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13 Apr 2023

Crathes Garden blog #23: What price a tree; what price a garden?

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A large and chunky-trunked sycamore tree stands in woodland, covered with ferns, lichens and mosses. A gravel path with a wooden way marker runs beside it.
A 300-year-old sycamore covered with ferns, lichens and mosses, Crathes Castle Estate
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 considers the different ways we value trees at our places.

Here we are, with the clocks changed to summertime, the blue Chionodoxa covering the Crathes walled garden with its magic, the cherry trees beginning to bloom, the bumblebee queens looking for nest sites and the chiffchaff calling as it looks for a mate.

There is a lot 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, as well as 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 stolonifera ‘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 (honeysuckle) bush. Andy advises him to wait another week before pruning the Hydrangea aspera. It’s a shady border so Mike will consult with James [Head Gardener at Crathes] and decide on the planting; epimediums 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 moss off the seat so it 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 being the Sow of Atholl beside the A9.

There has been frost damage in the garden 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.

Recently, I have been thinking a fair bit about trees. Early in March I joined Dave on his hunt for champion trees, some of which have proved rather elusive. There are 133 champion trees at Crathes mentioned in the Tree Register of the British Isles, although some have been damaged in recent storms. The Arbutus menziesii 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 elaeagrifolia 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 – we were also side-tracked by other trees just for the joy of it.

My husband and I spent a few days in North Berwick in March. Each time I go there, I look for the Act of Union beech trees on North Berwick Law. Planted in 1707 to commemorate the Act of Union between Scotland and England, they are easily seen from the beach and town – and even from across the firth in Fife. When I first climbed round to see them, there were seven, 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.

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 Hamilton, 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. It was then felled for timber during the Second World War, and again replanted. During my visit, 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. [1] I am reminded that Sir Thomas Burnett, 1st Baronet of Leys, started planting trees at Crathes in 1620.

A view looking up towards the hill of North Berwick Law, with houses and rooftops in the foreground. On the lower slopes, on the left of the photo, a few spindly beech trees can be seen.
The Act of Union beech trees can be seen from the town, to the left of the Law.

People love trees; but how do we value a tree? For timber merchants (and illegal loggers), it’s the money received for selling the wood; for ecologists, 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 that trees sequester. 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 cannot be measured in pounds and pence.

The Portugal laurel in the lower garden at Crathes is not only a much-loved 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. However, for many of us it is irreplaceable because we don’t have a hundred years to watch a youngster’s character develop.

A Portugal laurel tree grows in the middle of a garden, with a paved area directly surrounding it and then neat hedges and shrubs. It is almost mushroom-shaped, with a thick trunk topped by a dense, dark green domed canopy.
The Portugal laurel is an important part of the Crathes garden design.

The recent pandemic has shown 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 evidence of the medicinal effects of woodlands; spruce, for instance, releases biochemicals into the atmosphere that have antiseptic and antibiotic properties. This is referred to in a book that I have been reading about the boreal forest and the treeline. [2] 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.’

Oak woodland at Crathes Castle Estate. A low, moss-covered stone wall runs through the middle of the trees.
Woodland on the Crathes estate

A garden may seem to be a minor thing when compared to a woodland and the climate crisis. Yet, 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 role.

Today, the teamwork of the National Trust for Scotland’s gardeners and volunteers keep Crathes as one of the special places of Scotland. 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. When I visited at the very end of March, I found much excitement and more history in the making. The central sculpture had 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’s east gate and delivered it onto a small mechanised hand truck, so it could be wheeled into position. It barely managed through the gate, with just millimetres to spare. It is a much-enlarged copy of the Towie stone ball – generally acknowledged to be the best example of a Neolithic stone ball. These are found all over Britain, but mostly in Scotland and especially in the North-East – nobody knows how the Neolithic balls were used. When the sculpture is fully installed, water will bubble over the ball from the top, and four rose arbours will 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 5,000 years.

There is still work needed to finish 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 has been sponsored by a local benefactor, and the Trust is very grateful for such a generous donation. Additional to the cost is the careful consideration given to the design, the hard labour and the ongoing care of the plants that have been waiting in the wings; all of which have been added by the gardening team.

A large stone ball stands at the centre of a paved area, in the middle of a newly designed garden area. Tall, dome-shaped metal structures surround the sculpture. Paths lead into the centre circle. Empty flower beds surround the paths.
Work is in progress on the central feature of the re-designed Rose Garden.

Updates

  • Contractors are still working in the estate 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 car park.
  • There was frog spawn in the dipping pool on 30 March and an abundance of frogs from last year have been reported in the Woodland Garden and in the glasshouses.


[1] Judy Riley, Tyninghame: Landscapes and Lives, Birlinn, 2022

[2] Ben Rawlence, The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, Vintage, 2023

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