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Northwest Regional Reports

Summer-Dry Gardening, Part 1: A Visit to Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden

This famous English garden has conditions much like ours in the Northwest, allowing us to learn from the plant choice and design

The flower stalks of giant silver mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum) are faded here in Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, but still beautiful. This self-seeding biennial works well in gravel gardens. In front is ‘Hidcote’ English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ’Hidcote’, Zones 5–8), a tough and heavily scented lavender named after the famous garden at Hidcote.

When the summer heat starts in the Pacific Northwest, I reflect at my choice to turn my front garden space into a “summer-dry garden.” I like this term better than “xeriscaping” or “drought-tolerant gardening” because we do get a lot of rain. This garden style relies on tough, drought-resistant plants that can handle the wet, cool winters and dry, hot summers the Pacific Northwest throws at them. It is a landscape design style that incorporates plants from similar climatic zones from around the world to create an interconnected and cohesive design. Some of these similar regions include the Mediterranean, the West Coasts of North and South America, parts of Australia and New Zealand, parts of Asia, and a very small area of South Africa. What an amazing and biodiverse plant collection that can be made from those areas. A few years ago, I was even fortunate to visit Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden in Colchester, England.

Miss Willmotts ghost
Silvery and spikey flower stalks of biennial Miss Willmott’s ghost (Eryngium giganteum, Zones 4–7) are surrounded by faded stalks of ‘Pink Kisses’ toadflax (Linaria ‘Pink Kisses’, annual). Both plants will self-seed in your garden. You can either let seeds go where nature puts them, or collect them to redistribute. You can also propagate and replant in the perfect spot.

Every plant for itself

This is the driest area in England and has very similar seasonal conditions to Seattle’s Zone 8b. Beth Chatto could be considered the founder and godmother of the summer-dry gardening style, with her decades of research on plants and their environments. Her extensive research set the foundation for this style of garden design that is both beautiful and sustainable. Beth has said of her garden, “This garden was not to be irrigated in times of drought. Once established, the plants must fend for themselves or die.” That really speaks to me and my willingness to push the envelope. Every year I keep telling myself about the plants in my garden, “Let’s see if they survive!” Luckily, most of them do. I water newly installed plants during the first year per Beth’s instructions, but after that they are left to fend for themselves as Beth would have wanted.

California tree poppy
It may be tough to grow, but once it finds a perfect spot, California tree poppy (Romneya coulteri, Zones 8–10) is a great summer-blooming shrub. It produces large white flowers with bright yellow centers that together create the overall look of fried eggs when blooming in July through August.

Siting correctly reduces maintenance

Like many designers, Beth Chatto was a proponent of the “right plant, right place” mantra. This is a great mantra to follow. Why waste precious resources such as water, fertilizer, or time to create and maintain an unsustainable garden? While no garden is maintenance-free, I have found that my summer-dry garden tasks are less intensive but more spread out through the year. These smaller, spread-out tasks help create a better connection to the garden by reinforcing the task of observation, and they help me closely watch what is happening seasonally.

silver feather grass
Summer horticulture intern students are collecting silver feather grass (Stipa barbata, Zones 5–9) seeds for propagation and sale for fund-raising at the garden. Their summer internship is helping create garden connections for the next generation of gardeners, landscape designers, and horticulturists.

Do some summer reading

I visited Beth’s garden in July 2018. It was one of the driest summers on record. Notwithstanding, the garden looked amazingly alive and full of bright flowering perennials, trees, and shrubs. Having reread Beth’s book The Gravel Garden, I was super excited to finally set foot in the actual gravel garden. (The book has been rereleased with an updated title, Drought-Resistant Planting: Lessons from Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, which provides greater detail of the plants she used and recommended.) Either book is a great addition to your home library; the latter has more updated plant names. I reference my copy at least two or three times a year.

blue tall verbena
Wispy, blue tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis, Zones 7–11) flowers on long narrow stalks that bloom all summer long. Depending on your location and winter weather, this plant can act like an annual, biennial, or perennial. The fat poppyseed pods are ripening in the summer heat. Nettle-leaved mullein (Verbascum chaixii, Zones 5–8) is almost finished blooming. Another great self-seeder, this plant has white flowers with dark purple eyes.

Bringing design principles home

I really enjoyed the journey that this garden took me on; it felt like a rich and beautiful garden in the Mediterranean. It is made to look simply designed, but as you investigate, it is complex with many layers of plants. I have tried to incorporate that feeling in my much smaller garden. The relaxed naturalistic style of loose plantings, lots of self-seeding annuals and perennials, and beautiful yet tough evergreen trees and shrubs, is extremely beautiful. I really love the similar and contrasting textures that this garden offers, which is something I have tried to recreate in my own garden.

Marginata agave
‘Marginata’ agave (Agave americana ‘Marginata’, Zones 8–11) is a tough California native that does well in this garden year-round. It is surrounded by bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum, Zones 4–8), lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina, Zones 4–8), false dittany (Ballota pseudodictamnus, Zones 7–10), and other drought-resistant annuals and perennials.

I hope this article and my photos inspire you to visit this amazing garden not only for the Gravel Garden itself but also for the other amazing gardens on Beth’s property. In part 2, I will go into how I designed my summer-dry garden and my clients’ gardens with inspiration from Beth Chatto.

—Jason Jorgensen is a landscape designer in Seattle. Photos of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden by Jason Jorgensen. 

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