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21 Jul 2021

Crathes Garden blog #3: the mysteries of time

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A grassy garden path leads between two richly filled flower borders towards a shaped tree. The borders are mostly filled with white flowers.
The White Border at Crathes Castle Garden, July 2021
Over the next few months, our expert garden guide is sharing 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 July, plus a wee update at the end:

The Evolution Garden at Crathes is finally completed – in so much as a garden is ever completed. The triangular piece of garden between the June Border and the Doocot Border was for many years used as a nursery for cardiocrinums, but by the end of the last century the lilies were not doing very well and the area became a Learning Garden. Different themes were trialled, usually for three years. Vegetables came first, then pollinators. When James Hannaford took up the Head Gardener post in October 2017, the theme chosen by Chris Wardle (our previous head gardener) was evolution.

James took time to decide on action – evolution after all is a big theme. Eventually he decided that such a garden merited a lot of effort and should be long-term. The space was small but cool and enclosed, and could easily incorporate part of the Doocot Border. It would fit in with the idea of the Crathes ‘rooms’, but would also complement the Burnetts’ cutting-edge approach; Sir James and Lady Burnett had always looked for originality and excitement in their gardening. This gave James some freedom to be creative. He decided that there would be three raised circular beds depicting different geological periods, containing some of the relevant plants. The planting outside the beds would not be time-themed, as that would constrain the final effect. Every plant tells a story, and so using a variety of plants would add interest, especially if they were unusual – maybe living fossils or evolutionary curiosities.

The whole project was to be as sustainable as possible, with all work done by James and the team. The granite setts (paving stones) represent the greatest road miles, having been sourced 20 miles away in Aberdeen. The tiles came from Drum, and all other stone work was found lying around at Crathes. Soil, compost, sand and stumps also all came from the estate. Work got under way at the beginning of 2020. But then came the pandemic.

Work resumed in 2021 and all it needs now is time to grow, and maybe a little interpretation.

Ferns and other green plants grow in a circular bed, bordered by slates.
The plants are beginning to settle in | 30 June 2021

A potted history of plant evolution

Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but are crucial in the development of plants. They are of especial importance for lichens, a group resulting from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. Fungi make the lichens tough and provide shelter for the algae, which provide sugar by photosynthesis. Lichens are able to break down rocks, over millions of years, and thus form soils that are necessary for plant growth.

Liverworts were some of the earliest land plants. They are dependent on water for fertilisation and spore production. Obligingly, they grow naturally on the paths in the Evolution Garden.

Mosses have leaves and stems and a simple vascular system for transporting water; they cannot grow to any substantial size. They reproduce by spores and need water for fertilisation. During the June drought, the mosses in the garden shrivelled away but they will soon recover.

Clubmosses and horsetails have better developed vascular systems. Both produce spores. In earlier times they grew to a great size and were important plants in the formation of coal. Horsetails have hollow stems with an outer ring of vascular tissue, which supports the plant as well as transports water. As a child I remember being fascinated by the jointed stems that are easily pulled apart.

Ferns have a more complex vascular system, with well-developed stems and fronds. They are still dependent on water for reproduction. They can grow to an enormous size and were also important in coal deposits. The spores may be carried on the underside of the fronds or on separate reproductive stems.

Gymnosperms (flowerless plants that produce cones or seeds) have naked seeds. Pollination is by wind; water is not required for reproduction. They flourished during dinosaur times, but remain important in the temperate coniferous forests of today. Cycads and ginkgo trees are both primitive gymnosperms. Our only native gymnosperms are yew, juniper and Scots pine.

Flowering plants (or angiosperms) have covered seeds and are the dominant plants of our modern world. They often have complex flowers that evolved alongside insects and are adapted for efficient pollination.

The Evolution Garden

The first raised circular bed represents Earth at a time when the continents made up one landmass – Pangaea – surrounded by the oceans (the slates). This period ran from about 350 million years ago (mya) to 200mya, when the landmass began to break up – a process that continued through the Triassic and Jurassic periods. James has chosen horsetails (Equisetum) and cycads for this bed. Cycads, said to be the favourite food of dinosaurs, may look like palms, but they are more closely related to ginkgo trees and conifers like our native Scots pine. Cycads are not completely hardy and James will be taking a gamble when he leaves them out over the winter. On the other hand, moving them in and out each year sets them back – they are slow growers anyway.

A new raised circular flower bed stands in a garden. In it are planted various palm-like plants, surrounded by slate tiles.
Pangaea is represented by the soil and plants, surrounded by the ocean (the slates).

The second circle represents the Cretaceous period (145–66mya) after the break-up of Pangaea. The dinosaurs were still evolving, and ferns and conifers were expanding. This bed is planted with a gymnosperm in the form of a monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), which will have to be moved on in a few years. It also includes a fern (Blechnum penna-marina) that should form a dense underlayer; and a palm, Chamaerops humilis. By the end of the Cretaceous, angiosperms were an important part of the flora. The little palm is a true palm and thus one of the flowering plants.

