Challenges

Emily photographed one of the frogs that was removed from the dipping pool before draining the pool to repair a leak, November 2021. Emily Strachan.

As the politicians, delegates and protesters return to their various countries we ponder on the outcomes of COP26. This year when most of the leaders of around 200 participating nations came to Scotland, when part of Glasgow became United Nations territory for a while, when an estimated 100,000 people filled the streets of Glasgow on just one of the many peaceful demonstrations; when the global background was a world was in disarray, can there be any hope for the future? The final agreement is disappointing; time will bring the true judgement. We can, however, see more clearly the challenges that lie ahead. Challenges that governments, businesses, institutions, and you and I have to meet. It’s not easy in North-east Scotland where Aberdeen has been dubbed the ‘Oil Capital of the World’, but could perhaps become the ‘Renewable Capital of the World’. Last month I wrote about sustainability in the Crathes garden, but ignored the elephant in the glasshouse: all the heat that enables plants to be propagated and cared for through the winter comes from the two big oil tanks in the yard. Heat pumps are not suitable for glasshouses; there is no infrastructure for the use of hydrogen; some will flinch at the thought of wind turbines on a historic site; perhaps solar panels will be the way forward? The solution is outwith James’s control, but he has been thinking hard about water management in the garden and a recent comment by Scottish Water that Crathes had used a lot of (expensive) water during the summer has pressed home the urgent need for action. The Trust has agreed to include this project in the coming three-year budget.  James has some experience of water management because during his time at Inverewe Gardens water collected from the roof of the new visitor building was stored in a large tank making 15,000 litres available in times of drought. Since the reinstatement of the dipping pool, possibilities have also been apparent at Crathes (see A global perspective 15 June 2021). Through the long dry period in the summer water kept on trickling into the pool, but the heavy rain of recent weeks has come up with another challenge because a leak developed in the standpipe (which appears to have been caused by the rush of water pushing the standpipe around and breaking the clay seal) .

The force of water draining into the pool during the recent heavy rain moved the standpipe and a leak developed so that the water level fell, 5 November 2021.

This was just a teething problem which was eventually solved by the gardeners who are used to fixing day-to-day problems. Looking at the bigger picture we can see the large amount of water that poured out across the garden during rainy periods could be made available for the glasshouses and at least some of the garden. James thinks a 30,000 litre tank would be advisable, but first there are various problems to consider. The excess water presently travels under the road and into an old well. The well is full of old rubbish and needs to be excavated so that its depth can be estimated. If a pump can connect the well to a tank that might be positioned beside the compost bins (and sunk so that half of the tank is below ground level) and a second pump could connect the tank to the glasshouses, a solution might be found.  Engineers need to be involved to establish sound practice.

When I left on 5 November, the stand pipe had been removed so that the pool drained as the water hurried through the drain and under the road. A number of frogs that were resident were carefully removed; others that got swept down the drain will end up in the ditch on the other side of the road where they will come to no harm. By the next week James had removed the bung from the diversion into the pool so that the pool remained dry long enough for the stand pipe to be fixed with cement. There was another problem with plant roots blocking some of the drains higher up the path. Rods were used to clear this. For the next while the problem seems to have been solved.

The standpipe had to be moved so that the water could drain away, but the continuing flow of water didn’t help, 5 November 2021.
The frogs looked fine and healthy, November 2021. Emily Strachan.
The water flow was diverted away from the pool so that cement could be used to fix the standpipe. Andy inspects the walls and finds that suspected cracks are just caused by strands of algae, 10 November 2021.
Problems solved for the time being, 15 November 2021.

Almost all the carnivorous plants have been taken into the mist house – this was planned anyway so that the hardiness of the plants can be determined. One pot remains outside to take its chance. When Joanna lifted the plants, she was surrounded by young jumping frogs! Maybe it was the frogs that ate all the midge larvae. They will certainly help with slug control in the garden.

We know how insignificant we are when we gaze at the Milky Way, but we still need to address the day-to-day problems of our lives as well as thinking about the planet. Similarly the gardeners have their own immediate challenges to meet: high on the agenda is a deadline for completion of the Welcome Building – it needs to be open for a planned Christmas event. James and the gardeners – mainly Steve – have been working full out on the approach to the building. On the left of the path they are building a wall and flower/shrub bed; on the right a large lump of bedrock provides a natural guide to the door. The stones for the wall are from the estate – some dressed and possibly from the ‘Queen Anne’ wing damaged in the 1966 fire. By early November the framework of the building was in place and roofing could begin. By 10 November a local contractor was laying the Caithness slabs. Building the approach wall takes two gardeners out of the garden itself at a time when the garden is being ‘put to bed’ for the winter. To compensate a day’s work was organised for Drum gardeners and volunteers to help catch up with the garden work – there is much give and take between the Drum and Crathes gardens.

