Many keen gardeners and horticulturists know the phrase “Right Plant, Right Place” .
But none other than Beth Chatto coined this term illustrating her clever observations and creative planting schemes with the help of her husband Andrew Chatto. Through decades of studies she created garden that marked a new period of gardening.
Yet there is one woman that worked by her side for many years, creating new parts of the garden and keeping the “Right Plant Right Place” ethos alive.
It is none other than the head gardener Asa Gregers-Warg that is responsible for managing the iconic Beth Chatto Gardens and it´s successful nursery.
After meeting her earlier this year to chat about Beth Chatto and her achievements she kindly agreed to answer a few questions herself about her passion for plants, the gardens and about being a head gardener.
Starting your horticultural career in Sweden, what made you move to the United Kingdom?
I was looking to broaden my horticultural skills and plant knowledge. What better place to go than the UK, with its great tradition of gardens and gardening? I admired the way Beth put her plants together, aesthetically, as well as her ethos and philosophy, so I wrote her a letter asking if it would be possible to come and work for her. Luckily she said yes.
How does the culture of Swedish gardens differ to the culture you get to experience in the United Kingdom?
The main difference is the climate. The mild (by Swedish standards) winters here in Essex not only extends the growing season, it also allows for a much broader plant palette to be used.
Sweden has plenty of beautiful and horticulturally interesting parks and gardens, and there’s certainly no shortage of passionate plantsmen and women who grow unusual plants. However, very few places (in my opinion) can rival the likes of Great Dixter and the Beth Chatto Gardens, where you almost feel like you’ve been invited into a friend’s (albeit larger than usual) private garden. These places somehow manage to feel intimate, despite large visitor numbers, and personal; reflecting their creators’ different characters, artistry and plantsmanship.
Have you always had a connection to horticulture?
I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and the natural landscape. I loved growing plants, but I don’t think the word horticulture was on my radar when I was younger. It certainly wasn’t a career you were encouraged to pursue if you were considered academic and did well at school. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, re-doing my parents small garden and finding myself thoroughly enjoying the process, that I started to think of gardening and horticulture as a possible career.
How did you become the head gardener at the Beth Chatto gardens?
I started working for Beth in 2001 and got to know the gardens intimately over the next few years. I made a daily habit of spending a few hours after work in the gardens or on the nursery’s stock beds, familiarising myself with the plants. I gradually took on more and more responsibilities as Beth became less and less able to be physically involved in the daily running of the gardens; acting as her right hand for quite a few years before I officially became her head gardener.
How will the Beth Chatto Gardens evolve to in the near future?
Gardens always change and evolve, it’s in their nature, they never stand still. Dealing with a mature garden, there will always be areas in need of rejuvenation. Some of these changes can be planned for and sometimes they occur organically when, for example, a large tree reaches the end of its life-span and needs to be removed; an event which may change the whole ambience or look of that particular part of the garden.
Beth set up an Education Trust a few years ago, to carry forward her passion for plants and ecological approach to all age groups. We offer school visits, courses and events, as well as a traineeship. It’s still early days, but it’s something we’re working on developing.
What is the biggest misconception of being a head-gardener?
People always assume that being a head gardener equals a low-stress job and lifestyle. When in fact you’re a manager, with the same responsibilities as in any other industry. It’s also an all-absorbing commitment, a way of life. There are never enough hours in the day and most evenings are spent catching up on admin.
What has been a highlight in your career so far?
There are so many! This year’s highlight was the Beth Chatto Symposium held in August 2018. A wonderful event, bringing so many keen horticulturists from all over the world together. It also became a fitting tribute to Beth, who sadly passed away earlier this year aged 94, honouring and celebrating her horticultural achievements.
What is the most important thing you learned in gardening so far?
Work with the growing conditions you’ve got. Don’t fight against nature. Beth’s ethos ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ makes perfect sense, but early in my career I often got seduced by plants I knew I’d struggle to grow. These days I wouldn’t dream of trying to grow Meconopsis betonicifolia in dry Essex.
Beth taught me to really look at the plants and observe them closely. Her plant descriptions were so beautiful and evocative; she’d notice the smallest details and could paint a picture with words, giving the reader a true sense of the plants’ character. It was also apparent that she knew her plant inside out, having grown them herself for many years.
The importance of soil preparation. It always pays off to be thorough and invest time, money and effort into preparing the soil (this includes removing perennial weeds) before planting.
What is your favourite part of being a head-gardener?
My favourite part of the job? Getting to spend my work hours in such a beautiful environment (well, not the office, which is cramped, cold and dusty); working with and being surrounded by plants, working with a great team; having the opportunity to meet other keen horticulturists and visit their nurseries and gardens.
It’s also all those fleeting moments in the gardens: spotting the first Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ bloom in December; seeing the garden covered in hoar frost; watching silvery, wispy Stipa barbata awns wave and shimmer in the slightest breeze; a ray of golden autumn sunlight filtering through leaves…
What advice would you give a young Horticulturist?
Regrettably there seem to be less and less focus on plants and plantsmanship at horticultural colleges. The best way to get to know plants is to grow them yourself. Not everyone has got a garden at home, but perhaps you can find a small plot somewhere where you can grow and trial different plants and plant combinations. Do an internship in a garden or nursery. There are plenty of grants and bursaries for those wanting to study, travel or do an internship, so be proactive and make sure you get to experience a lot of different plants and garden styles, which will give you a broader understanding of horticulture.
One final piece of advice: look after yourself. Gardening is a physically demanding job and we tend to work outdoors in all weathers, which can take its toll on the body. You might not feel it in your twenties, but you don’t want to end up with a bad back, arthritis, skin cancer or repetitive strain injuries a couple of decades later.
And if you want to keep up with Asa and her team or get some of Beth Chatto´s magic for your own garden you can visit their website:
Look out for their magic on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bethchattogardens/
And follow them on Twitter for learning all about the gardens: