Scents and sensibility
In which we look at the value of Winter scent in a garden.
Centred around a two-acre Georgian Walled Garden, this journal charts the gardening year of the family responsible for the maintenance and preservation of this atmospheric and tranquil place.
Dating back to the early 1820s, and located in the rolling hills of South-East Scotland, the garden formed part of a 412 acre estate centred around a medium-sized Georgian mansion. The estate included a farm and woodland, but the mansion house fell derelict in the 1960's and most of the land was acquired by a neighbouring estate.
Our family moved into the converted gardener’s cottage in 2003, acquiring the walled garden and a small section of the surrounding ‘pleasure grounds’, as they were known. While the mansion is long gone, traces of the original pleasure grounds remain in the form of some ornamental railings and some notable tree and shrub species, including two large Giant Redwoods (Sequoidendron giganteum), a Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria), some notable Rhododendron species, Yew (Taxus), Holly (Ilex) and Laurel (Prunus), plants very much to be found in the grounds of Georgian and Victorian estates. Indicators of the wealth of the original owner, an ice house and 'doocot' can also be found on the estate.
Over the past 20 years or so, it has been very much a family garden and has had to compete for time with all the other pressures of a busy family existence. We have had no outside help, so the garden had to be maintained at weekends, with the occasional day off here and there! In the last couple of years or so, we have been able to find a little more time to develop and tend the garden, but the challenge has always been coming to terms with what you can achieve in the time available with the resource you have. In the early days, we attempted to do too much - by trying to keep it as a productive walled garden, so the garden of the present day has been simplified and evolved into an ornamental garden.
Since August 2003, we’ve replanted the borders of the walled garden, introducing new herbaceous and shrubs species as well as some ornamental features. We have replaced the nettles with rhododendrons in the woods, and restored other areas of the garden that had become overgrown.
Most important for us, though, has been to preserve what's there. No living trees or shrubs of note have been removed. Hedges and fruit trees continue to be maintained as they have been for the last c.200 years. We have continued to plant for wildlife, with no pesticide use.
Similarly, we have tried to preserve the sense of place, atmosphere, and spirit of the garden, a place of tranquillity and peace. We don't over-manicure it, the lines are not straight and some weeds are encouraged!
The garden is very much a labour of love and it demands, and we think deserves, attention all the year round from when the weeds start to grow in February/March to the pruning of the last apple tree in mid winter. It is a living clock, gently marking the passage of time.
We have created this website to chart the progress of this tranquil and beautiful place, perhaps to help us justify the hours of mowing, hoeing and pruning we dedicate to it. The garden is by no means in the same league as the many wonderful Scottish large and small gardens open to the public, and yet, despite this, we think there might be one or two virtual visitors who might find our occasional tales from a Scottish Country Garden of some passing interest. For those who have acquired or inherited a large garden, perhaps, and who may feel somewhat overwhelmed, perhaps our stories may inspire. It can be done!
In January 2023, following early retirement, we established a Gardening Coach and Consultancy company, The Scottish Country Gardener, as we felt that a lot of our learnings could be useful to others embarking on a challenging garden project, whether large or small!
The cultivated parts of the garden comprise around 4.5 acres, centred around a 2-acre Walled Garden.
The Walled Garden
The epicentre of the garden is The Walled Garden, a haven from the local populations of roe deer, hares and rabbits, which are all frequent visitors to the policies round about.
Contrary to expectation, our Walled Garden is not in fact square but more of a rhomboid, angled to optimise the sun's rays. Optimising the power of the sun is the art of walled garden design and all our walls are constructed differently, depending on their aspect. Our south facing wall, for example comprises a lower half of stone with an upper layer of brick, designed for fruit trees that like cool roots but require the radiated warmth of the sun to ripen the fruit. Our west-facing wall and the outer south-facing walls are 100% brick. In the former case, this is to optimise the heat of the afternoon sun, while for the latter, there are no surrounding walls helping to keep the temperature up, hence the need for greater heat storage offered by the bricks. Bricks were expensive in the 19th Century, so the walls that receive minimal sun (the north- and east-facing walls) were built from cheaper, locally-hewn stone from the quarry nearby. In the spring, summer and autumn, the air temperature in the Walled Garden is often several degrees warmer than outside the walls, creating a valuable microclimate.
