate the less flouncy and blowsy garden features. Lichens are never better to see than when there are no leaves on the trees…

… and the various natural adornments we love to see, from fascinating leaf-distortions on Bergenia, to the signs of vital natural senescence on Red Oak …

—and returning to the Bergenia, the slug munch-holes that we (as a garden that sells itself as ‘ecological and sustainable’) should wear as a badge of pride!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the first hints of Spring…

A month has passed since my last visit to the gardens, and on the face of it nothing has changed – today the scene was again sprinkled with the fairy-dust of frost…

It is not that many years ago that we could have reasonably expected to experience a whole month of freezing temperatures, but this winter the intervening weeks have been unseasonably warm, although it is interesting to note this hasn’t been enough to offset the mid-December deep freeze. Here is a Witch Hazel today, with (on the right) the very same individual three years and five days ago…

Of course this is NOT evidence, as some would like to claim, that ‘global warming’ is a lie, just that weather and climate are two very different things.

Midwinter is monochrome, or at least it presents a subdued colour palette. But with searching, beacons of winter colour can be found to lift the spirits…

… and the first few flowers are starting to appear, even if looking a little floppy from the heavy frost of the past two nights.

It was still cold, so no insect activity to report, but birds were active: a Kingfisher on the Reservoir pond, Redwings, Fieldfares and Siskins in the treetops, and Robins and tits all in song. A Great Tit repeatedly investigating a dead Globe-artichoke head, that which all too many gardeners get rid of because convention sees it as untidiness. Whether for seeds or spiders hiding therein, it illustrated one of our hopes for this year, that we as a species can start to overcome our obsession with tidiness … it most certainly is not a virtue, especially during the planet’s sixth Great Extinction.

Now is the time to let light into your life and embrace the coming Spring. And Beth Chatto’s  is as good a place as any to do that. Fortunately it reopens from its winter recess tomorrow!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: A Wintry Wonderland

Frost sprinkling crystal magic on every surface. Light and shade from the low, low sun. Vistas speared with surprising shards of colour. And signs of hope: green shoots and a few flowers promising that pendulum of the year has only a week to go before it swings inexorably back, offering light and life…

No more words, just pictures , save to say that if you want to see this (and better, after the forecast low of -5 degrees C tonight), get there tomorrow. Saturday is the last day before the gardens hibernate until mid-January, and on Monday the temperatures are soaring to spring-like highs…


Chattowood: putting ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ into action UPDATED FOR 2023

Beth Chatto was, of course, a gardener ahead of her time. Inspired by her ecologist husband Andrew, she pioneered sustainable horticulture, neatly captured by the aphorism ‘Right Plant, Right Place’. Simply, if you plant the plant where it wants to be, then the less you will need to do for it, in terms of inputs.

The culmination of this approach is the Gravel Garden in the Beth Chatto Gardens. A naturally droughty site, it was planted with Right Plants – tolerant of drought, visually attractive to us and, almost universally, attractive to visiting insects, providing nectar and pollen resources throughout the year. The only inputs these plants have received are just a bucket of water as they were planted and what the skies have produced in this semi-arid corner of Essex. Little water and no chemicals: that is ecological gardening, enjoyed by thousands of people and a myriad of insects each year. Over its 20-year existence it has experienced deluges and droughts, increasingly so with climate breakdown, and still it thrives.

So when a local opportunity arose to spread this word in a practical way, Beth’s grand-daughter Julia and all the Garden team were well-placed. Just a few hundred metres down the road, a developer Lanswood had permission for a new housing estate, and they called it ‘Chattowood’….taking that name, they could hardly refuse to cooperate!

It was agreed that at the entrance to the estate, the estate landscaping and front gardens would be planted in the ‘Beth’s Gravel Garden’ style. What’s more, it was further agreed that those front gardens would be retained as part of the estate fabric and be looked after by the management company, so giving assurance that the initial investment in ecology would not be wiped out at the whim of a new householder.

With plans, supervision, help and plants from the Garden, in April 2022 the gardens were created. First the topsoil was stripped and taken away: a good move as plants that need fertile loam will also need water, fertilizer and pesticides to keep looking good.  30cm of local sand then laid on top, and the potted plants planted in, each with their last bucket of water. And apart from sporadic hand-weeding, that’s it.

