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19 Oct 2021

Crathes Garden blog #6: hope springs eternal

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A deep red, yellow and green ivy covers the walls of Crathes Castle. The ivy surrounds heraldic stone carvings on the walls.
Autumn colours on the castle, October 2021
This year, 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 is Susan’s entry from October, where she talks about the importance of hope in gardening:

There’s a lot of hope involved in gardening.

I watch Joanna tending her cuttings in the enlarged propagation bench. On the hot days of September, this work needed a lot of care – shading the cuttings with a green mesh in the heat, but rolling back the mesh to water or mist them maybe four or five times a day. Then, as the cold nights kicked in, the contrast between night and day temperatures put another strain on the precious bounty. And bounty indeed it is – these cuttings are bestowed by the garden, tended with care and reaped with hope. Gardeners have been taking cuttings and sowing seeds for the next year since ever there were gardens – a sustainable and satisfying process. The need for sustainability to underpin garden practices becomes more and more essential as we contemplate the state of the planet.

Trays of neatly planted cuttings, each labelled with a little white stick, are neatly arranged on a glasshouse shelf.
A successful crop, full of hope for next year

After I had written the paragraph above, I spent the evenings watching the Chelsea Flower Show. I sometimes criticise Chelsea for its extravagance but I always find something to inspire, and this year I felt there was much that resonated; there was even a Garden of Hope. In this case, the hope related to the mental health of new mothers. Now that the show is over, the Garden of Hope will be moved to Rosewood Mother and Baby Unit in Dartford to fulfil its purpose.

The RHS COP26 garden highlighted the climate crisis and how gardens can help to address the problem while still creating lovely places around our homes, even if on a balcony or window box. There was plenty about sustainability and the importance of wild areas in the garden. The ‘perfect’ lawn got a slating and was positioned in the decline area of the garden. In the words of the RHS: ‘A perfect bowling-green lawn is a key feature here [in the decline area], because it represents a relatively lifeless monoculture and it also requires lots of inputs such as water and fertiliser. Consider whether you really need those perfect stripes.’

For me, the most heart-warming award was for Tom Massey’s design for the Yeo Valley Organic Garden – this not only won a gold medal but was also voted the People’s Choice. No peat, no pesticides and a bit of the wild are finally becoming fashionable and, in fact, essential.

With Chelsea taking place in autumn for a change, the planting was full of yellows, oranges and reds – colours that are so evident in the Upper Pool Garden at Crathes, which used to be called the Colour Garden. I noticed the tall yellow rudbeckia in the Yeo Valley garden – possibly the same as the one that grows at Crathes, Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’.

A close-up view of a yellow rudbeckia plant, which has bright, large yellow flowers atop long, slender green stems.
Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’ on the Double Herbaceous Border

Though there is still much to enjoy in the garden at Crathes, in October the gardeners’ focus is on next year: taking in tender plants and growing half-hardy cuttings. Joanna’s propagation bench in Glasshouse 5 is now full. The minimum temperature in this house is 9° and the bench is bottom heated at 20°.

The various composts used in the glasshouses are made in-house. The soil house, just off the potting shed, has six bays of ‘soils’: tree and shrub mix; greenhouse mix; sterilised soil; leaf; sand; and loam. Grit is presently bought in and comes in plastic bags; otherwise, everything is sourced on the estate. The sterilised soil is loam, riddled and heated to 85° – a process that creates a distinctive stink. The ‘leaf’ comes from the large leaf mould heaps out in the woods, replenished each winter as the leaves are cleared from the garden and drives. It too is riddled; a machine recently gifted to the garden has made this job much quicker and more pleasant. The sand and loam are also riddled, though not so finely.

Mixing is done the hard way on the soil house floor, shovelling the various ingredients together until evenly distributed. Recipe quantities are measured in bushels (8 gallons or 36.4 litres), for which Joanna has a ‘bushel box’. The cutting compost is mixed in small quantities as needed and is based on a John Innes recipe: two bushel of leaf, one bushel each of loam and sand. The leaf mould replaces peat, which has not been used in the garden since 2001.

Generally, Joanna takes 25 cuttings from each of around 60 half-hardy different plants. They are sprayed with water regularly throughout the day. A few need the extra humidity provided by a plastic cover. The netting is only used for shade when the sun is bright. Glasshouse 6 has more cuttings, including penstemons taken earlier (and now well established) and some of the streptocarpus that came from leaf cuttings and are now in flower – all these from one leaf.

