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20 Apr 2021

Trust gardens – from the ground up

Written by Aileen Scoular
A grass path leads between two colourful flowerbeds towards an old castle. Tall trees grow either side and an old stone wall runs along the right-hand side.
Falkland Palace Garden
We take expert care of many of Scotland’s most beautiful and important gardens so the whole nation can enjoy them.

Looking after gardens and designed landscapes has been among the Trust’s core activities since day one. We care for more than 100,000 plants and 38 amazing gardens – 30 of which are listed in Scotland’s Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes as outstanding examples of gardens that are historically interesting, horticulturally impressive or, quite simply, a work of art.

But although the Trust takes immense pride in knowing its gardens are globally regarded, our foremost responsibility is to the people of Scotland. ‘We try to make our gardens accessible to as many people as possible, and we’re always thinking about how we can make the experience real and meaningful for visitors,’ explains Ann Steele, Head of Heritage Gardening.

No two Trust gardens are the same. You can travel back to the 1600s at Culross, admire the vision of 18th-century architect Robert Adam at Culzean Castle, or enjoy the thoroughly modern Silver Garden at Brodick Castle. And it’s not always simply about the plants, either. ‘Gardens are great learning spaces, where people can find out about plants, nature and the seasons, with some mathematics and science thrown in, too,’ observes Colin Wren, Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager for Edinburgh and the East.

Our gardens are places where people lived and worked, where real events happened, and where history was recorded. And that makes them worth fighting for. But keeping our gardens fit for the 21st century takes time and money.

‘All plants paint a picture or tell a story, and there’s always a reason why something is in a Trust garden,’ says Simon Jones, Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager for Glasgow and the West. ‘If the artist E A Hornel had not had his garden at Broughton House, would he have been inspired to paint such beautiful pictures? The saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is absolutely true of our gardens.’

Ann Steele agrees: ‘At many of our properties, the house and the garden are inextricably linked and, indoors, you’ll often see floral elements in the pottery or the paintings or the wallpaper. In properties such as Haddo House, Broughton House and Inverewe, the former owners’ love of gardening is very evident.’

In fact, Trust gardens showcase a remarkable array of historical gardening talent. There were the original pioneers and creators – the likes of Osgood Mackenzie at Inverewe, James Arthur Campbell at Arduaine, the Rentons at Branklyn Garden and Lady Grace Campbell at Crarae – as well as expertise from prestigious garden designers such as Graham Stuart Thomas in the 1960s and Percy Cane in the 1940s. Plants and seeds originally collected by some of Britain’s foremost Victorian plant-hunters – George Forrest, Reginald Farrer and Frank Ludlow – still thrive in Trust gardens today.

Sometimes, the bond with previous owners is less tangible, but nevertheless still powerful. Learning that Miss Christian Dalrymple pored over seed and bulb lists while developing her beloved flower garden at Newhailes, or that Princess Marie relaxed in the Bavarian summerhouse at Brodick Castle that she designed as part of the Romantic landscape, are the stories that give these gardens soul.

Tall blue poppies stand in a colourful flowerbed in a garden. Rhododendrons and trees can be seen in the background.
Himalayan blue poppies at Branklyn Garden

Amazing plants

Of course, a garden is nothing without plants, and Trust gardens grow some of the best. We have unique varieties named after our gardens, like Primula ‘Inverewe’ and Meconopsis ‘Branklyn’, and some notable plant collections: exquisitely scented Malmaison carnations at Crathes Castle, rhododendrons and olearia at Inverewe, 19th-century shrub roses at Malleny Garden and daffodils at Brodie Castle.

‘We do have to pick and choose which plants we protect, but we are proud to participate in Plant Heritage’s National Plant Collections scheme,’ says Ann. ‘We always ask ourselves: “What’s worth conserving? What does this contribute to the story of a place?” It’s not always because something looks like a “wow” plant.’

Then there are plants that represent specific moments in time. The ‘Four Apostles’ are four mighty yew trees at Malleny Garden which were part of a group of 12, originally planted to mark the union between Scotland and England. The Peace Garden at Inverewe, where Princess Anne planted a tree in 2019, commemorates the peace-­making at the end of the First World War.

Some of our gardens, such as Arduaine, Crarae and Inverewe, allow visitors to get close to incredible plants from as far afield as Nepal, India, Tibet, China and Tasmania, while other gardens provide an opportunity to encounter rare or threatened wildlife. There are traditional Scots Dumpy hens clucking contentedly at Culross and great crested newts darting around the ponds at the Pineapple, while the wider estate of Inverewe is home to Scotland’s ‘Big Five’ wildlife species: red squirrels, red deer, otters, harbour seals and golden eagles.

Conservation and propagation

In the spirit of their original creators, the Trust’s gardens are constantly evolving. Recent work at Culzean Castle, for instance, has focused on reinstating architect Robert Adam’s period parkland, and improving the look and feel of the walled garden. The beds now have brick edging, the double herbaceous border is being restored, and there is a revived selection of fruit, cut flowers, herbs and botanicals.