Formerly, the Walled Garden would have been the productive garden, the “larder” providing the big house with fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers. Aided by the nearby ice house to keep produce fresh, the head gardener would have been expected to work alongside the estate farm to provide fresh and wholesome fare all the year round. The big house is now just a space in the woodland, its location disclosed by some tangled wrought iron fencing and one or two specimen trees still standing, proudly marking a bygone age.
While we did have a sizeable fruit and vegetable garden in our early years here, this proved too labour-intensive, so these areas were put down to lawn with some spring-flowering ornamental Prunus trees, and have since been developed into the Summerhouse Garden and the Old Orchard.
On all four sides of the Walled Garden, deep mixed borders house a variety of shrubs and herbaceous, in addition to a significant number of fruit trees (apple, pear, plum and cherry) grown in a variety of styles, including espalier, pillar and fan-trained. Some of the trees are thought to be original plantings.
The distinguishing and dominant feature of our Walled Garden is a large and rather unusual T-shaped English Yew arbour which essentially divides the garden into 3 segments, which are known as The Teacup Garden, The Summerhouse Garden and the Old Orchard.
The Teacup Garden
is so-called after the two flat-topped Yew bushes that preside over the garden; it could be said that these resemble teacups, albeit without handles! To the west and south of this garden are deep mixed borders, with a number of notable plants, including large specimens of Eucryphia, a mass of white blossom in August much beloved of bees, varieties of Magnolia soulangiana, in both white and rich purple, and Mahonia (believed to be x. Winter Sun) with its scented yellow winter blossom and cork-like bark. A fine specimen of Acer palmatum Atropurpureum sits in the north-east corner. Other plants of note include a pink-flowering Camellia, tree Paeonies (P. lutea), and a young Garrya elliptica, providing winter interest with its long white tassles.
In front of these borders are island beds containing our collection of rather unfashionable but wonderfully scented Hybrid Tea roses, which flower in myriad shades from June through until January, snow-permitting. On the north side lies our much-loved timber greenhouse, which evidences signs of a former life before it came to our garden. It has a rather charming northward 'lean', but seems stable enough! Unheated in winter,and home to a vigorous Black Hamburgh grape, it houses the Agapanthus until around May, when a summer hothouse display takes over, with seeds germinating there in March and April. Beside the greenhouse is a Box-lined Potager with various herbs and insect-friendly plants.
In order to create a focal point nearer to the house, in summer 2016 we installed a circular, raised goldfish pond in the south-west corner of the Walled Garden. This has transformed what used to be a rather unexciting gravel sweep for car parking into a more interesting informal seating area during the summer months where a variety of half-hardy and tender plants are set out, complemented by the therapeutic sound of tinkling water from the fountain. Clipped Portuguese Laurel roundels mark the portals to the Summerhouse Garden and The Old Orchard.
The Summerhouse Garden
in the north-east corner of the Walled Garden was given this name in Autumn 2021 with the erection of the Summerhouse (supplied by Chelsea Summerhouses) on the site of the old compost heap, a more aesthetic feature for the warmest corner of the garden! The Summerhouse Garden has a cottage-garden feel to it, with deep mixed borders on its north and east walls. Winter aconites under the apple tree herald the arrival of spring, to be followed by naturalised daffodils in variety and tulips in May. In addition to swathes of colourful herbaceous, including an impressive array of lupins in the spring, the exotic red flares of Lobelia tupa in the summer, Echinacea and Eryngiums, modern shrub roses have been planted to contribute some welcome scent throughout the summer months. An adjacent island bed features a small collection of Paeonies with their large blowsy blooms. Clothing the walls are honeysuckle species, climbing roses and fan-trained pears. Recent additions include a Killarney Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) and a Gingko biloba.
The Yew Arbour
Separating all 3 gardens in the Walled Garden is our T-shaped Yew arbour, now a simple green space of mossy grass and high hedges of English Yew, where a single sundial charts the progress of the day. An original and formal feature, an old photograph indicates that the arbour used to have gravel paths, ornamental urns, a comfortable bench and very possibly herbaceous borders. It is, however, now a haven for nesting birds in the spring and a valuable winter refuge for birds and insects in the winter. The hedge, which is over 2 metres wide in places, is trimmed every autumn.