A variety of potted plants stand on a stone shelf and a couple on a wooden bench behind. Some have blue and pink flowers; others just have leaves. The plant pots are labelled with white sticks.
Blue streptocarpus and pink cestrum – all this year’s cuttings

Trays of aeoniums are drying out in the potting shed. They always root more readily if they have been left to dry. In Glasshouses 3 and 4, there are pelargonium and fuchsia cuttings taken in February and March this year, to keep the collection in good health.

Outwith the glasshouses, compost is also important. The large compost bays opposite the yard recycle the garden waste, apart from pernicious weeds which are burnt or binned. Spreading compost is one of the winter jobs that returns nutrients to the soil.

The garden gate project – the Welcome Building – is well underway. This project has been talked about for many years. The building will offer interpretation and will provide an entrance point to the garden. I wondered about the sustainability of this project. James (head gardener), Mike (gardener) and Emily (apprentice) spent a very wet Monday lifting the slabs at the gate so that the local contractors could come in to prepare the foundations. An archaeologist carried out a watching brief, but found nothing. To avoid the excessive use of concrete, with its high carbon footprint, the building is to be suspended on oak legs that are secured onto concrete pads. A local contractor carried out much of this work. Unfortunately, the granite bedrock turned out to be just under the surface of the area, and drilling through the hard rock took longer than anticipated.

A small digger with caterpillar tracks sits in a building area, with a row of square concrete lumps in front of it. Behind it are huge boulders and slabs of rock. The photo is seen through fence railings.
Concrete pads reduce the carbon footprint, but bedrock and large boulders have delayed progress.

Hardcore for infill is sourced from the local quarry of Craiglash. Caithness slabs have been ordered for flooring. Traceably sourced and sustainable oak from Wales and from a small independent mill in Normandy is to be used in the building. The cabin roof will be planted with sedums in the spring. By 11 October, the foundations were complete and the uprights were about to be installed.

In the meantime, entry to the garden is via the Woodland Garden, further down from the usual entrance.

I have read three books this last month that have given me hope. [1] One was about an ancient, high biodiversity, English orchard left largely alone but still producing cider apples that provide a living; another about three generations of farming in Cumbria; and the third about biodiversity in abandoned places across the globe, from West Lothian to Chernobyl. All can be seen as depressing from many perspectives, but all also give more than a glimmer of hope for the future. The National Trust for Scotland 2021 autumn and winter members’ magazine also gives hope with its article on landscapes.

National Trust for Scotland members can log into their MyTrust account and access the members’ area to read a digital version of the magazine.

I have already written about Mar Lodge Estate (Blog #3: The mysteries of time, July 2021), but I was most heartened to read about Kelton Mains Farm on the Threave estate, where the National Trust for Scotland has joined forces with the Galloway Glens Partnership to restore a large area to a species-rich landscape.

Read more about the Threave Landscape Restoration Project

It was Alexander Pope in ‘An Essay on Man’ (1734) who first used the phrase ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. Nearly 400 years on, there is definitely something in the air – the climate crisis is now a mainstream conversation, and hope and determination could show us the way through the gloom and doom. Across the media and in our daily lives we are gearing up for COP26; maybe finally the politicians will have to listen and act. Bring it on, Glasgow!

Sculpted topiary dark green yew hedges are seen in autumn, with the pink leaves of a katsura tree showing behind. Taller deciduous woodland trees grow behind it.
The leaves of the katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonica, turn pink and smell of burnt sugar in the autumn.


  • Tim has finally finished his apprenticeship (prolonged by COVID) and has now moved on. We were sorry to see Tim go, but we’re lucky to have a new apprentice, Emily Strachan, to take his place.
  • Weeding continues and, as the weather turns, the gardeners hope for a sunny spot in which to work. Lifting the bananas is warm work anyway. The many sunflowers throughout the garden had been left to provide seeds (and insects) for the birds. They eventually turned mouldy with the rain and had to be removed, but not before the birds had reaped some of the seeds. Salvias, Michaelmas daisies and hydrangeas are all looking good.
  • Callum Pirnie, a previous head gardener, dropped in for a visit. He now gardens on the west where the weather is much wetter. This year, however, there was a prolonged drought.
  • The gardeners were thrilled to watch a large dragonfly laying eggs in the moss lining the edge of the dipping pool. Ironically, it has laid its eggs where the American carnivorous plants thrive; maybe it’s too big to succumb to the pitcher traps, or maybe the sweet-scented trap doesn’t appeal to this carnivore that likes to take its prey on the wing. Emily got a wonderful photograph.
  • The colours are turning as large skeins of geese fly overhead. We wonder what winter will bring.


  • Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates, Orchard: A year in England’s Eden, Harper Collins, 2021
  • James Rebanks, English Pastoral: An inheritance, Penguin, 2021
  • Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the post-human landscape, Harper Collins, 2021