Repetition is inevitably part of gardening; some of it welcome, some not so. Every year at Crathes we anticipate the lovely blossoms of April and May and the cottage garden abundance of the June border. The brevity of some favourites only adds to their charm and I make no apologies for repeating my favourites. Caring for a garden like Crathes involves many repetitive boring jobs: washing plant pots, clearing leaves, weeding thale cress and ground elder to name a few. But as gardeners well know there is much more to a garden than the hard grind; growing things is a magical business. Will the plant behave? Will the cosmos show their fragile beauty, or will they wilt, or get eaten by the rabbit? How is it that a mighty oak can grow from one little acorn? What would the gardener (or forester) who planted out the giant sequoias about 160 years ago think of their present glory? Whilst the basis of the garden relies on back-breaking work, the essential nub of the garden is of creativity and dreams. The dreams may be of a simple window box or of a grand designed landscape, but where would we be without them?
May at Crathes this year is mostly about practicalities, although a few dreams are evident. Two gardeners have been off with Covid but are now, fortunately, largely recovered and back at work. Covid is also to blame for the proliferation of weeds (see ‘Seven years’ weeding’ 18 May 2021) and weeding is high up on the priority list. The Double Herbaceous border, the June Border and the Blue and Pink Border all need to be netted to support the flowers through the summer. Before netting they need to be weeded and after that it is hoped that the perennial plants will stifle the weeds with their luxuriant growth.
With the nets in place, the thale cress in the camel garden awaits the weeders!
Then again, some people like weeding; there is the satisfaction of a job well done.
When Joanna, our propagator, returned to work after the Covid she was horrified to find that her sense of smell was so badly affected that the glasshouse smelt disgusting. It’s only when we lose this sense that we realise its importance. Luckily the disgusting is slowly returning to normal; it’s just a matter of wait and see. She has plenty of work to catch up on with the glasshouses full of plants coming on for the summer.
The Amaranthus caudatus plants that she grew from seed have just been moved from the glasshouse to the broadspan to harden off. Amaranth first entered my consciousness on a rather special holiday when we just happened to be in Williamsburg on 4th July – yes the 4th. As part of our privileged garden tour we visited the Governor’s garden and there I recall reference to amaranth as an important vegetable of the eighteenth century American garden.
The fact lay dormant in my brain until I saw the ornamental plants that have been grown at Crathes during the last two years. Dramatic they certainly are, and the cultivar name of ‘Dreadlocks’ is entirely appropriate, but I am undecided as to whether or not I like them.
A book I received for Christmas ‘Around the World in 80 Plants’ tells me more.* Amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs and Incas grown for its leaf, which can be eaten like spinach, and its fruit which is a grain sometimes used for making a dough. The conquering Spanish did not approve of the dough being used in pagan ceremonies and, shockingly, they banned the cultivation of amaranth. Nowadays our precarious global dependence on wheat, rice and maize makes the highly nutritious amaranth grain a potentially important alternative. I am so struck by this information that I order amaranth seeds and have some germinating in my daughter’s greenhouse. I will probably eat them as baby leaf since I am currently without a garden. The Victorians named the amaranth ‘love lies bleeding’ and it was said to signify unrequited love. At Crathes we have two cultivars this year – the greener leafed ones are Amaranthus caudatus ‘Coral Fountain’.
There is another plant growing from seed that I find interesting: Carpobrotus edulis, the sour fig or ice plant. I think I have a pot of this, but maybe mine is not edulis – so I’d better not eat it should it ever fruit. It hails from South Africa where the original name, hottentot-fig, has colonial and racist associations. It likes the warmth and thrives in sandy places. It is not a problem in North-East Scotland, but in mild coastal areas of Britain is invasive and listed as such.
Steve, once an engineer in the oil industry, has been designing a strong, light, aluminium framework for use in accessing the glasshouses for contract maintenance. Aluminium welding is a skill that has to be outsourced to a local contractor.
The glasshouses get too hot in summer and Emily has been painting the glass with whitewash to provide a little shade. The long handled roller will do the job without too much trouble.
Outside there is a large space left in the Golden Garden where the tall conifer fell in Storm Arwen. James has chosen the Nootka cypress, Xanthocyparis nootkatensis ‘Golden Cascade’, as its replacement. Nootka Island is off the west side of Vancouver Island. It will be some years before the cypress fills the space and so rudbeckias have been planted meantime. After planting they need watering and there seems to be little hope of a timely rainfall; drought is another practicality for James to worry about. Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh University are currently researching the effect of drought on the people of Scotland as it is expected to be a growing problem.