The Old Orchard
can be accessed from both the Summerhouse and Teacup Gardens. A long border dedicated to shade-loving plants is the major feature of this garden, where large hostas and Tree ferns provide the backdrop for spring and summer primulas, Himalayan Blue Poppies and the large pink and white goblets of Colchicum species. On the west-facing wall, a number of aptly-named pillar apples can be found, where all the fruit grows on spurs off the main trunk. There are some free-standing apples here too, believed to be original plantings which, despite their age, continue to provide wonderful crops of cooking and eating apples. In addition to a wealth of blossom, Spring colour is provided by naturalised Bluebells, Daffodils and Tulips. In the corner of the Old Orchard is a recently installed lion's head water feature, providing an aural accompaniment of tinkling water as one returns to the Teacup Garden.
The Drying Green and Secret Gardens
On the other side of the south wall of the Walled Garden are the Drying Green and Secret Gardens, both backed by a brick-faced wall to their north, offering excellent heat storage for the range of fan-trained apple and pear trees found here and a 5' beech hedge to their south. Beyond a small alpine garden, the Drying Green is a particular suntrap and our butterfly garden; at its best in the late summer, Buddleia, Rudbeckia, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea, Cosmos and Dahlias attract a variety of different species including Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell.
At the end of the Drying Green is the Secret Garden, so-named as this is partly concealed by a mature Laburnum tree, which is smothered in a cascade of yellow blossom each May. Here a small vegetable garden has been created, comprising a series of timber raised beds, which were installed during the 'lockdown' summer of 2020. Naturalised with scented Jonquila daffodils for the spring and Amaryllis belladonna for the late autumn, this area is nicely sheltered by the restored (c.2010) beech hedge to the south of this garden which had reverted in previous years into an avenue of tall, multi-stemmed beech trees. These were shading out the elderly wall-trained apples and pears growing there and preventing them from flowering and fruiting. Happily these trees have made an impressive recovery, all now bearing good crops on an annual basis. At the far end of the Secret Garden, a young Magnolia grandiflora has been planted where the north and east walls adjoin, sheltered by one of the original hollies to its east. In the spring, a number of ornamental acers will be added to this secluded area.
The Slope and Woodland
To the west of the Walled Garden and separated by the driveway to the house are The Slope and the Woodland. Large lime, oak and sycamore trees provide the canopy to these areas. In May and June, the Rhododendrons and Tree Paeonies, to which we have gradually added over the past 20 years, provide a fine display in the Woodland, following on from the swathes of snowdrops that herald the spring. Thereafter, the Woodland becomes a cool green space, centred around a magnificent lime (Tilia).
The Slope is our collection of smaller, more ornamental trees, including Cherries, Silver and white-stemmed Birch, Rowan, and golden and dark-leaved Acers. Of particular note is a Pocket Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata), which flowered for the first time in 2022, and golden and green-leaved forms of Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Plantings in this area include naturalised Daffodils and Narcissus in the Spring and various species of Hosta and fern.
The Lily Pond
South-west of the house lies the Lily Pond. Housing our collection of water lilies, which provide white, pink, red and yellow blooms from June to early October, this wildlife pond was originally built with a deep water area for over-wintering ornamental fish. Despite preventive netting, visits from heron, mink and possibly otter during the first winter led to their early demise, however. As we decided not to restock, the pond supports a far greater range of equally interesting invertebrate and amphibian species, including, for the month of August, a number of dragonflies and damselflies, and a resident newt population. The pond is also a regular watering hole for families of elegant roe deer, with their sleek russet coats contrasting beautifully against the frost of a winter's morning.
The Meadow lies to the west, south and east of the house. Mown just once a year in the Autumn, this area is managed for wildlife and can be navigated via a series of grass paths.
There is very little planting in this area, the main feature being the wonderful views of the surrounding hills.
Looking south east over a magnificent stand of mature conifer and broad-leaved trees, and down to a mist-wreathed meadow beyond, our lower meadow is our wildlife area, teeming with insects, regularly visited by roe deer, foxes and badgers, and overflown by swallows, house martins, buzzards, owls and bats.
