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26 May 2021

Crathes Garden blog #1: Seven years’ weeding

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
Three gardeners kneel on a narrow gravel path beside a long flower bed. They are weeding. A garden hose on a blue trolley is parked between them on the path. At the far end of the path is a small, tower-like, garden pavilion structure.
The team working on the June Border, May 2021
Over the next few months, our expert garden guide will share a blog offering a behind-the-scenes look at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. Here is Susan’s entry from May:

The frost continued into the first week of May. When finally there was respite, it was time to get the plants moving. When I visit on 11 May, the broadspan greenhouse is almost empty and the yard is full of trays of bedding plants – gazanias and zaluzianskyas. The greenhouse will not be empty for long because plants such as rudbeckias, felicias and nicotianas are lined up in the potting shed and lower glasshouses, waiting to be moved on. Some echiums and bananas are already out taking their chance; the cold frames no longer need to be covered up at night. Maybe, just maybe, summer is on its way.

With plants moving on into the garden, Joanna wants to take time with the show houses. She is pleased at the progress of the abutilon cuttings – many are already in flower. As restrictions ease, the glasshouses may open up so that people can enjoy the usual summer wander through all the houses. First, however, there are lots of cosmos to pot on.

Rows and rows of potted plants are displayed in open frames, running alongside a glasshouse. Some of the plants have bright yellow flowers. A single-storey building runs parallel to the glasshouse on the other side of the path.
Cold frames full of plants for bedding out | 17 May 2021

Both amaryllis ‘Mont Blanc’ and amaryllis ‘Black Pearl’ were treated last year for red blotch (a fungal disease). At least some of the bulbs have done well this year. Since the infection comes with the new bulbs, this positive result is important – bulbs are not cheap. Whether the plants will cope with the bleach treatment a second time is another experiment. Joanna will give the leaves – which come after flowering – a foliar feed to build up next year’s bulbs. If the disease is present, she will repeat the bleach treatment if she has time. It’s all a matter of priorities in the glasshouse (and garden), and timing is always crucial. Although some of the amaryllis survived the red blotch, they did succumb to slug and snail damage, as did some of the newly germinated helianthus seedlings.

The attractive grills on the floor of the glasshouse make for a perfect hideaway for these troublesome molluscs, but help is on its way in the form of biological controls. A variety of nematodes are used for controlling the slugs and snails, and vine weevils. A predatory mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis, eats red spider mites; and the small cards dotted around the glasshouse have the eggs of a tiny parasitic wasp, Encarsia formosa, attached, ready to hatch and parasitise the whitefly. Another parasitic wasp, Aphidius colemani, attacks the aphids. Again, timing is critical.

A close-up of two white amaryllis plants, growing from bulbs in small terracotta pots. They appear to be in a glasshouse, with sunlight shining on them. They are surrounded by other potted plants, possibly begonias and geraniums.
Amaryllis ‘Mont Blanc’ with some slug damage to the petals of the bulb on the right | 11 May 2021

This brings me to the old saying ‘One year’s seeding makes seven years’ weeding’, which must be known to all gardeners. This last year has certainly proved it at Crathes. Taking advantage of the skeleton staff during the spring and early summer of 2020, thale cress has made its point. Almost all the team have been doing battle against it and the hairy bittercress. The Double Herbaceous Border is certainly the most affected area but these two weeds are everywhere.

Other nuisance weeds are the bluebells – ‘but they are lovely’, I hear you say. Not when they spoil your planting displays, turning up in the middle of a fine bed of trilliums, and especially not when they are the non-native Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica. There are dandelions too, but I am fond of them. I know there is no room for them in the Walled Garden, but I am delighted to see them lining the roadside verges in Deeside with their cheery yellow flowers, providing nectar for the bees and other insects.

By 17 May the team moved on from the Double Herbaceous Border weeding and the nets are in place for plant support. The gardeners are now concentrating on the June Border so that the nets can be placed there too. Meantime, the planting-out is put on hold; weeds are the priority.

However, ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ and there are new drainage problems to divert James and Steve from the weeding. Water has been bubbling up beside the shed and close to the boiler room. Is it to do with the pipe under the road, blocked with hedge roots? Time to use the rods and see if it can be sorted.

