It’s a glorious time of year.
Walking up the Crathes drive to the accompaniment of a mewling buzzard, I take in my favourite cherry, Prunus yedoensis near the Millpond; I note that some of the beech and horse chestnut buds are bursting and in the native woodland area I find a new spring flower. It’s a native, not at all new, except to me; how could I have passed it by in previous years? I instantly know what it is, but have hardly ever seen it. It is easy to overlook as its unusual arrangement of flowers and green petals might suggest a flower head gone over that has dropped its petals. The five sided cubical inflorescence leads to its common name, the town hall clock – it is also known as moschatel, Adoxa moschatellina.
Along with the moschatel I find other native wild flowers, all of them common in long established woodlands: ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea, wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, lesser celandines Ranunculus ficaria, dogs mercury, Mercurialis perennis, wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, and the lovely native primrose, Primula vulgaris, both pin eyed and thrum eyed. The primrose petals are fused below into a long corolla tube. Some primrose plants are pin eyed with the stigma (female part) at the top of the corolla tube and the anthers bearing pollen (male part) near the bottom of the tube. Other plants are thrum eyed with the opposite arrangement – anthers at the top and stigma at the bottom. Because the nectar is at the bottom of the tube it can only be accessed by long tongued insects such as butterflies and thus cross pollination is ensured. As the butterfly reaches into a thrum eyed flower with a ring of stamens at the top of the tube it catches pollen onto its proboscis at a particular position. If the next flower it visits is a pin eyed flower it will rub off some pollen on to the stigma which is perfectly situated to receive pollen from that particular position. It was Charles Darwin, in 1862, who first understood the reason for this arrangement. A brilliant man; a brilliant scientist.
There’s a lot of science in the news just now with the launch of Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer to find out about the possibility of life elsewhere. Such ventures remind me of that wonderful photograph, taken in 1968, of the Earth suspended in space as we had never seen it before: a unique, blue, green and white orb – our home. I find the universe rather too much to comprehend, but I can relate to this photograph. Such thoughts are reinforced by a book I have been reading, The Nation of Plants, by Stefano Mancuso.* Translated from the Italian, it is a Bill of Rights for the plants of our earth. Everything about this unique planet emanates from the plants, for it is they that provide energy to drive the world. Without their photosynthesis there would be no oxygen to breathe, no sugars for insects, rabbits, cattle and sheep to feed on, no birds (the list runs into billions), and no us. Considering the present state of the planet the plants need a Bill of Rights.
Every spring when the renewal of life begins people say it’s like a miracle. It is a miracle. As far as we know there is no other wonder like it. And yet those of us who remember even thirty years back are not surprised to hear that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world (WWF).
I have a notebook of quotations that I have taken from books I have read; each about something I thought profound. Here is one I wrote down some years ago: If nature is a book, it is an infinite book, at least as vast as the universe itself. A garden then is a scaled-down version of that universe, a comprehensive model of that endless text, glossed according to our restricted capabilities.** That’s quite a statement. We do, of course, need the ecologists, and urgently we need the politicians on board, but it puts all us gardeners, whether of grand gardens like Crathes or of small suburban plots, in the hot seat.
Gardens are not all about Science. The wonder of the garden also belongs to the Arts. And why should the two disciplines, Arts and Science be so separated? Horticulture has always combined these two aspects of life. The study of soils, of pests and diseases, goes along with the love of flowers and the pleasure of growing vegetables.
Our Crathes gardeners have varying backgrounds with different strengths to offer. Some are fully trained horticulturalists, others have worked for RHS qualifications to complement their backgrounds in engineering, IT, architecture and floristry, and fine arts. They make a good team. The team is not insular. Last week two of the Brodie gardeners were here to learn about Crathes practices, and Emily is away to Brodie to learn about machine use in the garden. I was interested to hear about the Brodie ornamental food beds.
