Hope springs eternal

Autumn colours on the castle, 6 October 2021.

There’s a lot of hope involved in gardening. I watch Joanna tending her cuttings in the enlarged propagation bench. On the hot days of September it needed a lot of care – shading the cuttings with a green mesh in the heat, but rolling back the mesh to water or mist maybe four or five times a day.

Joanna mists the cuttings, 29 September 2021.

Then as the cold nights kicked in the contrast between night and day temperatures put another strain on the precious bounty. And bounty it is – bestowed by the garden, tended with care, and reaped with hope. Cuttings and seeds for next year; sustainable and satisfying. Gardeners have been taking cuttings and sowing seeds since ever there were gardens.

Collecting cuttings, 20 September 2021.

The need for sustainability to underpin garden practice becomes more and more essential as we contemplate the mess we are making of the planet.

After I had written this paragraph I spent the evenings watching the Chelsea Flower Show. I sometimes criticise Chelsea for its extravagance, but I always find something to inspire and this year I felt there was much that resonated; there was even a Garden of Hope. In this case the hope related to the mental health of new mothers. Now that the show is over the Garden of Hope is to be moved to Rosewood Mother and Baby Unit in Dartford to fulfil its purpose. The RHS COP26 garden highlighted the Climate Crisis and how gardens can help to address the problem, whilst still creating lovely places around our homes even if on a balcony or window box. There was plenty about sustainability and the importance of wild areas in the garden. The perfect lawn got a slating, being positioned in the decline area of the garden. In the words of RHS ‘A perfect bowling-green lawn is a key feature here [in the decline area], because it represents a relatively lifeless monoculture, and it also requires lots of inputs such as water and fertiliser. Consider whether you really need those perfect stripes.’

The Fountain Garden lawn is full of biodiversity, 11 October 2021.

Sometimes I thought Chelsea should take its own advice more seriously: ‘consider where your hard landscaping materials are coming from. Try to source locally-made and recycled products in preference to imported ones wherever possible’. For me the most heart-warming award was for Tom Massey’s design for the Yeo Valley Organic Garden which not only won a gold medal, but was also voted the People’s Choice. No peat, no pesticides and a bit of the wild are finally becoming fashionable; in fact essential. With Chelsea taking place in autumn for a change, the planting was full of yellows, oranges and reds – the colours that are so evident in the Upper Pool Garden at Crathes, which used to be called the Colour Garden. I noticed the tall yellow rudbeckia in The Yeo Valley garden – possibly the same as the one that grows at Crathes, Rudbeckia lacinata ‘Herbstsonne’.

Rudbeckia lacinata ‘Herbstsonne’ on the Double Herbaceous Border, 13 September 2021.
Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ in the Upper Pool Garden, 13 September 2021.

Though there is still much to enjoy in the garden at Crathes the gardeners’ focus is on next year; on taking in tender plants and growing half-hardy cuttings. Joanna’s propagation bench in glasshouse five is now full. The minimum temperature in this house is 9 degrees Celsius and the bench is bottom heated at 20 degrees. The various composts used in the glasshouses are made in-house.

Emily (left) and Joanna in the soil house taking in cannas, 6 October 2021.

The soil house, just off the potting shed, has six bays of ‘soils’: tree and shrub mix; greenhouse mix; sterilised soil; leaf; sand; and loam. Grit is presently bought in and comes in plastic bags, otherwise everything is sourced on the estate. The sterilised soil is loam, riddled and heated to 85 degrees Celsius – a process that creates a distinctive stink.

Davy delivers loam from the estate, 14 April 2021. Photo Joanna Shaw.
Joanna holds the bushel box, 7 October 2021.

The ‘leaf’ comes from the large leaf mould heaps out in the woods, replenished each winter as the leaves are cleared from the garden and drives. It too is riddled: a machine recently gifted to the garden has made this job much quicker and pleasanter. The sand and loam are also riddled, though not so finely. Mixing is done the hard way on the soil house floor shoveling the various ingredients together until evenly distributed. Recipe quantities are measured in bushels (8 gallons or 36.4 litres) for which Joanna has a ‘bushel box’. The cutting compost is mixed in small quantities as needed and is based on a John Innes recipe: two bushel of leaf, one bushel each of loam and sand. The leaf mould replaces peat which has not been used in the garden since 2001.

Hormone powder helps the cuttings take, 20 September 2021.
A successful crop, full of hope for next year, 1 September 2021.

The cuttings, generally 25 each from about 60 half-hardy different plants, are sprayed with water regularly throughout the day. A few need extra humidity provided by a plastic cover. The netting is only used for shade when the sun is bright. Glasshouse six has more cuttings including penstemons taken earlier and now well established, and some of the streptocarpus which came from leaf cuttings and are now in flower – all these from one leaf. 

Blue streptocarpus and pink cestrum – all this years cuttings, 6 October 2021.
One leaf produces lots of streptocarpus seedlings, 13 April 2021.

