”Pond Cottage is an acreage of weed, rot and litter but Fay Young intends to turn it into a Scottish horticultural paradise”. That was The Herald almost thirty years ago in a quirkily offbeat introduction to my new dream commission: a Weekend Extra series about Scotland’s gardens and gardeners on a trail following my own discoveries. It was a happy year, leading to an unforgettable spell with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as contributing editor and writer and ultimately to membership of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme. But back to the beginning…
Flashback to October 1995
Here, republishing my first Weekend Extra column in The Herald (don’t take that bit about horticultural paradise seriously!)
If you squint, the garden round Pond Cottage looks almost planned.
The stone path to the front door is lined with catmint covered with butterflies and bees. Hastily sown Alaska nasturtium seeds have grown into a convincing hedge around the vegetable plot. Red-stalked spinach contrasts cheerfully with yellow spaghetti squash plants and (as long as you are still squinting) a fresh green semi-circular lawn is marked by newly planted rowan and cherry to light up autumn and spring.
But open your eyes wide and the illusion fades as a field of approaching weeds comes into focus. A thick line separates that “lawn” from a competing crop of thistles, docks, and daisies. Closer inspection reveals a lot more weed among the grass, forcing even the heavy-duty mower to grunt and give up the job of cutting the flowers off before they set seed.*
From this viewpoint you cannot even see the stretch of water, with resident moorhens, which tempted us here in the first place. You have to make a special trip up the lane past the pond to marvel at the grassy glade which has been created from the neighbourhood tip of unwanted household and garden waste which only just failed to put us off the idea when we bought the place two years ago.
Taming the wilderness
is not for those who are impatient, faint-hearted – nor generally in their right mind. Osgood Mackenzie, the man who conquered the wild north-west to create Inverewe gardens, carried creel loads of soil to cover bare rock and waited 20 years for Corsican pine to provide enough shelter for the more tender plants to grow. That is either patience or madness on a grand scale but in the past few months I have been thinking of Osgood Mackenzie with renewed admiration as I scrape stones from the soil to make paths round the house.
It takes five to ten minutes to fill a bucket with stones, three to four buckets to load the wheelbarrow, and perhaps five wheelbarrows to cover a couple of square metres with a respectable layer of hand-picked pebbles.
Yet nature can cover a virgin acre of newly ploughed and rotovated soil with a thick carpet of healthy weeds virtually overnight. And, of course, in just a few months the grass which has been reluctant to sprout on the lawn is coming up nicely in all the paths.
On the whole 20 years to start a garden seems like a rush job.
What are we doing here?…
with a life-time’s work ahead as we rebuild a derelict cottage and learn how to restore 10 acres of silted up pond and rundown woodland? [We often asked ourselves in 1995, and sometimes still do, but…]
To understand why, you need to see the pond on a frosty winter afternoon, or catch sight of the heron fishing in the sluice stream, to find a bank of primroses above a pile of rusting corrugated iron, or sit on a starry summer night with family and friends round a bonfire in the new clearing while bats flicker above the ghosts of the old neighbourhood tip.
The reason we are here is ridiculously romantic: I fell in love with the fantasy of it all six years ago when a journalistic assignment introduced me to the woodland gardens of the west and the walled gardens of the east. As a weekend gardener with an allotment I knew about digging and dreaming but I had never encountered such miracles of imagination and sheer hard slog before.
Scotland’s gardens are a monument to the heroically bonkers who give their lives or a perfectly good day off to persuade trees and plants to grow in places where most of them had no intention of growing before whether on a barren hillside or in a city centre basement.
At Kellie Castle roses still climb into old apple trees just as Sir Robert Lorimer intended. But nothing in nature stands still. Times have changed since Sir George Campbell made his way cautiously down the slopes at Crarae with compost in one jacket pocket and in the other an exotic seedling from the other side of the world to add another splash of colour to the gorge.
That was in the 1920s when pioneers were adventurous explorers who travelled abroad to bring home exciting new plants and equally adventurous gardeners who settled them in Scottish soil. Pioneers for the millennium are those who seek out, nurture, and grow the shrubs and trees which always belonged here bt can be hard to find especially for the birds, bees and mushroomy things which depend on them to survive. Did you know there are 284 species of insect associated with the oak?
Gardens need both healthy local plants and touches of excitement from abroad – our American and Norwegian maples (26 insects) should look good beside the rowan (28) and silver birch (229). I hate spraying but a touch of weed killer at the right time in the right place enables the successful growth of more varied and interesting trees and shrubs than a monoculture of docks or thistles. For most gardeners, hopes dreams, and ideals are constantly modified by the practical constraints of time, money and energy.
One of the aims of this series is to discover how other gardeners reconcile fantasy with reality and balance theory with practice whether the are cultivating the ground on a large scale or cramming a cosmopolitan mixture into a few pots and a window box.
Growing is big business now, plants are a new consumer market and each gardener has increasing choices and decisions to make. But commercialism cannot quench an essentially generous obsession with the desire to share. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Scotland’s Gardens Scheme is that so many people cheerfully welcome complete strangers to trample round their gardens on Open Days. Each of us has something to teach and always more to learn, from mistakes as well as achievements.
Learning as we go
In the past two years we have learned a lot at Pond Cottage with the help of our local Farming and Wild Life adviser (unpronounceably FWAG for short) and friendly tree specialists. A thick mulch of money could solve a lot of problems but all kinds of grants are available when you know where to find them: our 300 metres of mixed species hedge could not have been planted without the 50% grant from Tayside Tree Planting Scheme. Machinery takes the back and heartache out of hard labour: in one day a JCB can do what a spade and wheelbarrow will never do in a month of Saturdays and Sundays – especially when the driver happens to be the grandson of the last inhabitant of our cottage and has a personal mission in filling the neighbourhood tip.
But we have a great deal more to learn and my main motive in writing the coming series of articles is to plunder the experience of gardeners all over Scotland. I hope to explore public and private places: to go behind the scenes at great historic gardens; discoverer the weekend retreats of working and men and (probably more often) women; and meet some of the gardeners who produce the plants we grow.
With unashamedly selfish intentions, I want to investigate orchards, organic and mixed growers, her and cottage gardens, parks, wild flower meadows, water gardens, woodlands, greenhouses, polytunnels, roof gardens and pot plants.
I hope you will come with me.
Update 2023: against our expectations Pond Cottage is now part of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme registered as The Pond Garden and opening later in 2023 fundraising for CHAS, Children’s Hospices Across Scotland
*Rewilding had yet to be discovered in 1995