Wall built by the gardeners with stones from the estate, 5 November 2021.
The building begins to take shape and the roof can be added, 5 November 2021.
Caithness flags make a quality floor, 10 November 2021.

There are other challenges too: The southern beech, Nothofagus dombeyi, planted in 1978 by Charlie Sutherland, had been losing limbs and becoming a danger to the public. Although just a young tree it grew rapidly and had reached an impressive size. It was cordoned off for some time until it could be dealt with. It is not appropriate to leave the dead stump in this decorative area of the lawn. There is another large Nothofagus dombeyi opposite Caroline’s Garden which is currently healthy.

The falling limbs of Nothofagus dombeyi make the tree dangerous, 16 August 2021.
Only the stump to go, 10 November 2021.

More urgently the large beech, possibly dating from the eighteenth century, at the south-east corner of the lawn had just lost two limbs and looked as if it may lose more. This is particularly urgent because, with the ongoing work on the Welcome Building, the temporary entrance way to the garden now passes under this tree. So with the help of the tractor James and Kevin removed the hanging limbs and planned to have the rest of felled shortly. But almost immediately James decided it was too dangerous to leave standing and when it was felled on the following day the hollow trunk was clear for all to see. It is a wrench to see this familiar and ancient beech go, but as James remarks it does provide an opportunity. Maybe an oak will take its place – it’s not always easy to find a space for a specimen oak. A grove of birches might replace the southern beech.

This beech tree which may have been planted in the eighteenth century is beginning to lose limbs, 10 November 2021.
James and Kevin attach ropes and use the tractor to drag the branches away, 10 November 2021.
After removal, 15 November 2021.
The hollow trunk, 15 November 2021.

Inside the garden the challenge is all about preparing for winter. The Drum squad have helped with cutting back and clearing some of the beds, but there is still much to do. Whilst Andy, Mike, Cecilia and volunteer Helen clear the Double Herbaceous Border, Joanna and Emily have been preparing some of the more tender plants for frosty days. They gather dry bracken from the estate and pack it round the vulnerable crowns of the tree ferns. Then they gather up the fronds and tie them up like stooks of corn; similarly with the cycads. The bananas get a blanket of bracken around the shoots with chicken wire to hold the bracken in place.

the tops of the plants are cut back first to make the process more manageable, 10 November 2021.
The bananas get a blanket of bracken before winter sets in, 10 November 2021.

One of the bromeliads, Fascicularis bicolor, that grew in the Upper Pool Garden last year and was badly frosted, did survive and may live to flower again. The glasshouse displays are mostly of contrasting leaf shapes, but the bromeliads give a fascinating splash of colour – their tiny blue flowers with bright yellow stamens and furry buds, surrounded by scarlet leaves – standing out amongst the many different greens.

Colour contrasts in Fascicularia bicolor, 10 November 2021.
Close up the fascinating details of the flowers and leaves can be seen, 10 November 2021.
Contrasting shapes and shades of green in the foliage display, 10 November 2021.

It’s not quite winter yet. Although many of the leaves have gone autumn is still here with some lovely colours to lift the spirits and a lone red admiral butterfly enjoying the last of the buddleia flowers (B. x weyeriana ‘Sungold’). The Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ that looked stunning for many weeks and well into this month has finally turned brown. The usual flocks of bullfinches have been feasting on the enkianthus seeds. I hadn’t realised before, but they also seem to be enjoying the berries of the Arbutus menziesii.

Eucryphia glutinosa leaves turn pinky-gold and frame the clipped yews beyond, 15 November 2021.
The startling yellow and orange leaves of Lindera triloba with the dark red leaves of Viburnum plicatum tormentosum ‘Mariesii’ behind, 10 November 2021.
Salvia fulgens adds to the autumn colours in the Upper Pool Garden, 15 November 2021.
Four, maybe five, bullfinches in the Arbutus menziesii, 10 November 2021.

The roses in the main beds of the Rose Garden are being lifted. This is in preparation for next year’s challenge. The Rose Garden, not much changed from the 1950s is to have a major redesign and reconstruction. The Rose Garden does not have a monopoly on roses, we find them all over the garden and a few are still blooming.

Madame Isaac Pereire often has a late blooming if the November days are kind, 5 November 2021.

The garden and estate with its trees and diversity of plants; its frogs and bullfinches; and its beauty, gives us hope, but all of us must keep the challenge of Climate Change in our sights so that the things we hold dear can survive.

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