I first visited in late June when, despite the very dry preceding months it was looking wonderful – and buzzing! Salvia, Gaura, Verbena, Lavandula, Buddleia, Santolina and many more blooming away, feeding the masses and starting to fill the space.

A plan was hatched for me to assess the value of these gardens for insects, in comparison with the conveniently situated next door estate, a place of new-laid turf, a few robust hedging plants and ‘lollipop’ trees. Then came the record-breaking heatwave and intensified drought. I deferred my surveys until the climatic turmoil subsided, and managed to return in mid-August. It was still warm and dry, but not too extreme either for the insects or for me to be out… Very pleasingly, almost all the new plants had survived, even though some had lost their flowers earlier than would have been expected in a more normal summer. A second set of visits in September came after the drought broke, but as the season was fading so fewer insects were evident.

I opted for simple walk-past census of the gardens, which at a very slow pace took some 15-20 minutes. Any longer and the survey would have been more subject to the issues of double-counting. Insects were assigned to major groups; only those which are readily identifiable at a glance were identified down to species level. A similar length of time was spent searching for insects in the front gardens and public areas of the adjacent estate immediately after each Chattowood survey.

A table of the results for anyone interested is available here: Chattowood survey. As hoped (and expected), the Chattowood plantings attracted a greater number of individuals and species of visiting insect. The headline summary of 120 insects recorded in Chattowood versus just 6 in the adjacent estate for the same observer effort is very telling, 20 times more insects in the purpose-planted garden areas.

Here are a some of the insect highlights (admittedly not all taken here and this year: I was too busy counting!)

Another significant point was that half of the insects recorded in the adjacent development were attracted to ‘weeds’ (specifically Bristly Ox-tongue) that dared to push their way through the drought-scorched turf. Needless to say, those flower resources were not available due to mowing after the second visit.

It will be interesting to continue this study next summer, in hopefully more normal weather conditions. It may then also attract some interest or comment from the houses that will no doubt be occupied by then. Although a very simple survey, it has produced hard data in favour of this planting approach from a biodiversity perspective. It would also be interesting to look at other measurables from the project, including costs, public perception and approval, including saleability of the new houses.

Chattowood – a tribute to Julia’s vision and persuasiveness, the hard work of the Beth Chatto and Lanswood teams, and a vision of a sustainable future for gardens and housing developments, especially living in the global greenhouse. What an antidote to the ecopathic trend for ‘plastic grass’ and the like…!

[ Also published on BNA website, see here]

Update for 2023

Monitoring of the Chattowood front gardens was continued for a second summer in 2023. Only those gardens which were originally planted in in April 2022 were included in the comparison ie those which have additionally been planted since then and were thus less mature were not surveyed.

Methodology was exactly the same as last year (see appendix, last year’s report above) except that surveys were undertaken at approximately monthly intervals throughout the summer, rather than just in August and September.

The results tabulated below indicate a similar picture to 2022, except that the imbalance between the Chatto-style gardens and the adjacent traditional front gardens was less marked. There were 233 insects counted in our gardens compared with 28 adjacent, a eight-fold difference, compared with the twenty-fold difference in 2022. The full results are available here Chattowood survey 2023. As far as the plants are concerned, I noted at different times in the season the following all being one of the focal points of interest to insects: Bergenia, Lavandula, Teucrium, Salvia yangii, Gaura and Verbena.

I would suggest that the reduced differential compared with 2022 is due to two factors:

  1. the early months of summer 2023 were notoriously poor for insects everywhere, and it is very difficult to demonstrate differences in value to insects when there are simply almost no insects to record, and the very few found next door assumed a magnified importance in relative terms.
  2. Since 2022, some of the front gardens in the adjacent comparison site have had a degree of positive planting, with for example Lavandula and Escallonia in a couple of them. Those plants (plus the occasional lawn ‘weed’) were responsible for attracting most of the insects next door.

I therefore have no concerns that the Chatto-style planting is having reduced attractivity to insects and that this in any way invalidates our faith in this approach to gardening in new estates. Indeed, I would expect the gap to close still further (subject to vagaries of the weather) as the ‘adjacent gardens’ continue to be gradually diversified.