Science has been dominant at Crathes through the winter. Drainage and water management has taken up a lot of time; there have been experiments with yew cuttings, and the NTS PLANTS project has been finalising its records. In the glasshouses, compost mixes, seed and cutting management and biological pest control are part of the story. The plants are now waiting for the last of the frost before going out into their summer setting. There are plants coming on everywhere and I catch the excitement as Joanna shows me the walnut seedlings. I don’t think the old Crathes walnut that fell in Storm Arwen had produced fruit in recent years, but the British Legion in Banchory has a productive walnut tree, and has given us some fruits. Germination has been successful and the next challenge is to see if the seedlings can be nurtured into trees. Germination of the annual amaranthus seems to be 100%; the white sweet peas, however, tell a different story as only one has germinated. The Anchusa azurea is a blue flower related to our alkanet which, if successful, is planned for the Fountain Garden parterre.
Onopordum (cotton thistles), pineapple lilies, and Aeonium tabularifolia are grown from Crathes seed. The Lotus plant that has been planted around the garden in the last few years has a pretty leafy growth, but has never flowered. I finally get to see the flower in a cutting from Logan Gardens (a different species). Joanna is watching the new acquisition in the hope of plenty of cuttings and seeds in time for next year.
Out in the Fountain Garden I am encouraged by the Skimmia ‘Kew Green’. It is buzzing with bees, mostly honeybees, but also solitary bees. There are ladybirds too, and shiny green bottle flies. Skimmias are dioecious, almost all cultivars being male or female; another way of ensuring cross pollination. ‘Kew Green’ is always male and will not produce the red female berries. It does have a lovely scent and it can pollinate other female skimmias so the bees give something back in return for nectar and pollen. The bumble bees are not evident on the skimmias; they prefer the Mahonia repens. In the paths I see one or two holes of the solitary mining bees. They have not been doing well the last two years may be because of the prolonged periods of hard frosts. At least some are there to carry on. The magnolias – which are blooming now – evolved before the bees and are pollinated by beetles.
Come summer the Arts will dominate; the borders will be painted with flowers; and just a fraction of that endless text will spread delight.
I think about the beautiful blue, green and white sphere hanging in space, and realise how little we know about the networks of living organisms that nurture and sustain it, and how readily we damage the networks – once inadvertently, but now with growing scientific evidence, in a more deliberate way. Biology is not an exact science; the more we know the more we realise we don’t know. Better understanding of those networks becomes increasingly important. Science and Arts, we need you both to heal our home; scientists to inform, poets to remind us of our fragile beautiful world – not that scientists can’t be poets. For gardeners, be they poets or scientists, it is a call to arms. The renewal has come as it always does, but how can we be sure that it always will?
Andy has been trying to finish the pruning. Some shrubs will have to be left until next year. The Prunus pisardii ‘Nigra’ hedge which defines the White Border used to be pruned every year, but now it is deliberately left and pruned every other year. I think it looks better for the rest. It is a very old hedge with some plants dead or dying; eventually it will need to be replaced.
James and Steve have continued working on the Rose Garden. They have now spread the surrounds with grass seed and have planted the first of the roses. The paths have still to be finished and some plants have been lost in the hard frosts – it’s always more difficult to keep plants in pots when the temperature plummets.
The rabbits have mostly been removed. Tulips that were planted years ago have not suffered and even some of the newly planted ones managed to survive.
The oyster catchers are about looking for a place to nest. last year the chicks hatched but didn’t survive for long.
The succulents that were infected with root mealy bug have responded to changed management and are doing well. The succulent with the orange flower is Echeveria derenbergii.
*The Nation of Plants by Stefano Mancuso (translation 2021).
**A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel (2010).
4 thoughts on “Renewal”
Lovely! What a wonderful collage of Spring portraits of Crathes gardens!
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Touch of sleet here today Mara; we’re in need of some warmth.
Thank you for yet another interesting and informative article. Yes, our blue planet is awesome and science and art should not be thought of as separate entities – they compliment and are essential to each other – yin & yang! Gardens are a brilliant example of this congruence!
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Biology and art – always my favourite subjects.