Two of the nation’s best gardeners live in Suffolk and Essex. Who are they?

The glory of Helmingham Hall and its gardens. Photo: Marianne Majerus

The glory of Helmingham Hall and its gardens. Photo: Marianne Majerus - Credit: MMGI / Marianne Majerus

Two of the most significant female gardeners of the past 60 years live in Suffolk and Essex. Steven Russell discovers the secrets of their magic

The Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester are stunning in autumn.

The Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester are stunning in autumn. - Credit: Archant

It’s funny how things turn out. When a writer and photographer started work on a new book, it began life simply as a celebration of English gardens they admired – “made in the traditional mould by passionate amateurs”, as Heidi Howcroft puts it. As they whittled down their likes to a shortlist, she and photographer Marianne Majerus “realized that our favourites were predominantly created or maintained by women”.

Hence the reason their luscious new volume is entitled First Ladies of Gardening – Pioneers, Designers and Dreamers.

It lauds the 14 most significant lady gardeners of the past six decades. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Vita Sackville-West and her Kent garden at Sissinghurst is a grande dame from Suffolk and another from Essex.

Beth Chatto, whose much-visited gardens and nursery near Colchester cover about seven acres, is celebrated as one of England’s “pioneers of design”. Xa, Lady Tollemache, is one of the “new directions” gardeners. She lives at moated Helmingham Hall, dating from the early 1500s and about nine miles north of Ipswich.

Beth Chatto

Beth Chatto - Credit: Archant

Heidi Howcroft, a landscape architect who has written more than 20 garden books and has her own cottage garden in Somerset, reckons Beth Chatto (and late husband Andrew, who died in 1999) “achieved the impossible: she created a garden where none should have existed”.

She points out: “What many visitors tend to forget, or perhaps do not even realize, is that prior to 1960 there was no garden here at all. It came into existence through hard graft.

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“The lower area was uncultivated land unfit for farming; too dry on the slopes and too boggy in the hollows. The upper section, where the car park and Gravel Garden are now located, was part of a fruit farm that Andrew Chatto had inherited.

“Photographs taken in those early days, now on display in the cafe, bear witness to Beth Chatto’s impressive achievements. She is unquestionably one of the most important figures in the gardening world.

The pretty and tranquil gardens of Helmingham Hall

The pretty and tranquil gardens of Helmingham Hall - Credit: Lucy Taylor

“The last of her generation, she has learned everything from scratch and shares her vast knowledge and expertise with others, yet remains completely without affectation.”

Beth – who was born in 1923 – received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of the Society of Garden Designers four weeks ago.

Heidi argues: “Within the spectrum of English gardens, Beth Chatto’s does not fit into a particular category but has a character all its own. And therein lies its strength.

“Because the range of different conditions within the garden has given rise to a series of themed areas, the result is an extremely varied garden containing an immense breadth of plants.

Lady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham Hall

Lady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham Hall - Credit: Lucy Taylor

“At the same time, thanks to the way one area flows seamlessly into another, you are not conscious of the garden being divided into sections but can appreciate it as a single entity.”

Meanwhile, at Helmingham, low maintenance is not a label that could ever be applied, suggests Heidi.

“With its magnificent borders, its box and yew hedges, topiary, roses, meadows and vegetable beds, Helmingham encapsulates the essence of a historic country house garden – one not stiff or formal, but with personality and full of ideas that could easily be transferred to much smaller gardens.”

She explains how, in the 1960s, Xa’s mother-in-law, Lady Dinah Tollemache, created the first purely-floral area and a simple, formal parterre of box hedging.

First Ladies of Gardening, with Xa Tollemache (far left) and Beth Chatto (far right) on the cover!

First Ladies of Gardening, with Xa Tollemache (far left) and Beth Chatto (far right) on the cover! - Credit: Archant

It was at Helmingham in 1976 that Xa began her “apprenticeship” as a gardener. “Her teacher was Roy Balaam, who had worked in Helmingham’s gardens since he was a boy and by the age of twenty-four had been appointed head gardener.”

Lady Tollemache is quoted in the book as saying “When I was in my twenties I had no idea about gardening. Roy taught me everything.”

Heidi’s view: “He did such an excellent job of coaching his rather unusual ‘apprentice’ that Xa now not only develops her own garden with great aplomb but also designs gardens for other people.

“In 1997 she was invited to design her first garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show… Xa Tollemache’s gift for planting design ensured that her exhibit won a gold medal. However, it took Lady Tollemache twenty-five years of learning through experience in her own garden before she reached this high point in her gardening career.”

Xa, Roy and the team tend 10 acres. Heidi talks about the exuberant herbaceous borders in the walled garden having “a vibrancy and freshness difficult to capture even in the best photographs.

“Xa and Roy do not follow a dogmatic planting scheme, but combine the perennials with a slightly different selection of annuals each year. This ability to remix traditional elements, give them a twist, is a theme evident throughout the garden, ensuring there is always something exciting to see.”

Heidi adds: “The mixture of old and new, the combination of ornamental and kitchen garden plants, and the potpourri of colours, is refreshingly cheerful. Far from creating a museum-like garden for visitors, Xa Tollemache has composed a lively design which reconnects with the past.”

The writer notes the start of planting to create a small arboretum, which will have clearings here and there, and undulations in the lie of the land.

“Lady Tollemache is particularly proud of this aspect of her work, for ever since her appearances at Chelsea, where she watched the digger drivers in awe of their earthmoving skills, she has wanted to do the same. She now holds a certificate to drive a digger and can sculpt the earth herself.”

Heidi also points out, “when she felt she lacked the skills to get her design ideas down on paper, she opted for a course on technical drawing rather than garden design.

“She has come a long way since taking those fledgling steps many years ago, and has made herself a name as both a garden designer and a highly respected plantswoman.”

Lady Tollemache was elected to the council of the Royal Horticultural Society in 2013 and is a garden adviser at RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford.

“There is a strong sense at Helmingham that the past is cherished and, no matter how much the outside world might change, the Tollemaches will preserve and embellish this very special garden.”

First Ladies of Gardening, by Heidi Howcroft, with photography by Marianne Majerus, is published by Frances Lincoln, at £20.

The book looks briefly at the gardening philosophies, design principles and signature plants of the 14 ladies. Here are one or two concerning our local “grande dames”.

A couple of Xa Tollemache’s guiding principles: The emphasis is on having fun with colour and – to a lesser extent – a willingness to experiment. And: It is vital to draw inspiration from the past.

Signature plants include roses (such as Rosa ‘Debutante’) and wild flowers. Lady Tollemache says wild flowers are “decorative in the transition areas and exciting, as you never know what is coming”.

Two of Beth Chatto’s guiding principles: “Making a garden is like making a family; the urge to create and nurture is what drives us on year after year.” And: “Be guided by nature: plant the right plants in the right place.”

Signature plants include Wormwood (Artemisia) – “acts like a full stop at the end of a sentence” – and Bergenia cordifolia.