Friday, 28 February 2014

Creating a Scottish Native Garden

I have designed gardens and borders all through my career, but never a natives garden. There has sometimes been a theme to a border or garden, but usually for decorative purposes or to suit the conditions. So to design a garden based on a specific set of plants and their habitats was quite a departure. How did we arrive at a native plant garden in the first place? Once David's new office was finished we wanted to landscape the bit of ground between it and the drive. For 13 years this has been an unsightly bit of weedy waste ground where things got dumped, worse because it's what you see when you come up the drive and draw up in front of the house. As David is a consultant ecologist, the natural thought process brought us to a garden containing native plants, which ties in nicely with the wildlife and creatures he works with, and of course Scottish ones.

The beginning, after two ton bags of sand and slates had been removed
I have been fairly well acquainted with native plants throughout my career, but not for a while so this was a very interesting exercise, reacquainting myself with those plants that occur naturally in Scotland. I needed to produce a list of what we wanted to plant in the native garden and how to plant them together in their particular habitats. Research produced six distinctive habitats we wanted to work with, which would give us a wider spectrum of plants to grow. These were woodland, hedgerow, rock, bog/wet meadow and meadow and aquatic. Then it was a case of working where each of these areas would fit into the space. The space is approx 60ft x 20ft and almost half of it is part of the original brick farmyard we uncovered earlier in the year between the office and drive. We also wanted to include a pond to give us the water habitat, to create interest and add another dimension to the front garden. How to create a woodland habitat when there is no woodland? A little bit of creativity, thinking outside the box and creating mini versions of these habitats was the answer.

After the bonfire had been burnt and lots
 of soil and weedy grass had been removed
 we uncovered some of the original brick farm yard
Ready to start digging out the pond
View of the native garden from the house

A Bracken's eye view of the pond
The woodland habitat has a Sorbus aucuparia (Rowan or Mountain Ash) planted in the centre of a 6 x 6ft square on the north corner of the garden where there was a chunk of missing brick. This will form the woodland canopy to give shade to Deschampsia, Blechnum, Athyrium, Convalaria, Luzula and Snowdrops. Most of these I had in the garden already, so by using maturer plants I've been able to make it look more established.

Woodland habitat

Along the front of the office there is a narrow border between it and the bricks, so this is where the hedgerow habitat is. With shade from the building, seedling beech trees and a narrow, shallow piece of ground the plants should be quite at home. Here I have planted, Digitalis, Cowslips, Aquelegia, Geranium, Cow Parsley and Dryopteris.

The rock area and hedgerow planting
This left the other half of the plot, part of which is now taken up with the new pond we installed in the autumn. What fun digging a 2ft hole in solid clay and stone! But the end result looks brilliant with stone used from the old farmhouse and a pebble beach blending into the gravel of the drive. At the top end of the pond is the rock habitat, where small native alpines will be at home. These include Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Cystopteris dickieana, Fragaria vesca, Dianthus deltoides and Campanula rotundifolia.


On the other side of the pond is the meadow habitat, supporting grasses, Lychnis flos cucli, Ajugas, Agrimonia, Poppys and Daucus. Eventually all these plants and more will mesh together to form an interpretation of a grassy meadow habitat.

The meadow gradually merges into the boggy meadow planted with a perforated pond liner under the soil to retain some water. Here we've planted the kind of natives you'll find enjoying damp to wet soil, along stream edges and bogs. Lythrum, Caltha, Trollius, Butomis and Eupatorium will give lots of colour through the season.

As well as looking interesting and attractive, we will be growing native plants and also very importantly creating a habitat for wild life, especially insects and amphibina.

Campanula rotundifolia

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Creating Paths and Prairie beds

The weather forecast was not good for the weekend when I checked on Friday, but here in Scotland and especially here on our hill, the forecast can be entirely different to what's happening outside our window. Saturday turned out to be dry - windy, yes but dry. Too windy for garden spring cleaning (lifting leaves to have them blow back two minutes later is very disheartening) so we decided a warm digging job was the order of the day and tackled the entrance to the workshop and what will be the red and purple prairie garden. This area is a continuation of the Natives Office garden area separated from it by a bamboo screen. Despite having being built for nine years the workshop has never had a proper step or path into it, just a higgledy-piggley row of slabs.

The start of the day, after lifting half a dozen slabs pretending to be a path to the door

Whilst waiting for my minions (David and the boys) to finish cleaning out the chickens and ducks before we started digging in the morning I cut back another large clematis that was taking over the woodland fence. Clematis alpina 'Willy' was not only rampaging along the fence in either direction but into the greenhouse between the panes of glass! Not any more it's not.

Once the boys were ready the first job was to install a nice big block of stone from the old house as the doorstep. It's so chunky a small bed of sand was sufficient to bed it in, as its not going to go anywhere. The soil here is rock hard, awful sub-clay, and has never been disturbed, so we have a solid foundation for a bed of sand and some 2'x3' (60cm x 90cm) slabs. In order to soften the look of the workshop we decided to take the path parallel to the building and curve it around using the original brick base of the old byre that was there before. This means there will be a large border in front of the workshop, full of colour and softening the whole area.

