What price a tree; what price a garden?

A three-hundred year old sycamore covered with ferns, lichens and mosses, 23 March 2023.

March has almost passed me by. It isn’t that I haven’t noticed it, but more because it seems to have travelled in the fast lane whilst I was dealing with domestic concerns such as new heating systems. So here we are with the clocks changed to summertime, the chionodoxa blue covering the Crathes walled garden with its magic, the cherry trees beginning to bloom, the bumble bee queens looking for nest sites and the chiffchaff calling as it returns to look for a mate.

Chionodoxa spread across the flower beds, 23 March 2023.
A queen bumble, Bombus lucorum, enjoys the chionodoxa, 23 March 2023.
Prunus ‘Okame’ near the Millpond, 23 March 2023.
The Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume ‘Beri-chidori’, 30 March 2023.

There is much to catch up with in the garden, but the main show is yet to come. Just now everyone is working hard to finish the rose garden work and to complete mulching all the garden beds with compost or leaf mould which is so important for nurturing the soil and coping with drought. Pruning, too, is still ongoing. Joanna has made good use of the green stemmed Cornus stoloniferous ‘Flaviramea’ prunings to support the glasshouse narcissi. Mike has been given one of the Doocot Border beds to reinvigorate. He has weeded and lifted the herbaceous perennials and pruned back the lonicera bush. Andy advises him to wait another week before pruning the Hydrangea aspera. It’s a shady border so Mike will take time to consult with James and decide on the planting; epimidiums and day lilies are high on the list. Two side paths border the bed with, respectively, a seat and planting trough. Mike intends to clean the seat of moss so that can be used by visitors. The plant in the trough is the blue heath, Phyllodoce caerulea, a rare plant that grows on a few Scottish mountains – one location being on the Sow of Atholl beside the A9.

Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea, 25 January 2022.
pruning of the green dogwood make good supports for narcissi, 23 March 2023.
A Doocot Border bed gets mulched before new planting, 23 March 2023.

There has been frost damage over the winter and some favourites have suffered, but the spring flowers are fairly hardy. Seeds are germinating, cuttings are thriving, plugs are expected; anticipation is high for a good season. 

A previous winter the azara (right)suffered from frost damage, but recovered well; this year the grevillea, previously untouched by frost, took the worst of it,
2 March 2023.
Stachyurus praecox seems to be hardy, doing well throughout the bad frosts of previous winters; it is planted on a south facing wall on the Aviary Terrace, 23 March 2023.
Hellebores in the Evolution Garden, 23 March 2023.

 Much of the month I have been thinking about trees. Early in March I joined Dave on his hunt for champion trees, some of which have been elusive. There are 133 Crathes champion trees mentioned in the Tree Register of the British Isles, though some have been damaged in the recent storms. The Arbutus menziesii, for example, fell in Storm Arwen; the Chilean fire bush, Embothrium coccineum, was damaged in the same storm and had to be cut back to just a stump. It will probably recover, but has lost its champion status. We hunted for the Pyrus elaeagnifolia subsp. kotschyana near the east lodge and suddenly realised it was lying on the ground in front of our eyes. The Alnus maximowiczii in the Woodland Garden was eventually identified so there was some progress made – besides we were side-tracked by other trees just for the joy of it.

The Chilean fire bush will have lost its champion status in Storm Arwen, 28 May 2014.
Dave (volunteer) stand beside the fallen Pyrus elaeanifolia subsp. kotschyana, 2 March 2023.

To escape from the upheaval of the heatpump installation my husband and I spent a few days in North Berwick. Each time I go there I look for the Act of Union trees on the Law. Planted in 1707 to commemorate the Act of Union between Scotland and England, they are easily seen from the beach and town – and actually from across the firth in Fife. When I first climbed round to see them there were seven, as I remember, with one lying fallen on the ground. With their spindly, wind blasted, silvered trunks, it was hard to believe they were nearly 300 years old. There seem to be fewer trees today but on the other hand the millennium wood planted in 2000 is growing well.

Looking towards North Berwick and the Bass Rock from the Act of Union trees, 23 February 2004.
The same trees seventeen years later, 31 May 2021.
The trees can be seen from the town to the left of the Law, 15 March 2023.

Trees were still on the agenda when we walked in Binning Wood two days later. The wood used to be part of the Tyninghame estate, which is situated at the mouth of the Tyne just north of Dunbar. Tyninghame is renowned for its trees. Helen Hope (1677-1768), wife of Thomas, 6th Earl of Haddington, was a pioneer in tree planting. She started in 1707 with poor ground near Tyninghame House. Much to everyone’s surprise the trees flourished and Helen called it Binning Wood after her son, Lord Binning. The wood survives today with three circular glades as in the original design. The trees however are not the original ones: a gale of 1881 devastated the wood which was later replanted; then it was felled for its timber during the Second World War, and again replanted. The wood no longer belongs to the estate, but remains accessible and includes a memorial area for green burials. The invasive Rhododendron ponticum was noticeable in much of the wood.  A new book about Tyninghame and its gardens is a fascinating read – so much of it resonates with the history of Crathes.* I am reminded that Thomas Burnett, 1st Baronet of Leys, started planting trees at Crathes in 1620.

Walking in Binning Wood (note the rhododendrons), 16 March 2023.

People love trees; just look at the horror of Plymouth citizens when the council recently moved in with diggers, in the dark whilst people slept, to fell 110 trees in the city centre green space. With public action 19 trees were temporarily saved by a court injunction.