A new raised circular flower bed stands in a garden. New plants are inside it, forming the shapes of the African and American continents. They are surrounded by slate tiles to represent the oceans.
By the Cretaceous period the continents have moved apart; Africa (centre) is now separated from the Americas (left).

The third circle, nearest the seats, represents the world as it is today. Despite the lack of obvious flowers, grasses are actually more recently evolved angiosperms. James has planted this circle with grasses because globally they are the basis of our diets; wheat, oats, barley and rice dominate our agriculture.

A new raised circular flower bed stands in a garden. Various grasses are planted inside, surrounded by slate tiles. A variety of other newly planted plants surround the bed.
The continents are now established, with Australia on the right.

Other plants, often new to Crathes, grow in the rest of the garden. I have listed a few below:

  • The tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) have spent the winter inside. Because they are young, they don’t yet look like ‘trees’. However, these ferns will eventually grow tall if they thrive. This is another experiment for James because, like the cycads, the tree ferns will need to take their chance in the winter, although they will be given some protection. One of the baby tree ferns that Joanna has been nurturing in the glasshouse is now looking more like a young fern.
  • Dryopteris affinis is the native golden-scaled male fern. The cultivar ‘Cristata’, with its much-branched pinnae, is the result of human interference in evolution – as are most of our plant cultivars. The Victorian craze for ferns resulted in many experiments to find unusual wild varieties and raise offspring from their spores. Hundreds of cultivars were raised during what was largely a British obsession.
  • Lotus berthelotii, sometimes known as parrot’s beak, is a member of the pea family. Its flowers are orange or red. Although it is much cultivated by gardeners, it is thought to be extinct in its native Tenerife.
  • Cautleya spicata is a hardy ginger. It arrived as a small piece of rhizome and is so far looking good.
  • Pinus parviflora ‘Jim’s Mini Curls’ is a favourite of James. He has been taking special care of this slow-growing pine and it is beginning to sprout new needles.
  • The Japanese wheel tree, Trochodendron aralioides, is sometimes called the loneliest tree in the world – it is the only species of its genus and the only genus of its family. The wood does not contain the xylem vessels that are so efficient for transporting water in most angiosperms; it is less sophisticated, similar to gymnosperms. This suggests that the wheel tree is a primitive angiosperm – as are the magnolias.

The Earth is 4.5 billion years old; we humans have been around for about 200,000 years – just a tiny fraction of that time. Geological time, however, isn’t just history. Many scientists believe we are now in a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – created as a result of human impact on Earth. Whether it began with humans starting to farm the land thousands of years ago, nuclear developments in the 1950s or with the ubiquitous plastic that is now found across the planet, there is little doubt that our own actions have contributed to the present climate crisis and to what is now referred to as the sixth mass extinction. Many remember the abundance of salmon in our rivers, now depleted to an alarming extent. Will the Anthropocene end in our own destruction, or can we turn the tide?

Hope for the future

Amongst the gloom, there is hope ... and some of that relates to Deeside. I have just finished reading a book about the regeneration of Mar Lodge Estate – for me a real page turner. [1] It’s now been 25 years since the National Trust for Scotland bought the estate and it has not been an easy journey for the Trust.

Back in 1995 there were about 3,500 deer on the estate; muirburn and driven grouse moor shoots, with the accompanying destruction of ‘vermin’, were regular practice. The Trust’s plan was to reduce the deer numbers to 1,650. This was not an easy task, with much opposition from many sides. Today, sporting remains integral to the estate, generating important income to spend on conservation.

The sport, however, is of a different nature. The book states: ‘Maintaining a comparatively small herd of high quality deer offers a higher quality sporting experience in a healthier ecosystem, with no impact on financial income and with significant ecological benefits across the moors, bogs and woodland of Mar Lodge. Deer stalking is still done at Mar Lodge in the traditional Highland way – a skilled stalker takes a guest up onto the hills and bogs, a single rifle is used, and deer are killed with a single shot. The Mar Lodge tweeds are still proudly worn, local whisky is still toasted at the end of the day … Mar Lodge is fully booked a year in advance.’

A view of a hillside in the distance that is covered in a striped pattern, caused by controlled burning. In the foreground lies a moor and some tall pine trees.
The strip pattern of muirburn on the hill of a neighbouring estate, seen from Glen Lui. Muirburn is no longer practiced on Mar Lodge Estate, June 2021

With the reduced deer population, the pines are beginning to regenerate and the Caledonian Forest is returning to something like its original condition; even montane willows are increasing – maybe a new montane scrub zone will be part of the future. Fences have been generally removed, partly to help with capercaillie recovery. With no driven grouse shoots and no muirburn, raptors such as the hen harrier are returning. Plenty of dead wood left to rot results in greater invertebrate biodiversity, which in turn will feed animals higher up the food chain. Special projects are nurturing rare plants and animals, such as the alpine sow-thistle (Cicerbita alpina), the pine hoverfly (Blera fallax) and the Kentish glory moth (Endromis versicolora). The endangered dotterel may disappear with global warming, but the young pines by the rivers might in time help to cool the spawning beds of the salmon, and the restoration of the peat will offset emissions generated elsewhere.

