The cycles of life

The smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria in the Red Garden, 11 November 2022.

On a dull day at the end of October I contemplate the trees that are preparing for the coming winter. Large flat leaves become a problem as temperature and light levels dip and winter storms threaten; by dropping them the broadleaf trees can reduce water loss and wind damage until the kinder days of spring return. Before it drops the leaf the tree re-absorbs some goodness and as it does so may create the most delightful patterns. The green chlorophylls are absorbed first, then the red and purple anthocyanins and orange carotenes. We all depend on these photosynthetic chemicals which store the sun’s energy, providing us, and the animals we may eat, with food.  

Rosa rugosa leaves in the Rose Garden, 27 October 2022.
Occasionally there is a touch of red on the
Rosa rugosa
leaves, 27 October 2022.

There are not many folk about on this gloomy day, but I see volunteer Jenny tidying and weeding in the Camel Garden. She is quite happy working away by herself, savouring the peace of the garden that gives her a break from a busy life.

Another day and the sun is shining on the remaining autumn colours; the gold and copper of the beech, the silver bark and golden triangular flakes of the silver birch leaves. After the recent winds most of the leaves are gone, but the cotinus leaves in the garden hang on in a spectacular show and yet another mild November means there are still some of the summer flowers to enjoy.

Cotinus coggygria in the Upper Pool Garden, 27 October 2022.
More cotinus; the leaves display differing patterns on the same plant, 11 November 2022.
Salvias and fuchsias are still thriving in the Upper Pool Garden, 11 November 2022.

In the native area outside the Woodland Garden gardeners and volunteers are planting oak saplings. Although there is some natural regeneration of oaks the tiny saplings tend to be swamped by sycamore seedlings (see ‘Sycamores can be a nuisance’ 16 January 2020) and there is not enough time to weed them individually, so the saplings that are being planted – North East oaks from Castle Fraser – will have a headstart. A little bonemeal and a mix of soil and compost is added to each sapling which will be caged for protection from rabbits and deer. The sycamore seedlings can then be strimmed away. Steve is planting an oak which has been growing in a pot for some years in the yard. There is a feel good factor to planting oaks, and releasing this tree from its pot so that its roots can spread out and connect with the mycorrhizal fungi of its neighbours is very satisfying. 

Steve (volunteer) prepares to plant the oak sapling from Castle Fraser, 3 November 2022.
Steve (gardener) admires the newly planted oak tree, 3 November 2022.

A lot of time is spent removing leaves in the garden, but the thousands (perhaps millions) of leaves that cover the estate will be reincorporated into the soil by natural processes brought about by a host of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria. Much of the summer bounty is decayed and returned to the soil. The leaves collected in the garden will also be recycled as leaf mould and used as a mulch.

With the unseasonably high November temperatures we cannot avoid thinking about the natural cycles of life and how they have been disrupted by the climate crisis; a crisis brought on by our own actions.

A year on from the Glasgow COP 26 agreement to keep global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees the future is looking bleak. In the last year we have seen a range of catastrophic weather extremes from the floods of Pakistan and the droughts of Africa to the wildfires of California and Australia. Even in the UK we have had some idea of the future as drought and storms have affected our lives. And yet with the world in political disarray there seems little chance of keeping the Glasgow pledges. Some hope can be garnered: the war in Ukraine is leading to the realisation that home grown renewables are the answer to oil and gas dependence. Economics is turning the tide as the price of fossil fuels soars. In gardens there is a move to stop spraying and to cater for wildlife. There is a new passion for growing our own fruit and vegetables thereby producing fresh healthy food, reducing food miles, and boosting our well-being. Agriculture too is beginning to put its house in order.

Thinking about the summer drought, I ask James if the water situation has moved on. Has there been any development of the dipping pool potential? (See ‘A global perspective’ 15 June 2021 and ‘Challenges’ 16 November 2021) Yes – although not exactly in the way expected. A North-East firm expert in drainage was invited to offer suggestions. The advice was that, considering all the probable underground water flow in the area near the gardeners’ yard and the old well, the best solution would be to sink a borehole. This would provide water whenever needed. The borehole should be sunk where most of the underground water courses converge and this location could be found by a water diviner. The drainage firm employs a diviner who apparently has a 97% success rate in locating water. This, to a divining sceptic like me, is extremely interesting. How on earth does it work? Even when a plan is developed, there is the matter of funding, but, with the rising costs of metered water, just a few years of free water in a drought situation is likely to pay for the project.

Even in a drought the underground water from the garden and beyond drains into the dipping pool, 25 May 2021.

