IF there were a single word to sum up Beth Chatto's particular contribution to the art of gardening, it might well be ``leaves.'' Not that Mrs. Chatto exactly invented leaves. But she has opened gardeners' eyes to their many and various virtues, their contrasts and mutual enhancements of color, texture, form, and size, over the last 15 years, as possibly no one has before. She is described by doyen of gardening writers Christopher Lloyd as ``a household name among gardeners from England to New Zealand, from Minnesota to Japan.''
``If you garden in leaves and shapes,'' she tells me in the Chattos's modern split-level house with its picture glimpses of her Essex garden through every window, ``you've got an ever-changing, subtle harmony of color and texture. Leaves can be woolly, or silky, or ribbon-like, or ...''
Or, as we later walk under umbrellas on this leaden, half-wet autumn day that is surprisingly suited to the quiet visual congeniality of her kind of plantsmanship, we notice how plant leaves can be golden or silvery, heavy and succulent or light and feathery, gigantic or miniscule, round or pointed, bronze or pink-tinged, bottle-dark, strangely dun or brown, emerald or purple or orange. But how green is the peacemaker, the space-provider, between everything. You can go round most gardens, however superb, and scarcely notice such distinctions. Chatto's touch and eye - and she, not her few helpers, still does all the planting in her garden - are what tell.
Ever the informative lecturer (she was a teacher once and lectures today about gardening and plants worldwide) she observes: ``One needs to be as subtle and careful in putting leaf colors together as one does with flowers. Not, for instance, too much `gold' together with too much `purple.' A dark purple Rhus next to a golden-green Privet - you do see it being done - is like a kick in the stomach.''
Chatto's often outspoken opinions on gardening are much respected in the world of horticulture. Brent Elliott, librarian to Britain's Royal Horticultural Society, lists three things that distinguish her contribution to gardening: ``1. She has popularized a wide range of unusual plants. 2. Before she went into the nursery business she was a flower-arranger of high standing - and has brought her flair for flower-arranging into horticulture. 3. As an author she has produced two of the most important practical horticultural manuals of recent times.''
Seeing her garden at the end of the year proved to me what I was sure must be true, that Chatto is a year-round gardener. One thing she loves about gardening in leaves and shapes, she says, is that it ``keeps the garden'' interesting ``for months longer than if you just concentrated on the flowers.''
Not that she disdains flowers, particularly small, wildflower, tapestry-like ones. That's quite apparent at every point in her garden (which before 1960 was mere wasteland between two farms, without ``one piece of decent garden soil'' in it). But, she says, ``the flowers are a bonus. The garden is like a room. Of course it brings a room to life to take flowers into it - but it's the background furniture that must create the pattern.''
In tandem with her love of leaves is her preference for wild or species plants rather than the ``improved'' plants (cultivars) that lay so much emphasis on bright, strong color and enormous bloom heads. Many gardeners - at least until her message started to penetrate a little - have tended to garden only with cultivars, ``only thinking,'' she says, ``in terms of blocks of color.''
Chatto was already abandoning this sort of delphinium-and-dahlia gardening in favor of growing species plants when she and her husband moved to their present garden 30 years ago. In their previous garden, which they worked for 17 years, she had already learned from her husband ``the joy'' of gardening with wild plants, even though ``some people say `aren't they weeds?'''
But this new wilderness was so inhospitable - dry deep gravel in parts, black sour bog in others, nowhere soil with any kind of texture or quality - that she realized she would have to revise all her notions of gardening even more radically.
The extraordinary result of her rising to this challenge has been (apart from her two classic books - see boxed story - plus an annual sales catalog of ``Unusual Plants,'' sadly not for export) a minor revolution in the higher reaches of the horticultural world in Britain. For a decade she was given top awards at London's prestigious annual Chelsea Show, a recognition of the originality of her ideas.
In 1988 she decided that it was her garden that would now, instead of Chelsea, have to be her ``living catalog'' for the increasingly successful nursery she runs alongside it. This nursery was started because people kept asking for the plants she was growing - and because it helped finance her own garden.
Her stands at Chelsea were startlingly different. ``The majority [of nurserymen] primarily go for color,'' she points out. What she went for were ``leaves, big leaves, contrast of leaves.''
But it was also the way in which she placed and interrelated her foliage plants that had a kind of indefinable, magic touch. This touch had been fostered perhaps by her early interest in the arrangement of cut flowers and in the principles, though not the actual form, of traditional Japanese flower arranging.
At Chelsea over the years she watched others, on their stands, trying to imitate her methods, but she says (with due modesty) that they didn't always grasp why she ``put certain plants together.'' She even showed flowering plants in bud - quiet promise rather than the conventional overfulfillment typical of Chelsea displays.
Perhaps her artistry is unique. An artist friend and fellow-gardener in East Anglia, Cedric Morris, once told her: ``We all have the same colors, or the same musical notes, but we play different tunes with them.'' He said this when, surprisingly late on, she read for the first time the books of the Edwardian garden writer Gertrude Jekyll, to whom one might be tempted to liken her as a plantswoman.
But she is different and she does try to explain her art to others. Once, for instance, an immaculately dressed young woman came up to her at Chelsea and asked simply how she could achieve similar effects in her garden.
Chatto's answer mixed charm with bluntness. ``I said - you know very well how to dress yourself, if I may say so. So I can without doubt presume that your home is the same. You know exactly how to group your pictures and your furniture.... And I said - if you could take all that out into the garden - that's what you've got to do - you've got to have plants which take the place of the big bookcases and chests of drawers and tallboys and so on: They are the trees and shrubs, the big, background feature things - the framework to your view. Then you've got to fill in with the more comfortable things - lower bushes and shrubs - and then you have to have a floor covering: It may be grass or paving or `ground-cover' plants. Then you start collecting your `star performers,' your lamps and figurines and pictures: Outside these will be your Nerines or your Miscanthus or your Colchicums - accents of strong color.''
Accents of strong color are there in her garden; and when it comes to placing flower colors, she also has definite opinions. She doesn't ``have too much color all at one time of the year.''
So she makes a point of using plants like the Ceratostigmas ``lovely little blue things,'' which flower profusely in the fall but in June were merely ``forming a background.'' And she doesn't approve of flower colors that are ``dotty-spotty.'' She likes ``colors to be exciting like an Indian sari, not safe like `The Red Border' or `The White Border.'... I love pinks and yellows together, and little touches of scarlet.... Then,'' she adds, ``you've got the greens and grays of the foliage separating anything that might be too much.''
Back to leaves again.