Any major changes at Crathes have to be considered with care – the garden’s particular atmosphere must be retained and some of its designs are sacrosanct. The Evolution Garden had never had a settled design so there was plenty of scope for dreams and creativity without causing any upset provided the budget was respected. The plants are now beginning to fill out and the tree ferns have survived this mild winter. Even some of the bananas have survived. The Japanese Yezo willow, Salix nakamurana var. yezoalpina is covered in catkins and looks very much at home behind the yellow Iris bucharica. Beyond I see cardiocrinums are coming through to make a summer spectacle. A lovely Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ has been planted between the Evolution Garden and the June Border.
Changes in the Rose Garden are another matter. An orchard was a possibility in medieval times, and later there were parterres. By the 1930s the rose beds were filled with pink, cherry and scarlet Poulsen roses – forerunners of floribundas. That was altered in 1958 to the present design. Talk of changing the rose garden has been around for many years; sometimes there was talk of a prairie style garden. Matters were beginning to crystallize when James came to Crathes and it was he who finalised the design. Such designs need an equal amount of practical consideration and creative vision. There is nothing about the 1958 design that seems particularly special today, though I was sorry to see the viburnums go – the central one has been left meanwhile in case it has time to flower before work begins. A generous benefactor is financing the project, the plants are waiting and the contractor is established; we await the bureaucracy. James tells me to expect some movement in June. The east and south borders will remain untouched with their important trees and shrubs. Look out for the handkerchief tree beside the summer house in the next few weeks.
Noting the name of the little yellow iris in the Evolution Garden – the Bukhara iris, from the mountains of Central Asia – reminds me of the Bukharan pear, Pyrus korshinkyi, which grows on the Doocot Border. Endangered in the wild, it is doing very well. Its story is told in my book about Crathes:
You will not find the Bukharanpear easily even in its native haunts. You will need to travel to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan where its location is described as fragmentary. There, the popularity of this wild pear for the garden or as a rootstock for other pear cultivars has placed it on the critically endangered list. In an economic sense, it is an important genetic reservoir which might be needed if disease hits our modern domesticated pears – it may indeed be the ancestor of the pears we eat today. How often I have passed the tree and wondered briefly about the name. Only when it burst forth in seemingly triumphant blossom in the spring of 2014 did I take notice and discover its importance. With such a display of blossom, I hoped for a bounty of fruit; but maybe it would turn out to be self-sterile. I was thus quite pleased to find two small pears in 2014. The tree was falling over and has since gone, but cuttings were taken and sent to a specialist National Trust centre in the south of England where rare plant cuttings are given extra special treatment. We have to pay for the three rooted plants that have been returned to us, but the money we pay helps to finance this global conservation service. Any other successful cuttings from the pear will be sold by the centre to help its survival in a fragile world. Since I discovered this pear tree, I have seen a splendid specimen growing in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) under the name of the Kazhak Pear. I know from the Latin name that it is the same species as the Crathes pear. This Edinburgh tree is included in the Tree Register of the British Isles as a champion, being the largest in cultivation in Great Britain. I need to catch it in April when it is in flower.
Postscript: I noticed the newly planted, healthy Pyrus korshinskyi blooming on the Doocot Border in April 2019. **
Another cutting grows near the viewpoint. Bukhara, sometimes spelled Buchara, is a city in Uzbekistan. Well recorded in history because of its position on the Silk Road, I can now associate it with two very different Crathes beauties.
The oyster catchers have made their nest and laid their eggs in the Red Garden urn. We have high hopes for young ones this year.
There is a blackbird nesting in the barrow shed and thrush activity suggests a nest near the Yew Border. The fluty song of the blackcaps mingles with an intermittent chorus of goldcrests, goldfinches, dunnock, tits and other songbirds which will have their nests well hidden, we hope, from the prowling cat.
Emily reports watching a dragonfly larva eat a tadpole in the Woodland Garden pool and I am thrilled to see that the solitary mining bees that were so depleted last year in the Fountain Garden are making a comeback. Maybe it was the hard frost of 2021 that caused their demise. Herbicides are no longer used, but the weeds have to be dealt with somehow.
I have also seen a comma butterfly. From the early date (19 April) I surmise that it was hibernating. Until recently the comma was unknown in Scotland, but now I see one or two every year. It’s another butterfly that uses nettles as a food plant – like the red admirals, the painted ladies, the peacocks and the tortoiseshells; so it’s good leave some nettles in a corner of the garden.
The netting and barley straw had to be removed from the dipping pool because the metal netting was discolouring the water. The algae is still a nuisance, but is meantime removed from time to time in the hope that a natural solution will emerge. The pitcher plants are about to flower.
Some of the Brodie daffodils have been planted out beside the viewpoint.
*Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori (2021)
**The Gardens and Landscape of Crathes Castle, a Four Hundred Year Story by Susan Bennett (2019)