A miscellany of seasonal highlights
Autumn vies with the summer for the most colour in the garden. September can be an honorary summer month at times, the mercury still capable of reaching the low 20’s Celsius. The Dahlias and Cosmos, are often at their best in September and very often flower into November, providing the frosts stay away. Green, white and dark purple Gladioli are cut for the house. Late flowering herbaceous including Crocosmia, Achillea, Verbena bonariensis, Rudbeckia Goldsturm and Schizostylis provide a welcome complement, dotted here and there by the naked blooms, white and pink, of various Colchicum varieties, which just appear overnight from nowhere!
The Hybrid Tea roses continue to scent the air with their wistful aromas, the blooms often lasting longer than those appearing in the summer. From the cooling ground, the exotic blooms of Nerines, Amaryllis and the tiny autumn-flowering cyclamen emerge, little jewels to brighten the dull days.
The fruit trees are laden with apples, pears and the last of the plums, providing a welcome feast for human and non-human. Fruit-eating butterflies such as Red Admirals and Peacocks, feasting on the windfalls, can be seen well into October. Birds feed on the seed from the 'Russian Giant' sunflowers, purposefully left in the ground, and the fruits from Cotoneaster and Rowan.
As the autumn advances, the hours of daylight reduce and the temperatures slowly decline, so the tapestry of trees on The Slope and round the Walled Garden starts to change, the cherries and rowans first, followed by the acers, ashes and larches – a riot of reds, purples, oranges and golds.
In the garden, we welcome less weeding but there still remains much to be done. The grass in the walled garden continues to grow well into November, still requiring mowing, whereas outside the walls, it ceased growing a full month previously.
In the autumn, the frost-tender plants including the agapanthus, the bays and the Banana return to their winter quarters undercover and the tree ferns are wrapped in their winter straw coats.
While the start and end of each day is marked by the calls of skeins of geese heading for and returning from their feeding grounds, the prevailing sound of the autumn is that of the two-stroke engine. The long grass that grows underneath the old apple trees in the Walled Garden and the Secret Garden is strimmed down and mown, giving the wildflowers a good chance of self-seeding. It is also hedge trimming time, including the T-shaped Yew arbour; we aim to complete this work by the end of October before the serious frosts arrive.
Winter is a time of short days, contrasting skies of either astonishly bright blue or dark battleship grey, a time when the giants in the garden slumber, and when form and outline take over from texture and colour.
Winters in this part of Scotland are more unpredictable than they once were. Sub-zero temperatures seem less common and strangely mild days can occur at any time. Deep snow is rare.
Some plants are growing - hellebores, aconites, snowdrops - despite the sub-zero temperatures overnight and flurries of snow. In the Wood, from early December, the snowdrops are stirring underneath the leaf-litter. On a still day, the scent from the viburnums and mahonia hits you as you stop to admire their blooms. The polyanthus and the winter pansies seem determined to flower before anything else.
This is a time when the evergreen laurels, bamboo, ferns and conifers come into their own, when structure takes over and you get a return on all those hours spent trimming the hedges just a few months before.
While the pulse of the garden slows, that of the gardener does not! During December and January, each of the 80 or so apples and pears in the walled garden is pruned by hand, a huge task but one which brings substantial reward in April and May when thousands of white and pink, scented blossoms appear on the tracery of branches, very often before the leaves energe - a magnet for hungry bees! And then of course the harvest in the autumn! The pruning continues unless we are 'snowed off', with the fruit bushes next, followed by summer-flowering shrubs, some feathering of ornamental trees, concluding with the Hybrid Tea roses at the end of February/early March.
In the borders, we try to leave stalks, stems, flower and seed heads for as long as they remain upright and decent. They are temporary residences for the insect population and on a sunny day in December, ladybirds often emerge to take the air from the hollowed-out stems. Early frosts bring to life old seed heads, crystallising them in nature's frosty glitter. By the end of March, however, new shoots will appear in the borders, so the clearance work will be completed by then.
And Winter is of course a time to plan, a time to dream, before the garden year starts all over again...
Spring is when Nature's powerhouse cranks into action. When the garden accelerates into life. When the birdsong is at its loudest. When the green is at its greenest. And when the sunlight is at its brightest. The most dynamic time of year is here in the Scottish Country Garden.
