The summer of 2018 was a glory – as long as you weren’t a gardener. For those of us who fret about plants, it was a season as much to be endured as enjoyed. After a cold, late spring, the weather had pulled a U-turn, swerving into an intense dry heat that lasted from June to the end of August. With 7 per cent less rain than even the summer of ’76 – still, after a whole series of climatic upheavals, the touchstone for freak British weather – it wasn’t so surprising that anything newly planted shrivelled in the furnace. More shocking was the number of weighty, established plants that turned their faces to the wall. In my garden in Sussex we lost shrubs and trees that had been happy and healthy for twenty years: Korean lilac, a beautiful Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’, pompom willows, a huge evergreen elaeagnus. Clumps of tickweed flopped; what should have been giant angelica, sown in hope a year before, couldn’t drag itself higher than a few inches off the ground.
Sadly, the Englishwoman best placed to cope with and comment on conditions like these wasn’t around to see them. Beth Chatto, gardener, writer and popularizer of the motto ‘the right plant in the right place’, had died that May, at the excellent age of 94. Regardless of both the weather and Chatto’s departure, her famous garden and its associated nursery bloomed on. As you would expect: its creator wrote what has been for four decades the go-to text for anyone who knows what it is to look at the sky and pray for a drop of rain.
The Dry Garden, Chatto’s first book, was published in 1978, two years after that earlier record-breaking summer. It offered gardeners who’d come to hate the sight of a hose 180-odd pages of drought-beating design, planting and maintenance advice. Crucially, this was based on experience hard-won after what was then already nearly forty years of nurturing plants in East Anglia, England’s driest corner. Within two years th
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