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25 May 2022

Crathes Garden blog #13: Dreams and practicalities

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
Very colourful flower beds line a gravel path in a walled garden. In the background stands Crathes Castle,
The June Border, Crathes Castle Garden
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. This month, she talks about the balance required between creativity and practicality.

Repetition is inevitably part of gardening; some of it welcome, some not so much. Every year at Crathes we anticipate the lovely blossoms of April and May and the cottage garden abundance of the June Border. The brevity of some favourites only adds to their charm and I make no apologies for repeating my favourites.

Caring for a garden like Crathes involves many repetitive jobs: washing plant pots, clearing leaves, weeding thale cress and ground elder to name just a few. But as gardeners well know, there is much more to a garden than the hard grind; growing things is a magical business. Will the plant behave? Will the cosmos show their fragile beauty, or will they wilt or get eaten by the rabbit? How is it that a mighty oak can grow from one little acorn? What would the gardener (or forester) who planted out the giant sequoias about 160 years ago think of their present glory? Whilst the garden demands a lot of hard work, the essential nub is of creativity and dreams. Gardening dreams may range from a simple window box to a grand designed landscape, but where would we be without them?

The month of May at Crathes this year is mostly about practicalities, although a few dreams are evident. The pandemic is to blame for the proliferation of weeds (see ‘Seven years’ weeding’) and so weeding is high up on the priority list. Then again, some people like weeding; there is the satisfaction of a job well done. The Double Herbaceous Border, the June Border and the Blue and Pink Border all need to be netted to support the flowers through the summer. However, before netting they need to be weeded; after that, it is hoped that the perennial plants will stifle the weeds with their luxuriant growth. Once the nets are in place, the thale cress in the camel garden awaits the weeders!

A large-leaved, spiky-looking plant grows in the middle of a flower bed, surrounded by a cress-like plant with wispy stalks and tiny white flowers.
Since the pandemic, thale cress has become a problem weed in the camel garden.

The Amaranthus caudatus plants that Joanna (our propagator) grew from seed have just been moved from the glasshouse to the broadspan to harden off. I first became aware of amaranth on a rather special holiday when we just happened to be in Williamsburg on 4 July. As part of our privileged garden tour, we visited the Governor’s garden and there I recall reference to amaranth as an important vegetable of the 18th-century American garden. This fact lay dormant in my brain until I saw the ornamental plants that have been grown at Crathes during the last two years. Dramatic they certainly are, and the cultivar name of ‘Dreadlocks’ is entirely appropriate, but I am undecided as to whether or not I like them.

A close-up of an amaranth plant, with long, catkin-like, purple flowers dangling from its stems.
Amaranthus caudatus ‘Dreadlocks’ growing at Crathes

A book I received for Christmas – Around the World in 80 Plants – tells me more. [1] Amaranth was a staple food of the Aztec and Inca people, grown for its leaf (which can be eaten like spinach) and its fruit (which is a grain sometimes used for making dough). The conquering Spanish did not approve of the dough being used in pagan ceremonies and they banned the cultivation of amaranth. Nowadays, our precarious global dependence on wheat, rice and maize makes the highly nutritious amaranth grain a potentially important alternative. I am so struck by this information that I have ordered some amaranth seeds and have some germinating in my daughter’s greenhouse. I will probably eat them as baby leaf since I am currently without a garden. The Victorians named amaranth ‘love lies bleeding’; it was said to signify unrequited love. At Crathes we have two cultivars this year – the greener-leafed ones are Amaranthus caudatus ‘Coral Fountain’.

Trays and trays of potted seedlings stand in a glasshouse. There are two types of plants: one has green leaves, the other has purpley-maroon leaves.
Amaranths ‘Coral Fountain’ and ‘Dreadlocks’ in the broadspan

We also have another plant growing from seed that I find interesting: Carpobrotus edulis, the sour fig or ice plant. I think I have a pot of this, but maybe mine is not edulis – so I’d better not eat it should it ever fruit. It hails from South Africa where its former name (hottentot-fig) has colonial and racist associations. This plant likes the warmth and thrives in sandy places. It is not a problem in North-East Scotland, but in mild coastal areas of Britain it’s invasive and listed as such.

Steve, once an engineer in the oil industry, has been designing a strong, light, aluminium framework to help with accessing the glasshouses for contract maintenance. Aluminium welding is a skill that has to be outsourced to a local contractor.

The glasshouses get too hot in summer and Emily has been painting the glass with whitewash to provide a little shade. The long-handled roller will do the job without too much trouble.

Looking out through a glasshouse's sloped roof on a sunny day. A young woman stands outside, adding white wash to the exterior glass panels.
Whitewashing the glasshouse

Outside, there is a large space left in the Golden Garden where the tall conifer fell in Storm Arwen. James [the head gardener] has chosen the Nootka cypress (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis ‘Golden Cascade’) as its replacement. Nootka Island is off the west side of Vancouver Island in Canada. It will be some years before the cypress fills the space and so rudbeckias have been planted meantime. After planting they need watering and there seems to be little hope of a timely rainfall; drought is another practicality for James to worry about. Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh are currently researching the effect of drought on the people of Scotland as it is expected to be a growing problem.

