Gardening Gardens Life Plants Travel

Volunteering at The Beth Chatto Gardens

I have just gotten back from my yearly one week “winter break” at The Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead Market outside Colchester in Essex. This was the seventh year I visited to spend a week working alongside the nursery and garden team. It has become a tradition and something I look forward to every year.

Even though February is cold in the UK and considered winter, it’s a lot more springlike than our norwegian winters, and I enjoy the possibility of being out amongst green grass, snowdrops and winter aconites and basically getting dirt between my fingers again.

Out and about in The Wood Garden after closing.

This tradition started seven years ago. I was planning on leaving my job as Editor in Chief of a large gardening magazine here in Norway because we had recently bought a smallholding in the countryside, and the long commute to work was beginning to feel tiresome. Also we wanted to start a nursery specialising in the herbaceous perennials we had seen on our travels, and loved so much, but had difficulty getting hold of back home.

I had never worked in a nursery. Off course I knew how to sow seeds, take cutting, split perennials and do root cuttings, but I didn’t really know how to organise it all, and how to produce perennials in a larger, more professional scale. That’s when I thought of Beth.

Seedlings and cuttings in The Propagation House.
Long rows of perennials in one of the shade tunnels.

I had been very fortunate to meet Beth Chatto on several occasions, both at Chelsea Flower Show but also at her garden that we had visited frequently. So when I wrote to Beth and asked if I could spend a week working alongside her nursery team, she was very kind to say yes. And I have been going back every winter since.


Redoing a border near The Reservoir Garden.

The first time I visited I spent all my time with the nursery team, but the last years I have spent more time with the garden team. The wonderful thing about going to the same place over several years is that you get to know the place, but also the people who work there very well. And if there is anything I want to know I can just ask and get advice.

Even though February feels very springlike to me, it is a time for winter activities in the garden, like weeding, digging over, pruning and cutting back. These things might not sound very exciting, but when you love gardening and being outside, like I do, getting to do these things in the middle of what is a cold frozen winter back home, is really wonderful.

Digging up arums. I didn’t get all the tubers…

Every winter visit to Beth Chatto gardens involves one or more sessions digging Arums. Arum italicum comes from the Mediterranean region. It was planted in the garden by Beth, because it has beautiful, leathery leaves,  green with  cream or white markings. It makes a wonderful contrast to white snowdrops and is a spot of green in the garden in the bleak wintery months. Unfortunately the Arums liked Beth’s garden a bit too much, and now it grows in large areas in the garden. There is a lot less of it now than there used to be, as the gardeners, volunteers and me ocassionally, keep digging it out. But even when you think you’ve gotten it all, there is still a bit of tuber left in the soil that will form new growth next year. Sometimes I dream of Arums in the night…

The Reservoir Garden

All gardens needs to redo areas now and again, and this time we were weeding a large bed near The Reservoir Garden. This area will be replanted in autumn with new plants.

The Reservoir Garden itself was looking stunning with all different grasses and dry seed heads. I remember one year we spent days digging weeds out of the large area that were to be the new Reservoir Garden. Seeing it now all planted up and full of new and exciting plants made all those hours digging in the wet clay completely worth it.

Seed heads that had fallen over were removed.

We went through the planting cutting back all the perennials that looked tatty. Any seed heads that was still upright and looking good were kept for a bit longer to bring interest to the garden.

Pruning of bamboo near the reservoir.

In winter we prune as well. This time one of the bamboos got a make over, which is very exciting for me as we can’t grow these big bamboos in Norway. By thinning out stems in the large clump we create an airier plant that we can sort of see through.

As well as bamboos, shrubby roses and a few other ornamental shrubs/small trees like Cotinus, Acer negundo and different elders (Sambucus) were cut back hard to a framework to allow for new, strong growth with larger leaves. One of the elders is a Sambucus canadensis ‘Maxima’ which has large flower heads in summer. I’m happy to have a plant of this cultivar growing in my own garden here in Norway too.

Morning frost on the stock beds.

For the last two years I have been lucky to stay on site while I’m over. Not only does this mean that I don’t have to commute in from Colchester, but I also get to stay nearer to the garden and can walk around after closing enjoying having the garden all to myself. I even got some nice shots as the sun was setting, and some as the sun was rising in the morning.

The Wood Garden 
The Reservoir
The Scree Garden
Near The Reservoir Garden
The Wood Garden 
The Gravel Garden
The Gravel Garden
The Wood Garden 
The Wood Garden 

I made a few short videos when I was over. If you want to watch them and hear me talking in Norwegian, they are on the youtube channel of our company Garden Living.

You can find them here.

Quick walk round The Water Garden

Quick walk along The Long Shady Walk

Quick walk round The Reservoir Garden

A longer walk around The Wood Garden

Quick walk round The Gravel Garden


You can also find more photos from my visit on my Instagram here and you can also visit The Beth Chatto Gardens Instagram here.

Last nigh in the nursery.

I enjoy every visit to the gardens, and hopefully this will not be my last one. A big thank you to the staff for making each visit so special.

And lastly Millie the nursery cat.

Millie the nursery cat

1 comment on “Volunteering at The Beth Chatto Gardens

  1. Scotty Stumoen

    Thank you Tommy


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