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25 Nov 2021

Crathes Garden blog #7: challenges

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A close-up view of a Fascicularia plant, which has a tiny blue bud-shaped flower at the centre, surrounded by spiky red petals or leaves. Those red spikes are surrounded by darker green leaves.
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 November, where she talks about how they handle a wide range of challenges during the year.

Last month I wrote about sustainability in the Crathes garden, but I ignored the elephant in the glasshouse: all the heat that enables plants to be propagated and cared for through the winter comes from the two big oil tanks in the yard. Heat pumps are not suitable for glasshouses, and there is no infrastructure for the use of hydrogen. Some will flinch at the thought of wind turbines on a historic site; perhaps solar panels will be the way forward? The solution is outwith our Head Gardener James’s control, but he has been thinking hard about water management in the garden, especially due to the amount required during hotter summers. The Trust has agreed to include this project in the coming three-year budget.

James had some experience of water management during his time at Inverewe Garden – water collected from the roof of the new visitor building was stored in a large tank, making 15,000 litres available in times of drought. Since the reinstatement of the dipping pool, possibilities have also arisen at Crathes (see my earlier blog: A global perspective). Through the long dry period in the summer, water kept on trickling into the pool but the heavy rain of recent weeks has created another challenge – a leak developed in the standpipe, which appears to have been caused by the sudden rush of water breaking the clay seal.

A view of a fairly deep, square, concrete pool in a garden. A tall standpipe stands at the centre. There is a low level of water in it, with some fallen leaves floating on top.
The force of water draining into the pool during the recent heavy rain moved the standpipe. A leak developed and the water level fell.

Looking at the bigger picture, we can see the large amount of water that collects across the garden during rainy periods could be made available for the glasshouses and at least some of the garden. James thinks a 30,000 litre tank would be advisable, but first there are various problems to consider. The excess water presently travels under the road and into an old well. The well is full of old rubbish and needs to be excavated so that its depth can be estimated. If a pump could connect the well to a tank positioned beside the compost bins (it would be sunken so that half of the tank is below ground level) and a second pump could connect the tank to the glasshouses, then a solution might be found. Engineers will need to be involved.

However, our gardeners are used to fixing problems. When I left on 5 November, the standpipe had been removed so that the pool drained as the water hurried through the drain and under the road. A number of frogs that were resident were carefully removed; others that got swept down the drain will end up in the ditch on the other side of the road, where they will come to no harm. By the next week, James had removed the bung from the diversion into the pool so that the pool remained dry long enough for the standpipe to be fixed with cement. Another problem was also discovered: plant roots were blocking some of the drains higher up the path. Rods were used to clear this. For the next while, the problem seems to have been solved.

A little brown frog crouches under some leaves on some damp rocks. Its skin looks wet and glistening.
Emily photographed one of the frogs that was removed from the dipping pool before it was drained to repair a leak. | Image: Emily Strachan

Almost all the carnivorous plants have now been taken into the mist house. This was planned so that the hardiness of the plants can be determined. One pot remains outside to take its chance. When Joanna lifted the plants, she was surrounded by young jumping frogs! Maybe it was the frogs that ate all the midge larvae. They will certainly help with slug control in the garden.

We still need to address the problems of our day-to-day lives as well as thinking about the long-term goals for the planet. High on the gardeners’ agenda is a deadline for completion of the Welcome Building – it needs to be open for a planned Christmas event. James and the gardeners (mainly Steve) have been working full out on the approach to the building. On the left of the path they are building a wall and flower/shrub bed; on the right a large lump of bedrock provides a natural guide to the door. The stones for the wall have been sourced from the estate – some are dressed and possibly from the ‘Queen Anne’ wing of the castle damaged in the 1966 fire. By early November, the framework of the building was in place and roofing could begin. By 10 November a local contractor was laying the Caithness slabs. However, building this approach wall takes two gardeners out of the garden at a time when the garden is being ‘put to bed’ for the winter. To compensate, a day was organised for Drum gardeners and volunteers to help catch up with the garden work – there is a lot of partnership working between the Drum Castle and Crathes Castle gardeners.