A man stands in a flower bed, holding a hose above a small cypress tree. Lots of smaller plants have been planted around the tree.
James fixes the hose to water the Nootka cypress and the rudbeckias

Any major changes at Crathes have to be considered with care – the garden’s particular atmosphere must be retained and some of its designs are sacrosanct. The Evolution Garden had never had a settled design, so there was plenty of scope there for dreams and creativity without causing any upset (provided the budget was respected). The plants are now beginning to fill out and the tree ferns have survived this mild winter; even some of the bananas have survived. The Japanese Yezo willow (Salix nakamurana var. yezoalpina) is covered in catkins and looks very much at home behind the yellow Iris bucharica. Beyond, I see cardiocrinums are coming through to make a summer spectacle. A lovely Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ has been planted between the Evolution Garden and the June Border.

Changes in the Rose Garden are another matter. It is possible that there was an orchard here in medieval times, and later there were parterres. By the 1930s the rose beds were filled with pink, cherry and scarlet Poulsen roses – forerunners of floribundas. That was altered in 1958 to the present design. Talk of changing the rose garden has been happening for many years; sometimes there was talk of a prairie-style garden.

Matters were beginning to crystallize when James came to Crathes and it was he who finalised the design. Such designs need an equal amount of practical consideration and creative vision. There is nothing about the 1958 design that seems particularly special today, although I was sorry to see the viburnums go – the central one has been left for a while in case it has time to flower before work begins. A generous benefactor is financing the project, the plants are waiting and the contractor is established. James tells me to expect some movement in June. The east and south borders, with their important trees and shrubs, will remain untouched. Look out for the handkerchief tree beside the summer house in the next few weeks.

Noting the name of the little yellow iris in the Evolution Garden – the Bukhara iris, from the mountains of Central Asia – reminds me of the Bukharan pear (Pyrus korshinskyi), which grows on the Doocot Border. Endangered in the wild, it is doing very well here. Its story is told in my book about Crathes:

You will not find the Bukharan pear easily even in its native haunts. You will need to travel to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan where its location is described as fragmentary. There, the popularity of this wild pear for the garden or as a rootstock for other pear cultivars has placed it on the critically endangered list. In an economic sense, it is an important genetic reservoir which might be needed if disease hits our modern domesticated pears – it may indeed be the ancestor of the pears we eat today.
How often I have passed the tree and wondered briefly about the name. Only when it burst forth in seemingly triumphant blossom in the spring of 2014 did I take notice and discover its importance. With such a display of blossom, I hoped for a bounty of fruit; but maybe it would turn out to be self-sterile. I was thus quite pleased to find two small pears in 2014. The tree was falling over and has since gone, but cuttings were taken and sent to a specialist National Trust centre in the south of England where rare plant cuttings are given extra-special treatment. We have to pay for the three rooted plants that have been returned to us, but the money we pay helps to finance this global conservation service. Any other successful cuttings from the pear will be sold by the centre to help its survival in a fragile world.

Since I discovered this pear tree, I have seen a splendid specimen growing in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) under the name of the Kazhak Pear. I know from the Latin name that it is the same species as the Crathes pear. This Edinburgh tree is included in the Tree Register of the British Isles as a champion, being the largest in cultivation in Great Britain. I need to catch it in April when it is in flower.
Postscript: I noticed the newly planted, healthy Pyrus korshinskyi blooming on the Doocot Border in April 2019. [2]

Another cutting now grows near the viewpoint. Bukhara, sometimes spelled Buchara, is a city in Uzbekistan. It is well recorded in history because of its position on the Silk Road. I can now associate it with two very different Crathes beauties.

A thin young tree with white blossom grows in front of an old stone garden wall.
Bukharan pear on the Doocot Border

The oystercatchers have made their nest and laid their eggs in the Red Garden urn. We have high hopes for young ones this year. There is also a blackbird nesting in the barrow shed, and thrush activity suggests a nest near the Yew Border. The fluty song of the blackcaps mingles with an intermittent chorus of goldcrests, goldfinches, dunnock, tits and other songbirds which will have their nests well hidden, we hope, from the prowling cat.

Emily reports watching a dragonfly larva eat a tadpole in the Woodland Garden pool, and I am thrilled to see that the solitary mining bees that were so depleted last year in the Fountain Garden are making a comeback. Maybe it was the hard frost of 2021 that caused their demise. Herbicides are no longer used, but the weeds have to be dealt with somehow.

I have also seen a comma butterfly. From the early date (19 April) I surmise that it was hibernating. Until recently, the comma was unknown in Scotland, but now I see one or two every year. It’s another butterfly that uses nettles as a food plant – like the red admirals, the painted ladies, the peacocks and the tortoiseshells. It’s good to leave some nettles in a corner of the garden.


  • The netting and barley straw had to be removed from the dipping pool because the metal netting was discolouring the water. The algae is still a nuisance, but meantime it is removed from time to time in the hope that a natural solution will emerge. The pitcher plants are about to flower.
  • Some of the Brodie daffodils have been planted out beside the viewpoint.
Pale yellow daffodils with pale trumpets grow in a clump before a building with pink stone walls.
Brodie daffodils planted out by the viewpoint

[1] Jonathan Drori, Around the World in 80 Plants, Laurence King, 2021

[2] Susan Bennett, The Gardens and Landscape of Crathes Castle: A Four Hundred Year Story, Spey Books, 2019

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