The hedge restoration is finished for the time being. James is, so far, satisfied with the project. After the dramatic cutback, the yew hedge has been given some TLC: first, the flat hose that releases water along its length was left on to give the hedge a good soaking; then bone meal was laid, followed by 3cm of Crathes compost and 10cm of Crathes leaf mould. The watering will continue throughout the summer during dry periods. The hope is that we will see some sprouting as the year progresses. Then the team can move on to the other half of the Yew Border next spring, if there is time.

Two gardeners work on a freshly raked-over soil border, running beneath a tall yew hedge. The border is fenced off from the path. A wheelbarrow with rakes lying inside stands in the foreground.
Steve barrows leaf mould and Mike rakes it out in the Yew Border. Later, a wooden edge is added to define the path | 5 May 2021

My trillium challenge continues. I have realised that I know the sessile Trillium luteum on the South Border from previous years. With yellow flowers and attractive mottled leaves, it is a native of Tennessee. I dither about the maroon pedicellate trillium that grows abundantly in the Double Shrub Border. Eventually I decide that it is T. erectum because the sepals are not boat-shaped (curled inwards at the tip) like they would be on the similar T. sulcatum. Then I find one with a label and the matter is settled to my satisfaction. T. erectum likes its shady surroundings in the Double Shrub Border and is seeding everywhere and spreading extensively.

A close-up of a trillium plant growing in a border. It is fairly low to the ground and has variegated leaves, with yellow flower buds emerging from the top of the stem.
Trillium luteum in the South Border | 5 May 2021

I have discovered some photographs of trilliums I took some years ago in the pit house. Whether all these made it to the garden I don’t know – but I will be looking out for them. These trilliums in the pit house would have been purchased as rhizomes and brought on in the unheated house to give them a good start before planting in the garden. The T. pusillum looks, from the photographs in my book, to grow into a very fine plant.* T. grandiflorum, the provincial flower of Ontario, is looking good. It doesn’t hide its head like some of its tribe and, as its name suggests, it puts on a great show. Along with T. erectum it is one of the commonest trilliums in the garden. There is one more trillium that I can add to my progress, but I haven’t yet seen it in flower: the pedicellate T. rugelii is growing in the Double Shrub Border. I await its flowering with expectation. It looks as if it is going to be white. The T. recurvatum in the Evolution Garden is now showing its maroon flower.

A waxy-leaved trillium plant, with showy, bright white flowers, grows in a flower bed.
The flower stalks – pedicels – are noticeable on the Trillium grandiflorum in the Camel Garden | 17 May 2021

Planting continues in the Evolution Garden. A line of yellow irises – Iris bucharica – adds some colour to the greens of the mosses, ferns and conifers. I sit for a while on the stone seat contemplating the garden, now nearly complete. I notice that one of the Japanese wheel trees, Trochodendron aralioides, has been planted in the centre of the garden.

A view of a garden area at Crathes Castle, with fairly bare beds in the foreground. Ferns and daffodils grow around several old tree stumps. A line of yellow irises grows close to the path edge. The castle can be seen in the distance.
The Evolution Garden is slowly filling up with plants | 5 May 2021

With the frost over, the flowering shrubs are looking better. The air is filled with the clove-like scent of Viburnum juddii – there are a few of these highly scented shrubs in the garden. They are rather subject to aphid attack, but survive each year to work their sensory magic. In the Woodland Garden an impressive rhododendron, R. ‘Loderi King George’, is in flower. The bees, however, prefer the nearby Berberis lologensis.

I like to keep an eye on the native woodland project. There are lots of spring flowers to look at – celandine, ground ivy, bugle, foxglove, wood anemone, wood sorrel, dog violet and barren strawberry. The recently planted hazels are doing very well and, I think, there is some bird cherry.

Planning to visit?

The June Border should be at its best about a month from now – the third week of June is the recommended time, but with this year’s weather there may be a delay. During the next month the summer viburnums will be in bloom; the handkerchief tree will be making a statement in the Rose Garden; the enkianthus avenue will be humming with bees; and peonies, clematis and roses will confirm that summer is here.


*Case, Frederick W Jr and Case, Roberta B, Trilliums (Timber Press, Oregon, 1997)

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