This month I watched a brilliant film about the life cycle of the salmon that emphasised our dependence on the natural cycles of abundance and decay. The film Riverwoods demonstrates the paucity of the Scottish landscape, but also gives us hope that changing tactics might return the land to something closer to its previous abundance of biodiversity. The numbers of the Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, once plentiful, have now declined dramatically and this has affected the health of the land in ways we did not previously understand. Some of the problem lies at sea, but much is wrong with our rivers. The adult salmon spawn in the upper reaches of the rivers where the young fry grow for a few years until ready to migrate to the sea. In the burns and rivers they are vulnerable to predators, but thrive in habitats that provide shade from both overhead trees – thus reducing the temperature – and fallen trees and branches that provide nutrients and shelter from predators. Working their way downstream to the estuary, the salmon, now called smolt, will migrate to the seas around Norway or maybe Iceland. It will be about four years before they return, using their sense of smell, to the river in which they were born – an incredible feat. These adult salmon are returning nutrients from the ocean back to the land, because after spawning they die and will be eaten by a variety of animals such as osprey, badgers, otters, or merely left to rot and decay back into the forest where trees and vegetation absorb the nutrients originally taken from phytoplankton in the oceans. The animals that eat the salmon will leave their droppings throughout the forest to further the cycle, and other animals, such as roe and red deer, will browse the trees and vegetation that have gained nutrients from the soil – in time the deer too might rot and return to the soil. What Scotland lacks now is trees and some keystone animals. Beavers are already back making suitable habitats in which the salmon can thrive – and also contributing to flood management. As they spread so biodiversity will increase, the salmon and other animals will benefit and carbon will be sequestered. Over the centuries excessive numbers of deer – both red and roe – have impoverished the landscape denuding it of trees because there are no apex predators; maybe it’s time for the lynx to make a comeback. The story of river ecosystems is complex and more than I can do justice to here, but it’s crucial that we realise the complexity of the issue so that the healing can begin. I have previously written about some of the Deeside projects that are helping (see ‘Who knows where the time goes?’ 13 July 2021).

As deer numbers were controlled on the Mar Lodge estate so the trees began to regenerate, thereby helping to cool the river temperature, 28 June 2021.

The salmon have already returned to the Beltie Burn so a short time can make a big difference, although the newly planted trees will take some years to provide shelter and summer temperatures will be critical.  Crathes also has a role to play; that is why it is so important that the millpond restoration is done correctly. The Coy Burn, already well wooded, is one of many tributaries draining into the Dee and providing good habitat in which salmon and trout can breed. As the rivers and burns heal and the salmon return, it will not be just anglers and the tourism industry that benefit; it will be a restoration for the land and the whole Deeside ecosystem.

The Coy Burn is well wooded in the Crathes estate, 26 October 2013.

Ultimately our land (and ocean) management can make or break us as a species.

As I open my Scottish Wildlife Trust magazine (November 2022) I see an interview with Peter Cairns, co-founder of the rewilding charity SCOTLAND: The Big Picture; the charity that made the Riverwoods film. Here is a quote from that interview:

Talk of loss has been the stock in trade of conservation communication for decades – it’s easy and can be evidenced, which makes conservationists comfortable. Hope is more nebulous but, equally, much more powerful. You have to tell the story of loss to provide a platform but if you want to enable change, hope is the key.

Let us follow the hope.


  • Mike and Joanna have been on a course to enable them to enter garden plants onto the new database created for the PLANTS project (see ‘Home and away’ 20 August 2022). The Plants team are now back at Crathes for winter work to finalise their records. I find Nikki in the garden checking up on some deutzias. We look at some of the fruits of the blue sausage tree, Decaisnea fargesii. The seeds remind me of watermelons.
  • The Rose Garden contractors have finished and the wall has been re-built.
The blue sausage tree fruits, 11 November 2022.
The soil in the new design in the Rose Garden will be left to settle over the winter, 11 November 2022.
The contractors made a good job of rebuilding the garden wall, 27 October 2022.

*Riverwoods was made by the rewilding charity SCOTLAND: The Big Picture.

2 thoughts on “The cycles of life

  1. Yes, a beautiful time of year, although this warm weather is strange and causing disruption – our fuschias are still flowering well but the midges in our garden are still out in force! Despite the gloom, there is indeed hope, and I think Mother Nature will adapt and prevail one way or another…. with or without us…. Hopefully more folk are realising the seriousness of the situation we have put ourselves in. Thank you for yet another interesting and very informative article – a ‘blue sausage tree” ?!! Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

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