Young pine saplings grow beside a path across a heather-covered moor, with larger pine trees in the background.
Regenerating Scots pines growing among the old granny pines in Glen Lui | June 2021

Inspired by the book, it was time to take a trip up Deeside. It had been some years since I had visited Mar Lodge Estate. The lodge itself is now used for offices and as a venue for weddings and corporate events. It is not open to the public.

Weekdays are a little quieter at the moment, so we set off with a picnic on Monday 28 June. The glorious resinous smell of pines on a hot day assailed us as we opened the car door. The walk in the lower reaches of Glen Lui was just ideal and we could see the young pines regenerating and stretching up into the hills. It was a perfect day.

The ballroom at Mar Lodge, showing the walls and ceiling absolutely filled with stags' heads. The ballroom is set for a formal dinner with tables laid out along the length of the room.
The Mar Lodge ballroom, lined with stags’ heads, shows that the tradition of sporting is integral to the estate’s history.

Nearer home, there have been other important contributions to the health of the Dee. The Beltie Burn, which flows through Torphins and enters the Dee as the Canny at Invercanny, was straightened in the 19th century to accommodate the railway. In the autumn of 2020 a restoration project, managed by the Dee Catchment Partnership, turned the burn back into a meandering river with associated wetlands and appropriate tree planting. Much silt was removed from the burn to improve the habitat for spawning salmon. Biodiversity monitoring of the site continues and the Torphins Paths Group are involved in public accessibility. On a walk there this week we could see and hear the oystercatchers. Birdwatchers tell us that lapwing, redshank and common sandpiper have also nested this year.

A view of a green, rolling landscape, with a wide stream running through the centre.
The surrounding landscape after the restoration of the Beltie Burn | 10 July 2021

At Crathes, the Coy Burn runs into the Dee at Milton of Crathes after passing through the mill pond. It is not an insignificant burn – it drains 40 square kilometres of land. In the estate the burn is largely ecologically healthy: it meanders, it soaks up and slows down large amounts of water and it supports biodiversity. But the state of the mill pond is not healthy. In June it dried up completely, other than the Coy Burn running through. This is due in part to the drought, but mainly because the old sluice has broken. It has been difficult to control for some years and the fish trap that was installed beside the dam has not been adequate; new solutions are required. The mill pond itself needs to be dredged of the massive amounts of silt that have built up over the years.

A meeting of interested parties and hydraulic engineers has just taken place. The initial focus is on fixing the two sluices (one is for the old lade), redesigning and installing a suitable fish trap, and installing a simple silt trap. In the longer term, the pond needs to be carefully dredged, with a more sophisticated silt trap installed.

A stream runs along the bottom of a dried-out river bed, with large muddy banks stretching either side. A metal sluice gate can just be seen in the foreground.
With the broken sluice, only the Coy Burn runs through the mill pond which drained dry in June.

Across Scotland there are exciting projects taking place with different bodies, such as the RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life and the National Trust for Scotland, forming partnerships to save our landscapes and our oceans. The international UN meeting on climate change at COP26 in Glasgow in November could be a turning point. Humans are an intelligent species; it should be possible.

Whatever happens to the human race, the flora and fauna of the earth will go on evolving. Meantime (that’s an interesting word), I look forward to watching the development of our own Evolution Garden whilst pondering on the mysteries of time.

Updates to earlier blog posts

  • Sadly the oystercatcher didn’t succeed and the nest was abandoned.
  • The various adjustments needed to the pipes and drainage of the dipping pool have been made and a new stand pipe has been installed. The pool edge is now filled with the newly arrived plants.
  • All of the tender shrubs that were so badly affected by the late frosts seem to be recovering. Some had to be cut right back, but they are re-sprouting from the base. Even the bananas that were left out through the winter, and thought to be dead, are pushing up new shoots.
  • The battle with the weeds continues.
  • Up at the viewpoint the new vines and some rowans have been planted. The meadow behind the viewpoint is full of ox-eyed daisies, a catsear (or related dandelion-type flower), tufted vetch and yellow rattle.
  • The show houses are usually open.
  • The Walled Garden is now much more accessible and you can walk up the various borders into the centre of the garden, but please remember it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
  • Enjoy the roses and lilies if you visit.

[1] Painting, Andrew, Regeneration, Edinburgh, 2021. You can buy this book in the Crathes shop.

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