On a Chalk Hillside – February 2024

Published: 8th February 2024

Continuing my look at inspirational gravel gardens and their learning points for us, I mentioned last time that Derek Jarman had been in correspondence with Beth Chatto regarding suitable plants for his garden and that the BIG learning point (presumably for him as well as me) is her mantra “right plant, right place.”

We had visited Beth Chatto's garden in good weather in Summer 2001, but on our second visit on 8th of June 2019 it was bucketing down with rain. The gravel garden looked fuller, with bigger plants/more knitted together than I remembered, and it is bounded by trees and green hedges, so is insular, and contained into a garden space, unlike Derek Jarman's.


As you can see, it looks more like a more conventional garden – filled borders, wide gravel paths – how I planted up my existing gravel garden. The palette of plants are those that cope with drought – silver leafed or tiny shiny leaves, self-seeders, etc – but they are growing in a sufficiently sheltered spot not to be wind-sculpted. They also can grow to something much more like their “normal” growth potential, because they can get their roots down into something akin to soil, even with a gravel covering over them into with they are planted.


The Red Valerian (Centhranthus rubus) here is much larger than at Derek Jarman's, and it and the yellow flowered Verbascum visible in the photo before are at the same sort of size of growth as they achieve here on my chalk hillside. The Eucalyptus growing tall at the edge of the garden is used to coping with drought. The sub-species byzantinus seen flowering above also like the conditions (but not being here in my garden, I have never successfully managed to keep them from fading away.)

Considering I first saw these bulbs flowering in a garden beside the river Thames at Chiswick I think they like a gravel bed, rather than a chalk bed to grow on. Here they are in close up growing through Thymus ‘bedstart':-


Here you get a sample of the mats of Mediterranean herbs covering some beds – here thymes and oreganos. Whilst I have golden oregano in my garden, here, as you can see it's Oreganum ‘Thumble's Variety':-

golden oregano

(You can also see the raindrops on the camera lens!). There were also sages, including Salvia lavendulifolia as seen flowering purple on the right of this colourful flowering display:-

bc gravel colourful1

makes a big yellow splash top left of this, with a white flowered love in the mist below, and both cerise and white flowered Lychnis coronia towards the front. Not just taller hardy perennials thrive – here you can see many shrubs do too:-


There is the Broom () on the left, and bottom right some sort of euonymus (perhaps Euonymus fortune ‘Emerald and Gold' as we found here when we moved in). These shrubs give a sense of height and permanence to the planting I don't associate with gravel gardens. Here's a shot of himself walking through to give a sense of scale:-

bc gravel r silver higher

It was only when we went to Derry Watkin's garden in Cold Aston where she runs Special Plants that I began to grasp something of the difference between Beth Chatto's gravel gardening approach, and the conditions that Derek Jarman was operating in. We visited on our wedding anniversary last year, when she was giving a walk round and talk about gravel gardening on the one day a week she opens her garden.

As I said last month, it was raining – this time fine scotch mist type rain that makes you wet, very wet! Derry said she had a different gravel garden to Beth's in that Beth's was gravel mulch on top of subsoil/soil (as we know, whatever was underneath the top layer of the car park that she dug up to make her gravel garden.)

Derry had started with a completely scorched earth policy and had built up retained beds of eight feet depth of gravel (the aggregate of quite a lot bigger circumference than we had ever been recommended – more like pebbles and shingle.) Therefore all her plants were only planted in gravel. These beds hugged the left of the house, so that you came out of the kitchen and walked through the gravel garden and then down steps to the rest of the garden below.

She had been surprised that she didn't get weeds in the gravel, given that it was so deep, but it was excellent for self seeders. It was hard to get a photo of the gravel garden in its entirety, so here is a shot looking back towards the back door, showing that many plants are sheltered against the glass of the house to protect them from the weather:-


A closeup of a sea holly in this part of the garden (I am sorry I don't know which one it is):-


Derry grows plants to collect seed to sell, and to sow and grow on to sell in her nursery, so many tiny seedlings are allowed to grow here and then dug up and rehomed elsewhere in the gravel or, potted up to sell. She also constantly plants out tiny plants she has grown from seed into the gravel.

This idea of a huge depth of gravel rather than a mulch was very interesting to me, as I had remembered a local alpine expert had put in a gravel scree in his garden which had been a depth of six feet in which to grow his alpines. Somehow I had not really connected alpine and gravel garden plants in my mind, but with these depths of shingle/gravel, they would be enjoying very free drainage and poor “soil”, though not necessarily high light levels/wind/extreme seasonal fluctuations which I associate with alpine plants. (Though given the types of summers and winters we are currently experiencing, the seasonal fluctuations are much more extreme at the moment than they were.)

However, in both these gardens there were two aspects we do not have here – flatness, and hedges/buildings to provide shelter. No how much or little gravel we lay down, there is no getting away from the fact that gravel “walks”. To have any depth of aggregate we would have to do as Derry had done and build enormous buttress walls to hold the gravel in, to keep it as flat as possible. We were baulking at this prospect when she took us to her “new” gravel garden bed – also against the house, and also with a big retaining wall to contain the gravel, but they did not have the mechanical diggers/physical strength or will to dig out and fill to eight feet with gravel by hand, so had been built up with whatever came to hand, and has only inches of gravel on it, as with other gravel gardens:-


The second shot is taken from the path looking across, so you can see the gravel garden bed is raised more than a meter above the path below. Great for seeing the tiny plants at eye level, and giving you a different perspective. I wonder if we built some retaining walls, as we did in the top part of the garden, and then filled them with aggregate so that in places the gravel is much deeper than others we could get a similar experience, without having to dig out tons of earth and chalk by hand.

However, the shelter aspect, or boundary hedging will not be viable in our topography, as being on an easterly slope any plants/fence/hedge to protect from the prevailing westerly wind will cast deep shadow, not at all what plants adapted for drought need! So we will need plants, like at Dungeness that can cope with a lot of wind, and sun; but here also very wet autumn/winters, drought in the spring, and sometimes extreme heatwaves in summer (and drought).

I also want to give the plants space to exist, AND have found objects or pots/sculpture as focal points as well. I also think that not having defined edges to the new gravel garden, but letting it “bleed” into the surrounding garden as at Dungeness means I will be able to “borrow” existing trees or shrubs as focal points to frame the vista of the gravel garden, which I feel will help the sparser, shorter planting blend in.

Theorising out loud here, I think I am talking myself into this being part of, or off to one edge of the Denmans-inspired garden I was talking about in December, where there are plants to hide the next bit of the garden, and the whole is covered in gravel, with the beds' edge not noticeable from the path – which we were considering making from a type of modular cell-like structure (that is used on motorway embankments, pinned to the slope with soil rammed in – in our case hemmed in with wooden edging and filled with gravel. The beds then are mulched in the same gravel.

If we build some retaining walls/steps in places, then the gravel depth can get much greater there, with more specialised plants. I need to do more investigating of the products/practicality for a sloping terrain.
So from plans and aspirations for our gardening future, next month I shall turn to some contouring, landscaping and garden room creating that we have already realised.

Sheila May