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12 Feb 2021

Greenbank Garden and Jim May: an exquisite partnership

A lawn flanked by two borders, filled with spring flowers including daffodils and tulips.
Casual visitors to gardens may be forgiven for thinking that nature does most of the work in generating the spectacular shapes, colours and patterns they find so entrancing.

Any gardener will correct that impression by revealing that nature needs a lot of help in the form of hard labour, enormous patience and tender care. That’s why Scotland’s favourite gardens are a partnership between Mother Nature and the best gardeners.

A man stands next to a large pot of daffodils in a walled garden. There is a colourful parterre garden behind him.
Jim May in the original parterre at Greenbank

Sadly, one of those exceptionally talented people has recently passed away. Jim May was our Head Gardener and Property Manager at Greenbank Garden, in Clarkston near Glasgow, from 1976 until his retirement in 2007. During his watch, the garden evolved from an advice centre and teaching and demonstration garden to today’s glorious zenith of formal and semi-formal lush borders. It’s a contemplative, family-friendly place that is much loved by the local community and sought out by appreciative admirers from across the country.

Set among the fields of Flenders Farm, which have been cultivated since at least medieval times, Greenbank House was built in 1763 for Robert Allason, a Glasgow merchant. Allason was a local man who had begun life as a baker, before setting up with his brothers in Port Glasgow as a trader. He made his fortune from trading in tobacco and slaves with the North American colonies, the beauty of his home being at odds with the repugnant means of its funding.

For most of its existence, Greenbank House’s garden would have been prosaic, workaday and intended to supply the kitchen. Allason lost his fortune and home as a result of the American War of Independence and Greenbank thereafter passed through the hands of many owners. Almost exactly two centuries after its construction, the house came into the possession of William P Blyth who, with his wife, began to transform the grounds to accommodate both fruit and vegetable cultivation and an ornamental garden. It was with quite exceptional generosity that the Blyths donated their house and garden to the National Trust for Scotland in 1976 – and that’s when Jim came into the story.

Jim was absolutely pivotal in Greenbank Garden’s evolution and in the development of a strong community around it. His ready welcome, sense of humour and personal commitment to Greenbank generated enduring friendships with volunteers and colleagues alike. Under his care and guidance, the garden progressed from the family space that first came to the Trust into one that demonstrated many different aspects of gardening across a series of themed garden ‘rooms’ and which became packed with an incredible diversity of plants over the years.

In 1981, Jim’s talents came to the fore again when an additional 20 acres (8 hectares) of the surrounding landscape were donated to the Trust by the Young family. The woodland walks this provided are extremely popular as a ‘green lung’ for many people, and especially so during the recent coronavirus lockdowns.

Jim was very active in training and always willing to share his skills with amateur gardeners and the next generation of professionals alike, many of whom have gone on to develop their own long careers in horticulture. Jim’s plant knowledge was legendary and he took great care to label as much of the collection as he could for visitors and new horticulturalists to learn from and enjoy. Behind the scenes, his meticulous and detailed annual reports on garden activities and enhancements, and his attention with regard to keeping plant records, have been a wonderful boon for his succeeding colleagues and the Trust.

Jim cut a distinctive figure in the garden, clad in a tweed jacket and tie, save for only the warmest of days, as befitted a head gardener of his era. After his formal retirement, Jim continued to volunteer at the garden to take care of the plant records for many more years, before finally heading back south for a well-earned rest.

A man arranging daffodils on a table in a room with a chandelier.
Jim preparing the displays for Daffodil Day

And what a legacy he has left us all: a riot of colour resulting from over 3,700 plants, depending on the season. Greenbank Garden will soon be open again. When you have a chance to visit and enjoy varieties such as cherry blossom, astilbes, aubretias, deutzias, dicentras, saxifrages, hydrangeas, primulas, dahlias, roses, philadelphus, azaleas and heleniums, take a moment to be thankful for Jim May and his talent as a gardener.

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