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19 May 2022

Weaving a floral tapestry at Pitmedden Garden

Written by Aileen Scoular
A furry-looking bumblebee sits in a bright pink thistle head, with a long green stem.
Here’s a guide to some of the plants you’ll see in our new floristic meadow at Pitmedden Garden in Aberdeenshire.

Since taking on the care of Pitmedden Garden in 1952, the Trust has brought this magnificent Renaissance walled garden back to life. In the 1950s, we re-created a quartet of parterres (formal areas of planting arranged in an ornamental pattern) inspired by the 17th-century plans for the garden at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, which in turn are thought to have been inspired by French garden design of that same era. More recently, an orchard of some 200 fruit trees was planted in 2014, giving rise to Pitmedden’s famous Apple Day every September.

But the upper terraces at Pitmedden have never fulfilled their potential, despite the creation of a complementary parterre design in the 1990s. And so, four years ago, thanks to the generous support of Professor Ian Young and his wife Sylvia, we made the decision to transform the upper terraces entirely. In this space now is what consultant garden designer Chris Beardshaw describes as a ‘de-constructed parterre for the 21st century’: a complex planting of bulbs, herbaceous perennials and grasses that’s modern in appearance, easy to maintain and increasingly biodiverse. The influence and inspiration comes from the past – including 17th-century objects contemporary to the founding of the garden – but the interconnecting swathes and drifts of insect-friendly plant species is highly contemporary.

A round pond with a stone surround and fountain in the middle sits on a manicured lawn. Shaped yew trees run in a row towards an old mansion. A very tall fir tree stands to the right.
The upper terrace before transformation – the pond and yews remain, but the surrounding area will soon be blooming. | Image: John Bracegirdle, Alamy Stock Photo

The ornamental terraces at Pitmedden Garden are now inspired by an embroidery of a 17th-century bonnet and the complex patterns of a classical French garden. The terraces feature 9,000 Scottish-grown plants and 400kg of bulbs, all in a space measuring 120 metres by 30 metres. This is the UK’s largest ‘floristic meadow’.

‘This is a really exciting experiment for the Trust,’ explains Chris Wardle, Gardens Manager for the North East, who has masterminded the planting project. ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity to create something beautiful and change how we traditionally manage flower borders at the same time.’

The box hedging on the upper terraces has been completely removed, and the amount of close-mown lawn has also been reduced – both positive steps in terms of environmental impact.

“Simple, curved grass paths will lead you through the new plantings, enveloping you in a tapestry of colour and texture – a pattern that will gently evolve from season to season.”

The project began in the imagination of Chris Beardshaw, whom Scottish gardeners will know from the BBC’s Beechgrove Garden. ‘Chris is in high demand, but our Pitmedden project genuinely excited him,’ says Chris Wardle. ‘It’s modern and funky, and in the naturalistic style of plant designers such as Piet Oudolf and Nigel Dunnett. But Chris has gone one step further by including many more herbaceous plants.’

However, as with any grand plan, there have been challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic scuppered our original plans to replant the areas in 2020, and the cold snap in February 2021 put paid to late-winter bulb-planting. There were also the usual sensitivities of working in a heritage garden: any design had to involve minimal disturbance to historical elements hidden beneath the terraces.

But, on the plus side, thousands of young plants were successfully grown in East Lothian, arriving at Pitmedden in small pots. With a lower carbon footprint to grow and transport, these little plants will also establish themselves more quickly as summer goes on.

‘The new parterres at Pitmedden are the opposite of “instant” gardening,’ explains Chris Wardle. ‘The design is very well thought-out and the end result will be strikingly beautiful. But gardens take time to mature.

A view of a floral bed at Pitmedden Garden, beside a gravel path in the foreground. Tall purple flowers grow close to the path edge, with red-pink flowers behind. They are surrounded by large ornamental grass plants.
The new meadow-style planting at Pitmedden

Chris further explains: ‘Our plants will be spaced to give them room to thrive and spread naturally. By the summer of 2022, the effect will start to look really spectacular.

‘In the Trust’s gardens, you’re usually looking at evidence of the past, in the context of the present. But at Pitmedden, we’re creating a heritage garden of the future, and it’s a lovely opportunity to see garden history develop in real time. Visitors can watch it grow, and re-create little sections of the planting in their own garden, or take away inspiration for new and exciting plant combinations.’

The replanted upper terraces have been designed to provide colour for at least 10 months of the year, plus structural interest right up to Christmas in the form of flower stems and plant skeletons. The first plants should then come into flower again before Easter. ‘Traditionally, people have visited Pitmedden from July to September, but now the garden can be enjoyed all year round,’ says Chris.

“The new planting is also more nature-friendly – pollinating insects will have a wider variety of nectar sources that start earlier and go on for longer.”

For Chris Wardle and the wider Pitmedden team, this is a chance to demonstrate something new and exciting within a much-loved space. We would like to thank Professor Ian Young and his wife Sylvia, who enjoyed a long association with and deep love of Aberdeenshire, for supporting Pitmedden and this project.

‘Some visitors enjoy the philosophical side of gardening, while others simply want somewhere nice to explore,’ says Chris. ‘We hope that, in future, the new floral parterres at Pitmedden will provide something for everyone.’

In the gallery below, Chris Wardle talks about some of the plants that feature in the new parterre.

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