A garden path leads towards a wooden gateway which is under construction, with scaffolding around it. To the far edge of the path is a built-up side of stone blocks, running in front of a tall stone garden wall.
The new wall built by the gardeners with stones from the estate

There are other challenges on the estate too for the Crathes garden team. The southern beech (Nothofagus dombeyi) that was planted in 1978 by Charlie Sutherland had been losing limbs and was becoming a danger to the public. Although just a young tree, it grew rapidly and had reached an impressive size. It was cordoned off for some time until it could be dealt with. It’s not appropriate to leave the dead stump in this decorative area of the lawn. Visitors will be pleased to know that there is another large Nothofagus dombeyi opposite Caroline’s Garden which is currently healthy.

A view of the mid-section of a large beech tree, with a substantial branch dangling almost torn off from the trunk.
The falling limbs made the Nothofagus dombeyi tree dangerous.

Even more urgently, the large beech possibly dating from the 18th century, at the south-east corner of the lawn, had just lost two limbs and looked as if it may lose more. With the ongoing work on the Welcome Building, the temporary entrance way to the garden now passes under this tree. So, with the help of the tractor, James and Kevin removed the hanging limbs and planned to have the rest of the tree felled shortly. But almost immediately James decided it was too dangerous to leave it standing – when it was felled on the following day, the hollow trunk was clear for all to see. It is a wrench to see this familiar ancient beech go, but as James remarked it also provides an opportunity. Maybe an oak will take its place, as it’s not always easy to find a space for a specimen oak. A grove of birches might replace the southern beech.

Inside the garden, the challenge is all about preparing for winter. The Drum squad helped with cutting back and clearing some of the beds, but there is still much to do. Whilst Andy, Mike, Cecilia and volunteer Helen clear the Double Herbaceous Border, Joanna and Emily have been preparing some of the more tender plants for frosty days. They have gathered dry bracken from the estate and have packed it round the vulnerable crowns of the tree ferns. Then they gather up the fronds and tie them up like stooks of corn; similarly with the cycads. The bananas get a blanket of bracken around the shoots, with chicken wire to hold the bracken in place.

One of the bromeliads (Fascicularia bicolor; see main pic) that grew in the Upper Pool Garden last year, and was badly frosted, did survive and may live to flower again. The glasshouse displays are mostly of contrasting leaf shapes, but the bromeliads give a fascinating splash of colour – their tiny blue flowers with bright yellow stamens and furry buds, surrounded by scarlet leaves, stand out among the many different greens.

It’s not quite winter yet though. Although many of the leaves have gone, autumn is still here with some lovely colours to lift the spirits. I even spotted a lone red admiral butterfly enjoying the last of the buddleia flowers (B. x weyeriana ‘Sungold’). The Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ that looked stunning for so many weeks, well into this month, has finally turned brown. The usual flocks of bullfinches have been feasting on the enkianthus seeds. I hadn’t realised before, but they also seem to be enjoying the berries of the Arbutus menziesii.

The roses in the main beds of the Rose Garden are being lifted in preparation for next year’s challenge. The Rose Garden has not much changed since the 1950s but it is to have a major redesign and reconstruction in 2022. The Rose Garden does not have a monopoly on roses; we find them all over the garden, and a few are still blooming.

The garden and estate, with its trees and diversity of plants, its frogs and bullfinches, gives us hope as the year draws to close. But we must all keep the challenge of climate change in our sights, so that these things we hold so dear can survive.

A view of a garden area that is filled with shrubs. In the foreground is a small tree with bright yellow and orange leaves. Behind it is a similar shrub, with deep red leaves.
The startling yellow and orange leaves of Lindera triloba with the dark red leaves of Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ behind.