Guardian article March 2023.

How, then, do we value a tree? For timber merchants (and illegal loggers) it’s the money received for selling the wood; for the ecologist it’s the biodiversity that the tree harbours; for flood management people it’s the ability of  trees to slow down water;  for climate crisis activists it’s the carbon it sequesters; the list goes on and we may appreciate trees for more than one reason. The apple trees that I have just planted in my garden will give great satisfaction when I see and smell the blossom and watch the pollinators at work, and in autumn when I eat the apples. As the tree grows the leaves will take in carbon and the roots will help to improve the soil structure. The pleasure these trees give me every day as I consider their progress cannot be measured in pounds and pence.

The Portugal laurel in the lower garden at Crathes is not only a living tree, but also a piece of art and a living sculpture. It is an important part of the garden design; five paths lead to its central position in what was once the kitchen garden. It is slowly dying although the new sprouts at the base of its hollow trunk show that it has years left, if allowed. It doesn’t cost much to take a cutting and a row of young trees are waiting in the yard in case the parent should blow over in a gale. But for many of us it is irreplaceable because we don’t have a hundred years to watch a youngster’s character develop. 

The Portugal laurel is an important part of the Crathes garden design, 1 September 2021.

Covid taught us how much we depend on our green spaces for our wellbeing. The hundreds, probably thousands, of people who walk through the Crathes woodlands every week boost their physical and mental health in ways we are only just beginning to understand. There is indeed evidence of the medicinal effects of woodlands; spruce, for instance, releases biochemicals into the atmosphere which have antiseptic and antibiotic properties. This is referred to in a book that I have been reading about the boreal forest and the treeline.** It’s a frightening book in many ways, with information on the melting ice and permafrost, and the northward march of trees as the climate warms, but it is not without some hope: ‘In the forest you are part of something magical and huge where every step is simultaneously an act of destruction and of creation, of life. There is consolation in the fact that we have always lived in the ruins of what went before and we are living there still.’

Woodland on the Crathes estate, 5 March 2022.

A garden may seem to be a minor thing when compared to a woodland and the Climate Crisis. Even our small gardens can create oases of wildlife habitats that, if connected with other such oases, become important contributions to the biodiversity of Scotland. Crathes has its part to play and the reduction in pesticide use plays a significant hand. In the inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes Crathes is assessed as Outstanding for Horticulture, Art, History and Architecture (last assessed in 2011). James is always aware of the family background to Crathes – the Burnett designers and plant collectors who made Crathes a top class garden.

The June Border, designed by Lady Burnett in 1938 is an important feature at Crathes, 26 June 2019.

Today the team work of the NTS gardeners and volunteers keep it as one of the special places of Scotland and beyond. It is not the same as it was, but that is part of its charm; it is always exciting, and adding to its value in so many different ways (what price a frog when the species is in decline?). When I go for a quick visit at the very end of March I find much excitement and more history in the making. The central sculpture has finally made it into the Rose Garden, much to James’s relief. James carried it in a hoist (on the tractor) up to the garden east gate and delivered it onto a small mechanised hand truck so that it could be wheeled into it position. It barely managed through the gate with just millimetres to spare. It is a copy, much enlarged, of the Towie stone ball – generally acknowledged to be the best example of the Neolithic stone balls which are found all over Britain, but mostly in Scotland and especially in the North-East. When fully installed water will bubble over the ball from the top. Whilst there are plenty of theories, nobody knows how the Neolithic balls were used. Four rose arbours are to surround the ball. It will be a good place to sit and contemplate on those Neolithic peoples and how we humans have changed the landscape over the last 5000 or so years.

Work in progress of the central feature of the re-designed Rose Garden, 30 March 2023.
An enlarged copy of the Towie Neolithic stone ball, 30 March 2023.

There is still work needed to finish in the paths, but planting will begin towards the end of April. Watching the plants settle in and flourish will be the final touch. The Rose Garden project is sponsored by a local benefactor – it has a large monetary cost, and the Trust is very grateful for such a generous donation. Additional to the cost is the careful thought given to the design, the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of hard labour, the care of the plants that have been waiting in the wings, together with a good humoured pride; all of which have been added by the gardening team.


Contractors are still working in the policies to clear some of the trees stumps so that new planting can take place. Davy and Kevin are also working on the Storm Arwen trees as they clear up the drive for the new season. The latest storm, Otto, took down an ash tree near the carpark.

There was frog spawn in the dipping pool on 30 March and an abundance of frogs from last year’s success is reported in the Woodland Garden and in the glasshouses.

*Tyninghame, Landscapes and Lives by Judy Riley (Birlinn 2022)

**The Treeline, The Last Forest and the future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence (Vintage 2023)

4 thoughts on “What price a tree; what price a garden?

  1. Thank you for another fascinating and very informative article! Spring is uplifting us in our tiny messy garden – flowering bulbs distracting from the untidiness! Trees are so important and thanks to the ones we have here, we enjoyed daily delightful visits from a red squirrel for a few weeks- which just shows that even a small suburban garden can play host to a variety of wildlife…. no room for that magnificent neolithic ball though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is such a lovely time of year Jenny with all the promise the season ahead. We can’t all have Neolithic balls or red squirrels, but everyone can help if they stop using pesticides.


      1. Hear hear! No pesticides in this little garden for over 30 years – and we see the benefits! Neighbours beginning to get the message!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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