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28 Apr 2023

Crathes Garden blog #24: Renewal

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A close-up of a small plant with white flowers that have yellow centres. The green leaves are feathery and the stalks are furry.
The pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris ‘White Swan’) is a symbol of rebirth and is in bloom just now
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 many emerging delights now spring has sprung.

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 it is easy to overlook as its unusual arrangement of flowers and green petals might suggest a flower gone over, one that has dropped its petals. The five-sided cluster of flowers 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 wildflowers, all of them common in long-established woodlands: ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) and the lovely native primrose (Primula vulgaris), both pin-eyed and thrum-eyed.

In primroses, the 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. If the next flower the butterfly visits is a pin-eyed flower, it will rub some of that pollen onto the stigma, which is perfectly situated to receive the pollen. It was the brilliant scientist Charles Darwin, in 1862, who first understood the reason for this arrangement.

There’s a lot of science in the news just now with the launch of the 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. [1] Translated from the Italian, it is a Bill of Rights for the plants of our planet. Everything about our unique planet emanates from plants – they provide the energy to drive the world. Without their photosynthesis there would be no oxygen to breathe; no sugars to feed on; and no us.

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 30 years back are not surprised to hear that the WWF have declared the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. 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’. [2] That’s quite a statement. We do, of course, need the ecologists and 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 just about science; the wonder of the garden also belongs to the arts. Why should these two disciplines of arts and science be separated? Horticulture has always combined these two aspects of life. The study of soils, of pests and diseases, goes hand in hand with a love of flowers and the pleasure of growing vegetables.

A variety of deep blue, pink and purple flowers grow on or beside an old stone wall in a garden.
The Blue and Pink Border (shown here in summer) is a blend of art and science.

Our Crathes gardeners have different strengths to offer. Some are fully trained horticulturalists; others have worked for RHS qualifications to complement their backgrounds in engineering, IT, architecture, floristry and fine arts. They make a good team. Last week, two of the Brodie Castle gardeners were here to learn about Crathes practices, and Emily is away to Brodie to learn about machine use in their garden. I was interested to hear about their ornamental food beds.

However, the discipline of science has been dominant at Crathes through the winter. Drainage and water management have taken up a lot of time. There have also been experiments with yew cuttings, and the Trust’s PLANTS project team have been finalising their 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 Royal British Legion in Banchory has a productive walnut tree and has given us some fruits. Germination has been successful and so 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 bugloss (Anchusa azurea) is a blue flower, related to our alkanet; if it’s successful, it’s planned for the Fountain Garden parterre.

Cotton thistles (Onopordum), pineapple lilies and the succulent Aeonium tabuliforme are all 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 it has never flowered. I finally get to see the flower in a cutting from Logan Botanic Garden (although it is a different species). Joanna is watching our 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 are either male or female). ‘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 bumblebees 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 done well over the last two years, maybe because of the prolonged periods of hard frosts. At least some are there to carry on this year. The magnolias – which are blooming now – evolved before the bees and are pollinated by beetles.

A close-up of a skimmia plant that has lots of small, pale yellow buds. A ladybird walks up the leaf to the left.
The flowers have no stigmas on this dioecious skimmia. On the left is the gardeners’ friend, the seven-spot ladybird.

Come summer, the arts will take their turn to dominate. The borders will be painted with flowers, and even 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; how readily we damage those 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.

We need both science and arts 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 has done, 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 plum hedge (Prunus pissardii ‘Nigra’), 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 oystercatchers are looking for a place to nest. Last year, the chicks hatched but didn’t survive for long.
  • The succulents that were infected with root mealybugs have responded to changed management and are doing well. The succulent with the orange flower is Echeveria derenbergii.

[1] Stefano Mancuso, The Nation of Plants: A radical manifesto for humans (translated by Gregory Conti), Profile Books, 2021

[2] Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading, Yale University Press, 2010

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