“In its day, the walled garden at Culzean would have supplied the household with all its fruit and veg and, when the family was in London, fresh produce would have been sent south by train.
It’s lovely to see it restored to its productive past.”
Ann Steele
Head of Heritage Gardening

Another key investment has been the new glasshouse at Inverewe, completed in 2016, which allows Trust gardeners to grow plant material for the famous walled garden and propagate cuttings to help counteract challenges such as climate change and new botanical diseases. Although we respect and protect the history of our gardens, it’s also important to keep them moving with the times.

That’s why our gardeners experiment with new techniques and trends, such as the bulb and wildflower meadow at Falkland Palace, the modern fruit orchard at Pitmedden Garden, the organic kitchen garden at Kellie Castle, and the community garden at Newhailes. At these places, they explore new varieties that could become the heritage plants of tomorrow. There are dedicated plant propagators at Culzean, Threave, Crathes, Branklyn and Inverewe to create new specimens of rare plants that could otherwise disappear, and we also share plant material with world-renowned botanic gardens. ‘We continue to be part of the International Conifer Conservation Programme, which has been running for around 20 years at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh,’ says Colin. ‘They collect and propagate rare and endangered conifer trees and place the seedlings in safe locations such as Brodick and Crathes.’

Spring 2020 also saw grafting of the old fruit trees at Falkland Palace. ‘These large trees are coming to the end of their life, and not many of them are identifiable,’ explains Colin. ‘So, rather than potentially losing the very last tree of that variety, we have grafted plant material from the old trees onto young apple rootstocks. The tree seedlings that grow successfully will be replanted at Falkland.’

A view of an immaculately kept walled garden with a circular feature in the centre, surrounded by a circle of low box hedging. Large square flower beds can be seen in the background before an old stone garden wall.
Drum Castle Garden | Photo: Rob McDougall

Education and volunteers

Our gardeners have an admirable blend of skills that stretch far beyond being able to keep plants alive, and that expertise is willingly shared with the Trust’s apprentice gardeners and volunteers. The Trust’s Modern Apprenticeship scheme began two years ago, and we currently have nine apprentices. We also train students at the Threave School of Heritage Gardening, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Volunteers are no less valuable. ‘We would be lost without them,’ says Colin. Most Trust gardens have 20 to 30 volunteers from all walks of life, but a more complex site, such as Falkland Palace, can have as many as 45. ‘There’s also the direct benefit that gardening has on our volunteers’ and visitors’ physical and mental health,’ adds Simon. ‘The Trust’s designed landscapes have an incredibly important role to play, in terms of health and wellbeing, across Scotland.’

That’s one of several reasons why gardening sustainably is now a must. ‘We now use peat-free growing media and fewer chemicals,’ says Ann. ‘Maintenance is changing, too, to reduce the environmental costs. We know that mowing produces harmful emissions so it makes sense to reduce the amount of cutting where we can. With careful management of our grassy areas we can also usefully support wildflowers and pollinating insects.’

Read more about What We Do in our Gardens

The future

Perhaps the biggest challenge for our gardeners is dealing with the unexpected. The recent lockdown was not the ideal way to start a new growing season, but our gardeners are used to being flexible. ‘There’s always going to be a balance between preserving the original spirit of a garden and maintaining plant health and vigour,’ says Simon. ‘It’s daunting to have to renovate a 100-year-old hedge or thin out shrubberies that have become too big. But it’s important that we keep pushing these gardens forward.’

Invasive species can be a problem – and new plant diseases now zoom around the world at speed. Box blight and Phytophthora have affected the hedges at Pitmedden and the plant collection at Inverewe respectively, and Ann is on high alert for a new pathogen running rife in Europe: ‘Xylella fastidiosa has devastated olive groves in Italy, but there are around 600 other species that could be vulnerable, including lavender and rosemary. These are plants that we would really miss.’

Climate change, while presenting huge issues, also provides our gardeners with the opportunity to experiment with new species from warmer regions of the world which, in turn, gives visitors insight and inspiration for their own gardens. As always, the Trust is thinking long term. Our garden plans can span the next 50 years, and our gardeners keep records of our work to inform Trust gardeners 100 years from now.

The result is a range of gardens and designed landscapes, each one rich in character and authenticity – from specialist plant collections to colourful kitchen gardens to fun family spaces – all cared for with skill and passion and with appeal for every visitor. ‘A lot of people visit our gardens despite not being mad keen gardeners,’ says Ann. ‘But, on some level, they know they’re in a very special place.’

Have you ever visited one of our gardens and wondered how you could recreate it at home? Or perhaps you’d like some expert help in adding some splashes of colour to your garden? Join our new ROOTS subscription scheme and receive a special pack every six weeks with gardening goodies to help your garden bloom – and six times a year the packs will also contain a packet of Scottish seeds for you to grow at home.

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