And it starts early with the winter aconites which pop up their cheery yellow heads during the first sunny days of January under the apple trees in the Walled Garden and under the old sycamores on the Slope, closely followed by the snowdrops which emerge from the leaf litter in the woodland and the tomassinianus Crocuses, a small sea of blue gradually encroaching on the main lawn.
In the woodland, The Slope, the South Lawns and under the old apple trees in the walled garden, the daffodils and Narcissus with their cheery yellow, cream and white trumpets herald the arrival of spring. Tulips and hyacinths follow, with their heady aroma.
Reacting to the warm sunlight, the buds on the trees and shrubs start to break with the flowering currant always first, and on a still day, you can actually hear the Scots pines starting into growth as they shed their protective sheathes making way for the first needles of the year.
In the Walled Garden, the intriguing forms and colours of the herbacaeous foliage unfurls and extends. The previously bare skeletons of the apples, pears and plums burst into scented flower, a riot of white and pink, almost before their light green foliage emerges. Bees and other insects relish the opportunity of the early pollen they offer.
Walk between the Yew hedges at this time of year and marvel at the blackbirds, thrushes, robins and sparrows continually coming and going to feed their hungry broods. From late April, the swallows and house martins return from their African winter homes.
In the lily pond, the water is moving with the annual invasion of frogs and toads spawning, followed by the more sedate newts, which almost seem out of place for a Scottish pond. The water lilies in the shallows react to the sun's increasing powers, unfurling the first of their bronze and apple green leaves. Round in the Walled Garden, the Goldfish emerge from their winter torpor, eager to snap up the first of the year's fly larvae.
In the greenhouse, from early April, pots and trays of seeds abound. By late spring, it is light around 4am in the morning and the last rays remain until around 10pm at night, so the seedlings develop rapidly in the accompanying warmth.
The Scottish summer is a variable phenomenon. With weather often more disappointing than the spring that precedes or the autumn that follows, paradoxically it is this very climate that contributes to making Scotland an almost perfect growing environment and home to some of the world’s finest gardens.
Rain falls when we most need it, and temperatures seldom exceed 20 degrees C, and this, combined with approaching 20 hours of daylight in high summer, results in vibrant lushness of leaf and prolonged intense flowering for the entire season.
Here in the garden, early June sees a mass exodus of young plants leaving the Greenhouse for our summer plantings. Dahlias, Cosmos and Sunflower remain stalwart summer bedding, helping extend the flowering period in the garden right into the autumn and providing impact at a time of year where colour can be hard to find in the borders.
When the overwintering agapanthus start to show their asp-like buds, they leave the greenhouse for the summer, bound for the gravelled seating area beside the goldfish pond, making way for the summer displays.
From June, the Hybrid Tea roses start their eight-month flowering period, a feast of colour and evocative scent. We have in excess of 25 varieties in the garden, some of more modest colour than others. They share two large island beds which, with the the backdrop of herbaceous planting behind, provide a lovely show for much of the summer.
In the pond, the water lilies start to push their pink, white, red and yellow buds above the water-level, flowering continuously from early June right through until the waters start to cool in September.
The ornamental trees on The Slope and the woodland, their spring flowering flourishes over, adopt their more muted tones of green, in all shades imaginable. In the walled garden, the fruit trees tempt us with some first indications of what the late summer harvest will bring.
The Drying Green and the Meadow are alive with insects, including many species of butterfly - Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Painted Lady as well as the ubiquitous Whites. Damselflies and very occasionally a dragonfly overfly the pond like miniature Chinook helicopters, watched from beneath the surface by our resident newt colony. At dusk, the Pippistrelle bats take over the aeronautical displays from the swallows and house martins. The flowers of the sentinel limes (Tilia) disclose their honey-scented blooms and hum, perpetually, from dawn to dusk as millions of bees top up their pollen reserves.
Grass cutting and weeding are the order of the day for the Gardener, a continual process.
We hope you've enjoyed visiting The Scottish Country Garden. In January 2023, we established a new consultancy, The Scottish Country Gardener, providing a range of advisory and coaching services aimed at helping you get the most out of your garden. If you've just moved to a property with an established garden or are starting from scratch in an exciting new-build, and would like a friendly face to provide some pointers, suggestions and recommendations, then do get in touch - we'd love to help you make your outside space your dream garden!