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22 Feb 2022

Crathes Garden blog #10: Donald, Far’s Yer Troosers?

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
The pink walls of Crathes Castle rise behind the dark green yew hedges. In the foreground is a cylinder-shaped yew hedge. It is a bright winter's day with a pale blue sky.
The pink walls of Crathes Castle and the distinctive yews look spectacular on a bright winter’s day.
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes look at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. Here, Susan considers the scale of devastation caused by this winter’s storms, but is comforted by nature’s ability to regenerate and by the ever-present joys of the garden.

You probably know the Scottish traditional song that begins ‘Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low’, made famous by Calum Kennedy and Andy Stewart half a century ago, so I’ll not bother you with the lyrics. But it got into my head as I was contemplating the most recent storms, Malik and Corrie, and it won’t go away. Like the wind, you might say. Crathes had not recovered from November’s storms (Arwen and Barra) when more amber warnings were given. Often amber warnings come and go without too much damage, but not so Malik and Corrie who visited us on 29 and 30 January. They caused even more widespread devastation. The food vans were back in Torphins and the surrounding area to provide for those who had lost power. Once more, the gates at Crathes were locked and the trails closed. The gardeners and rangers worked against the clock because local people really value their access to Crathes; the estate, castle and gardens were all open by the next weekend.

Because I hadn’t really caught up with all the destruction of Arwen and Barra, I’ve lost track of which storm caused which particular bit of damage out on the estate. A trip down the back drive left me appalled and saddened. Emotion welled up as I looked at the devastation, the huge grand firs criss-crossed around the plantation like pick-a-sticks. The chainsaws had been busy clearing access. All those individual trees; all that carbon stacked and likely to be released into the atmosphere. Go Ape, where my grandchildren have enjoyed swinging high up through the trees, lay destroyed. Grand firs (Abies grandis) grow very quickly and I could count the rings easily on the cut tree trunks: roughly 46 rings, although not at the base of the tree, suggesting that they were probably planted some time after the 1953 gale and chosen for their rapid growth.

Later that day, by chance, I listened to Roddy Hamilton, one of our rangers, talking on the radio about the effect of Storm Arwen and the destruction that I had just seen.* Like me, he had been appalled by its scale but he also talked about the resilience of wildlife and some of the benefits of blow-outs in the woods. Even the herons, whose heronry trees were also destroyed, he thought might return. I hope and expect that some of the fallen trees will be left to rot, so that insects, fungi, birds, mammals and other organisms can benefit from the apparent chaos; after all, it’s nature’s way – the cycle of life.

On another positive note, I have recently been meeting with Dave, a volunteer who is labelling the trees around the castle. James [the head gardener at Crathes] is keen that we produce a leaflet in connection with Dave’s work. Dave is also an experienced birdwatcher so I have been learning more about birdsong as a bonus.

A close-up view of a gnarly tree trunk with patches of moss and lichen. Screwed into the trunk is a small, black plaque with white text: Hupeh Rowan | Sorbus hupehensis | 'Obtusa' | China.
An example of Dave’s work with the tree labels

As ever, the weather dominates the gardener’s year. Last year it was late frosts that did the damage, and we may well see those again, but it’s good to see the survivors doing well so far. And there’s plenty of the routine winter work that needs addressed. James oversees everything and catches up with administration, working in the garden when possible – most recently around East Lodge by the entrance to the estate. Andy and Emily have been pruning; Mike and Steve have been filling in and re-positioning plants in the herbaceous borders; Joanna, pleased to be nearly finished with the painting, has set up an attractive white display in the glasshouse; and the volunteers have been weeding, clearing leaves, tidying up neglected corners and helping wherever needed. Davy and Kevin, out in the grounds, are mostly clearing up after the gales.

A woman stands on a ladder resting against a high garden wall. She is pruning a climbing plant that grows up the wall. Next to her is an empty ladder. Next to that ladder, a man stands at the wall, also pruning.
Shadows accompany Andy and Emily as they prune the climbers in the Upper Pool Garden.

Whilst they work, I scout about looking for garden stories: have the viburnums benefitted from the hard pruning they received? How many flowers are there on the winter iris? Is the daphne in full bloom yet?

The light is magnificent at the moment. To date, the year has been exceptionally sunny. It’s not difficult to find a rainbow of colours in the garden: bright cobalt blue skies fading to white; yellow winter jasmine; shining green moss; 50 shades of green/blue conifers and the rich subtleties of bark and lichen: grey, brown, green, maroon, even black. And let’s throw in a pink castle and a robin redbreast! Shapes and long shadows accentuate the garden structure – it’s a feast for all the senses, not just the eyes.

As the sun warms the garden, the bees appear, searching for the scents that tell of nectar rewards and maybe pollen. Possible sources include the witch hazel and daphne by the viewpoint, the sarcococca on the Yew Border, honeysuckle on the Aviary Terrace, the viburnums in abundance, and the snowdrops everywhere.

The drumming of the woodpecker makes me smile – a sure sign that spring is on its way. The tits are also busy announcing their presence and Dave alerts me to the mistle thrush song – a rather mournful version of a song thrush. What a joy to think of the year stretching out before us, with lengthening days and warming temperatures. I lay a hand on a tree trunk and feel the heat of the sun on the bark.

Delicate white buds of honeysuckle flowers peek over a stone wall in a walled garden.
Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera standishii) from the Aviary Terrace

My sense of smell, sight, hearing and touch have all been indulged, but for taste we will have to look to the past. For several centuries, the southern half of the Crathes walled garden would have been overflowing with vegetables and fruit, but today flowers and shrubs have overtaken the kitchen garden. There will be grapes to eat in due course, but just a few bunches.

This assault on the senses leaves me with heightened awareness, almost a sixth sense, though not as defined in the dictionary. This spirituality – which for me has no connection with religion – is surely where my feeling of wellbeing springs from. This is why it has been so important to clear the trails quickly, so that people can regain their access to walk in the woods, to see the light, hear the birds, smell the pines and (if so inclined) to hug a tree.

Updates

  • Westhill Rotary have been helping to clear Rhododendron ponticum at Crathes.**
  • All Aberdeenshire schools are to receive an apple tree as part of the Greenspace Project.
  • The wind continues to be unpredictable. As I write this, a yellow warning for high winds is expected with the advent of Storm Dudley. I doubt it has finished with us yet, so hang on to your kilt, Donald.

* I listened to Roddy on Keith Community Radio: KCR 107.7 FM

** See the North East Ranger Service’s Facebook page for more details.

Storm damage

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