curiosity about the ways of the world

Keep people safe: keep gardens open

Nearly tea-time. As the sun slips gently towards the pond, we check the table for essentials: home-made scones, cakes (wicked chocolate one today), compostable cups, plates, napkins…and, oh yes, don’t forget Blue Roll and hand sanitiser. 

On the last Open Day of our first season as new members of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, we’re beginning to get the hang of it.  We’re well supplied with SGS signs politely requesting visitors to keep safe social distance. And they do. There’s not been a big run on sanitiser but people respectfully give each other space in the open-sided gazebo: standing back to allow room in the queue for tea, arranging seats in ones, twos or family groups while friendly conversation flows between us like fresh air.  

In the warm autumn sunshine of late October it felt as if fear of Covid was fading. Now, as so far unknown risks of a new variant loom on the horizon, I hope our experience of the last few months can enable us to face the future with greater self-confidence. We have learned what matters. It’s good for people to get out and safe to wander freely in woodlands and gardens.

There’s something else Ray and I have discovered. At the tea stall there’s

A magnificent chocolate cake for Halloween
The Halloween chocolate cake

a chance to chat. Under the borrowed gazebo by the bird feeder (blue tits and red squirrels watching and waiting their turn from a discreet distance), people have been enjoying the chance to socialise. We’ve learned a lot; sharing recipes, checking plant names… chewing the fat, shooting the breeze, it’s all so ordinary. So simple. And so precious. Something we have missed in lockdown but it takes time to recover. 

“I still feel a little wary,” one of the older women – about my age – confides as we walk a little distance together back towards her car.  She had needed an outing but didn’t feel ready to cope with crowds who might be drawn to the RSPB visitor centre at nearby Vane Farm.  A woodland garden seemed a safer option for her and her companion. She’s glad they came. I am glad too.

Opening the garden gate

We had no idea what to expect when we put up the yellow signs at the beginning of September: ‘Garden Open Sunday 2-5pm’.  We made a ‘car park’ between the field maples on the edge of the lane, mapped out a woodland trail, printed poems for benches by the pond, and invented a treasure hunt for children.  

Young Gustav finds the Beechwood Beast with the help ofa treasure hunt map
Discovering the ‘Beechwood Beast with the help of the treasure hunt map: Picture Daria Piscorz

Writing notes for the woodland trail I realised we were inviting visitors to follow the route Ray and I had taken 28 years ago on our first trip to see the woodland, pond and derelict cottage advertised for sale in the Scotsman.  Only then there was no road. In the autumn of 1993 we climbed the fence and walked through the field beside the streamside line of beautiful old oaks, beeches, ashes and pines.  We had come for the trees – following a wild fantasy to manage a woodland – which was just as well. A sturdy young ash tree grew through the cottage roof, the pond was silted up and the old quarry was a neighbourhood tip. 

We develop this story over tea and cakes. In return local people tell us what they know about the place before we got here. Many of them remember the woodland, pond and derelict cottage from childhood adventures. Opening the garden has made a new connection between past and present and opened tantalising new directions for the future.  

‘This was known as the lily pond,’ several people tell us, using an old name for daffodils. They bloom here every spring.

 Race against time

We had intended to carry on into November, but an unexpected invitation brought a change of plan. It proved a good decision. The last Open Day fell on a glorious if unseasonably warm October Sunday which was a good way to finish. And it would have been a pity to miss an inspiring COP26 event at the Hidden Gardens in Glasgow on 7 November.  Inspiring and troubling. The event hosted by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) revealed the devastating threat to the world’s trees. 

In climate change, as in Covid, human behaviour is wreaking havoc across the globe accelerating the destruction of our only home. Urgently needed conservation is underway but it’s a race against time. Over 30% of the world’s trees face extinction in the wild. In some places, including Scotland, once thriving populations are down to one last living individual. 

A display board showing threats to the rowans of Arran  COP26 event

Returning to Pond Cottage we look up at ‘our’ trees. How privileged we are to be among them. Near the temporary car park, It’s good to see grand old ‘mother’  beech trees nurturing many healthy offspring at their feet. But as we walk around the pond, there are too many dead and dying ash trees of all ages, succumbing to ash dieback. They stand out, stark against the sky, just as the dead elm did when we first arrived. Diseases are among the threats in the BGCI report: State of the World’s Trees. We humans are the deadliest. 

The main threats to tree species are forest clearance and other forms of habitat loss, direct exploitation for timber and other products and the spread of invasive pests and diseases. Climate change is also having a clearly measurable impact.

State of the world’s trees

A precious legacy

But human action is our best – our only – hope. Can we learn from our mistakes? Packing up the SGS signs we know how lucky we have been. If we want our grandchildren to enjoy the thrill of a thriving woodland – a living landscape – we have a lot of work ahead. Indeed, it’s been hard work opening our garden for the first time but, with help from family and friends, a lot of fun too. We’ve gained more pleasure than we could have imagined from the kindness and enthusiasm of visitors and the advice and support of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme. 

Amazing to learn that this year – despite Covid challenges – the SGS network has welcomed more than 50,000 visitors into a huge variety of gardens of all sizes, including wild unruly ones like ours.  That’s a lot of tea and cakes, a treasure trove of friendly conversation and shared knowledge. And together we’ve raised a lot of money for local charities.

Gardening is a generous activity.  Wherever you have trees and plants and water there’s a buzzing community of living things. People are part of that community. Let’s keep it that way. Winter is coming but we will open again with the snowdrops, in real life.  

Further reading: State of the World’s Trees Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Our thanks to Scotland’s Gardens Scheme for the opportunity to learn so much about our garden – and ourselves.

Mother Beech, arms outstretched an old tree nurtures offstring at her feet
Mother Beech at Pond Cottage


  1. fay

    Thank you for all your help and encouragement, Margaret. We would not have ventured forth without it. And the benches you suggested by the pond are an inspiration! Very much looking forward to showing you the new plans for the waterbank.

  2. Margaret Gimblett

    What an inspiring and beautiful account of your first year opening with SGS. I am so glad that I encouraged you to open when we first met – not least because one of my volunteers thought that I was going ‘a step too far’ encouraging such a gloriously wild garden to open. You thought it was too wild and on a dreich autumn day had momentarily forgotten or could not see the beauty that was there. But what emerged from the spring and got even better until the autumn was also due to the enormous amount of work you, the family, and friends put in during the winter and indeed during the year. And the baking….. Oh my goodness…. what a treat. Roll on 2022and your next Open Days.

  3. fay

    Thanks Liz! Spring seems a long way off right now but I’ve spotted some daffodil shoots appearing already…

    We were intending to stay open for small groups by arrangement during November, but the weather had other ideas.

    Look forward to seeing you in February!

  4. Liz Wyatt

    Loved reading your blog, Fay, thank you.
    Unfortunately we were away on your final open day, sorry to have missed it.
    Looking forward to the snowdrops!

  5. fay

    Stay safe Reinhard!
    Hoping Storm Barra spares the trees – interestingly only one of ours, a Sitka, succumbed to Arwen. Poor thing. Sitkas are so shallow-rooted and ours are vulnerable to a strong north wind.

    But it’s intriguing to see how the upturned roots become little ecosystems of their own. Growing mosses, tree seedlings – including a tiny beech and two baby Sitkas. Life goes on…

  6. Reinhard Behrens

    Beautifully put, Fay and sorry we never made to your gazebo and your trees (I think, you worked hard enough to call them ‘yours’!). But there are always new seasons to look forward to! For the moment we better stay spread-eagled across our roof to keep the tiles down (slightly exaggerating, as usual)….

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