Trays of aeoniums are drying out in the potting shed. They always root more readily if they have been left to dry. In glasshouses three and four there are pelargonium and fuchsia cuttings taken in February and March this year to keep the collection in good health.

Fuchsia ‘Checkerboard’ from a cutting taken this year, 29 September 2021.

Outwith the glasshouses compost is also important. The large compost bays opposite the yard recycle the garden waste, other than pernicious weeds which are burnt or binned. Spreading compost is one of the winter jobs that returns nutrients to the soil.    

Compost bays, 6 October 2021.
Mike and Helen gather vegetation from the Fountain Garden that will be recycled into compost, 6 October 2021.
The heap fills up rapidly at this time of year, 6 October 2021.
Compost from earlier this year, 6 October 2021.

The garden gate project – the Welcome Building – is well under way. This project has been talked about for many years. The building will offer interpretation, and will control entrance to the garden.

I wondered about the sustainability of the project. James, Mike, and Emily spent a very wet Monday lifting the slabs at the gate so that the local contractors could come in to prepare the foundations. An archaeologist carried out a watching brief, but found nothing. To avoid the excessive use of concrete with its high carbon footprint the building is to be suspended on oak legs secured on to concrete pads. A local contractor carried out much of the work. Unfortunately the granite bedrock turned out to be just under the surface of the area and drilling through the hard rock took longer than anticipated.

The Welcome Building gets underway, 29 September 2021.
Concrete pads reduce the carbon footprint, but bedrock and large boulders delay progress, 6 October 2021.

Hardcore for infill is sourced from the local quarry of Craiglash. Caithness slabs are ordered for flooring. Traceably sourced, sustainable, oak from Wales and from a small independent mill in Normandy is to be used in the building. The cabin roof will be planted with sedums in the spring. By 11 October the foundations were complete and the uprights were about to be installed.

James (in orange jacket) discusses progress whilst Steve prunes back a rose, 11 October 2021.
Traceable oak cut to size, 29 September 2021.

Meantime entry to the garden is via the Woodland Garden further down from the usual entrance.

I have read three books this last month that have given me hope.* One about an ancient, high biodiversity, English orchard left largely alone but still producing cider apples that provide a living; one about three generations of farming in Cumbria; and one about biodiversity in abandoned places across the globe from West Lothian to Chernobyl. All are depressing from many perspectives, but all give a more than a glimmer of hope for the future. The National Trust for Scotland Autumn and Winter magazine 2021 also gives hope with its article on ‘Landscapes’. I have already written about Mar Lodge Estate (see Who knows where the time goes? 13 July 2021), but was most heartened to read about Kelton Mains Farm on the Threave Estate where the NTS has joined forces with the Galloway Glens Partnership to restore the area to a species-rich landscape. It was Alexander Pope in ‘An Essay on Man’ (1734) who used the phrase ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’.  Nearly four hundred years on there is definitely something in the air – the Climate Crisis is now a mainstream conversation and hope and determination could show us the way through the gloom and doom. Across the media and in our daily lives we are gearing up for COP 26; maybe finally the politicians will have to listen and act. Bring it on Glasgow!


Tim has finally finished his apprenticeship, prolonged by Covid, and has now moved on. We are sorry to see Tim go, but lucky to have a new apprentice – Emily Strachan – to take his place. 

Emily takes in bananas, 29 September 2021.

Weeding continues and as the weather turns the gardeners hope for a sunny spot in which to work. Lifting the bananas is warm work anyway. The many sunflowers throughout the garden were left to provide seeds (and insects) for the birds. They turned mouldy with the rain and had to be removed, but not before the birds had reaped some of the seeds. Salvias, Michaelmas daisies and hydrangeas are looking good.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ looks good for weeks, 11 October 2021.
Hydrangea paniculata in the Rose Garden with another hydrangea, Pileostegia viburnoides, showing yellow leaves behind, 11 October 2021.

Callum Pirnie, a previous head gardener, dropped in for a visit. He now gardens on the west where the weather is much wetter. This year, however, there was a prolonged drought.

Callum and Cecilia catch up, 11 October 2021.

The gardeners were thrilled to watch a large dragonfly laying eggs in the moss lining the edge of the dipping pool. It is ironic that it has laid its eggs where the American carnivorous plants thrive; maybe it’s too big to succumb to the pitcher traps, or maybe the sweet scented trap doesn’t appeal to this carnivore that likes to take its prey on the wing. Emily got a wonderful photograph.

Maybe the common hawker dragonfly, 8 October 2021. Photo Emily Strachan.
The leaves of the Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonica, turn pink and smell of burnt sugar in the autumn, 11 October 2021.

The colours are turning as the year with large skeins of geese flying overhead. We wonder what winter will bring.

* Macdonald, Benedict & Gates, Nicholas, Orchard (paperback 2021)

Rebanks, James, English Pastoral (paperback 2021)

Flyn, Cal, Islands of Abandonment (2021)

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