It was a bonny cold January day as I walked up the Crathes drive. A white frost lay across the fields, but the highland cattle are hardy beasts with thick coats well able to cope with the cold.
In the walled garden the frost was not so intense. The gardeners were busy on their various winter jobs. Steve was still working on the doocot pool drainage. There was much adjustment and rebuilding of the walls to make sure that there was no leakage. The blocked overflow was sorted and a new soakaway pit was built using an old chimney pot.
Mike and Emily were also dealing with drainage – in the Rose Garden. Here, the cobbles for channelling the water are doubling as a decorative feature along the top and side of the path down to the summerhouse where the water running through the sand that holds the cobbles in place can connect to a main drain that runs from the centre of the summerhouse. Andy is trimming the grass edges in preparation for the new metal trim. A stout yew root may be a problem. In the Upper Pool Garden Kiran (volunteer) has been tidying up the beds and pruning the rugosa rose ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’. The regular winter work of pruning, compost and leaf mould spreading has been delayed because of Rose Garden work – a priority just now. The compost and leaf mould will help to conserve water if a drought should be part of the 2023 weather patterns. 2022 was the hottest year on record across the UK and in Scotland. Early January 2023 has been fairly mild, which though appreciated for day to day work and has allowed the gardeners to forge ahead, is not so much appreciated in the long run.
In the glasshouses the glorious scent of the Camellia tsaii caught my attention. This tender weeping camellia, from China, Burma and Indochina was first introduced by George Forrest in around 1917. It is being moved about as Joanna cleans and paints. Nearby is the Cestrum elegans ‘Rubrum’, from Mexico, also in full flower.
Joanna shows me the lily of the valley that she has been forcing for the show houses. This was a Victorian practice devised to have the flowers for Christmas. A few plants were dug up from the garden, in November I think, and planted in pots. They were then left out in a safe place to catch a cold spell of weather – not a given these days, but obligingly arriving in late December. The pots were taken in just before Christmas and given some bottom heat. They were kept in the dark for about three weeks. As the lids were lifted and the light let in we could see the emerging flower buds. Next week they will fill the show house with their delectable scent.
The cold snap before Christmas (minus eleven Celsius in Torphins) which was needed for the lily of the valley, damaged some of the tender plants but had the hidden advantage of keeping pests in control. As I write the mild weather recedes and we have more seasonal weather as temperatures plummet and snow falls.
One of my Christmas books was on ‘Invasive Aliens’ – a subject I have mentioned before (A global perspective, 15 June 2021).* Spending much of my life living at the mouth of the Spey, I am well acquainted with some of the baddies: giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed and Indian balsam, all of which are spread by waterways and are almost impossible to control. Holidays on the west coast introduced me to the devastation wreaked by blanket Rhododendron ponticum bushes and I saw more of the rhododendron problem when I came to Crathes. Often these alien species are spread unwittingly by us humans. Gertrude Jekyll often planted the giant hogweed which does look an attractive architectural plant. Its presence in Moray is probably due to enthusiastic gardeners of grand estates. I have heard stories about Brodie Castle and Leith Hall in this context. However the giant hogweed can cause severe, permanent skin damage even when it is dead and dry. I was guilty of sowing Indian balsam in my garden in the 1960s, when a friend gave me seed of what she called her ‘beauty plant’ – it grew happily and catapulted its seeds about abundantly. Apparently each plant can produce about 800 seeds. The bees love the flowers, but being an annual the plant dies back in the autumn and leaves the river banks, that it has dominated throughout the summer, quite bare and exposed to winter erosion. It is a legal requirement that any Japanese knotweed is reported on the Home Report when selling a house. Its root system can penetrate tarmac, paving and even house foundations. Also in Speymouth I saw the mink – so destructive when eating the eggs of terns that nested on the Spey shingle islands in the estuary. The grey squirrel did not get to Moray, but was common around Crathes until the recent project to save the red squirrels.
These are aliens many of us know of. Dan Eatherley’s book is full of horror stories of plants, animals and diseases that I had never heard of, many just waiting in the wings for the right opportunity. Some we have brought accidentally, some have been intentionally introduced with disastrous consequences such as the rabbit in Australia. Some will come with Global Warming. Some will act benignly for a while and then turn rogue. Take the harlequin ladybird, introduced from Asia to the USA to control aphids. This it did for some while keeping the Californian fruit orchards aphid free, until it evolved into a wee monster that ate just about anything including caterpillars and other ladybirds thus having a devastating effect on biodiversity. Active in England since 2003, it is now present in the south-east of Scotland. In mild areas it can proliferate by repeat life cycles, but the North-East is a bit too cold as a rule.
I asked James about the aliens he feared might move into Crathes. He didn’t hesitate to name phytophera and the golden root mealy bug, both of which he had known at Inverewe. The fungus Phytophthora ramorum has caused major problems all along the west coast; attacking primarily rhododendrons and larches. The golden root mealy bug, Chryseococcus arecae, from New Zealand, mainly devastates meconopsis and primulas. It is not the cold that helps Crathes to avoid infestation of the mealy bug, but the dry.
Humans are probably the most serious of invasive species. It’s who we are. We travel, explore, acquire, plant up forests full of non-native trees and fill gardens with exotic plants. Crathes is living proof and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But we do need to balance our creative urges with knowledge and regulations. And, judging by 2022, we need to prepare for erratic weather in the months ahead. `
The transition fund application has been successful and the diviner has recommended three possible sites for a borehole. Drilling took place in what was considered the most suitable site to the south of the bothy. At 100m depth a steady, but slow, flow of water was found – enough to service at least the glasshouses, nursery and maybe the bothy. Detailed assessment is now required.
Work has begun on repairing damage done to the Millpond during the November floods. The paths in that area are also being improved.
There is a lot of work to do in the estate following the contractors’ removal of storm damaged wood. Replacement planting will require a lot of thought.
*Invasive Aliens by Dan Eatherley (2019)