This was the whole, first, reason for my trip. The Beth Chatto Symposium: Ecological Planting in the 21st Century at the University of Essex at the end of August.
When I first moved from California, to a more temperate, cooler, wetter, climate and brought with me my droughty sense and love of the chaparral I also packed my plant list. I started bringing plants north too; for my garden, for the farm and for my work. When I decided to start a nursery, specializing in drought tolerant plants, appropriate to summer dry climates and planted according to their origins and needs, I naturally turned for inspiration and mentoring to Beth Chatto. Her climate in Essex was very similar to the one I lived in within the Salish Sea; I loved England like a home and so it felt comfortable for me to look that direction as well as my Californian home, for a broader palette and differing ideas. It was an ideal mix. Beth’s books were my constant companions. When The Gravel Garden was published I, and who knows how many thousands of others, wrote to her in gratitude and admiration. She wrote back a dear post card, probably similar to many, that encouraged me, thanked me and invited me to the garden. Thanks to an open-minded client, I made my first gravel garden a few years after the book came out and diligently applied her ideas, methods and plant lists in my own way with my own plants and it was a great success and great fun. I have cherished her invitation to visit all these years but never managed to get to Essex to meet her or the garden. So, with the huge gift of a plane ticket, I was able to finally see the garden and more importantly probably, listen to and learn from the amazing speakers assembled at the symposium to share their knowledge and inspirations.
I can’t quite find words for the effect the two day event had on me as it was as life-changing as I had hoped. But I felt as if I had come out of a cave into the most glorious garden of minds, hearts and swelling ideas about plants, the planet, our place in it, climate change and not one moment of discouragement and hopelessness. I felt I had joined into a family of plants people as never before. I won’t attempt much in the way of retelling what was spoken, shared and learned; another time for that. But…
To hear Dan Pearson, Cassian Schimdt, Marina Christopher, Olivier Filippi, James Hitchmough, Keith Wiley, and the ones new to me, Midori Shintani (what a joy she is!), Peter Korn, Peter Janke, Andi Pettis was so wonderful for the shear volume of brilliance, enthusiasm and their clear love of plants. Add to that the powerful presence of so many (500) other adventurous, optimistic and open-minded plant loving, planet loving, horticulturally driven, artistic people from 26 countries with a passion to make beautiful gardens and share them. I learned so much and was alight with motivation to practice new ideas and return to old loves. Thank you to Amy Sanderson, David Ward, Asa Gregors-Warg and all the staff at the Beth Chatto Garden for the wonderful event. And of course, to Beth herself who, as they kept saying, was with us in spirit all the time.