The end of the day. The rain's on but we have a slab path to the workshop and a
 flower bed nearly ready for planting

Two slabs, then a step down to a third slab were sufficient to take the path down to one of the huge byre foundation stones we had uncovered. This, along with the original brick floor of the demolished byre will form the path to the gravel in front of the house. Once the path was laid we dug over the awful soil in front and top dressed it with some topsoil. This will give the new plants a better start. Unfortunately we ran out of time and the rain came on, so next time we're out in the garden we will need another dozen or so barrows of good soil, then we can plant up the prairie bed.

Looking towards the house

The planting plan for this bed will include tall grasses, purple and red flowering perennials, coming down to shorter ones near the edges: plants that have interesting seed heads and move in the wind. They should form large clumps of plants, creating a tapestry of colour with interest all year round (that  sounds good doesn't it). Plants on the plan include Echinaceas, Astrantias, Verbenas, Molinias, Geraniums and Scabiosa. There will be plenty of photos to come in the coming year or so, once they are planted, established and are all flowering.




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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Volunteering in the Gardens at Easter Mosshat

The gardens here at Easter Mosshat require a wide range of horticultural skills to keep them looking great and moving forward. As such they provide a rich training ground for people wanting to learn a diverse range of gardening skills. These include basics such as weeding, lawn maintenance, general garden maintenance, garden design and creating new areas of the garden, fruit cultivation, plant propagation and much more.

As well as running our work shops in the garden we accept a limited number of committed volunteers to work with us in the gardens. In exchange for their commitment and hard work we offer a broad knowledge base and practical experience working in a small dedicated team in a peaceful working enviroment.

If you are interested, whether for just one or two days or longer term, please get in touch through email: or on Facebook. We will be doing a wide range of work in the garden this year from general garden maintenance to creating new areas of the garden. Its full steam ahead to make this a fascinating garden to visit and experience gardening on the edge! At the moment I can only offer weekends with plenty of coffee and home baking.

We will also be running our workshops throughout the year. If you would like to expand your knowledge or are looking for n unusual gift for someone have a look at our workshop page on the website

Deserted garden or just needing a spring clean?

Enjoying early colour in February

At last after three weeks of no gardening here at home I got a day in the garden on Sunday. The weather was dry and sunny and not too cold for February here on the hill. I'm still doing the spring clean up and the plan today was to finish the kids garden borders. These are weedy this year so it was a big job but worthwhile once done. All the herbaceous plants were cut back, then I forked over the ground removing weeds and avoiding the bulbs as I went. Everything is surviving and thriving in these borders and maturing well. These are some of the oldest beds in the garden, but with some tweaks and changes over the year they also include a totem pole and potager garden for the kids veg.


The ground also gets worse as I work along from west to east. At the west end the beds are on the end of the original house tip, so lots of ash and organic matter have improved the clay soil over the years. As the beds progress the soil gets heavier. I have been adding home made compost and manure over the years and it is making a difference.

Bergenia 'Claire Maxine' keeps this leaf colour all winter

I again had my able assistant Bracken with me, although he wasn't so much a hindrance as a noisy little pest today. He has an obsession with barking at the chickens and ducks and because I was working near their enclosure he was around them all day: bark, bark, barking. I don't think Bracken will ever realise how much they enjoy winding him up!

Once I'd finished the long stretch of borders in the kids garden I started in the top corner of the fruit and vegetable garden, where there is a pond and sitting area. Lots of leaves always gather in this corner and it can be a job to lift them off the gravel paths, but it looks much better when done. I always find this such a satisfying job, tidying up the garden.

The other thing I did on Sunday was, as I always do when I can, have a walk around the garden, with camera in hand. February can be a cold, dark month, but there is always colour if you look closely.

Cyclamen hederifolium great foliage befor ethe flowers appear

Hepatica noblis, one of the first alpine type plants to flower

Polypodium x mantoniae 'Cornubiense', a lovely evergreen fern thats grows well in shade

Tellima grandiflora 'Rubra' has these burnished red leaves all winter. New leaves are greener through summer

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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Snowdrops: spreading a wee bit of joy in the grip of winter

It's that time of year - February: cold, dark, wet, windy, snowy and all we want to do is hibernate until spring shows her pretty face. Here at Easter Mosshat, on our hill we have been very lucky with the weather this winter. Usually by now we will have had several falls of snow to varying degrees. At 850 feet above sea level it's inevitable we will get the brunt of any weather passing by. So not only does the garden go into hibernation, so does the gardener. Activities are usually warm ones, such as seed buying and garden planning, with a brief scurry to the greenhouse to check watering and the heater every few days. Wrapped in layers, wellies and hat and hunched over. Wasting no time in the bitter cold, I remind myself to stop and look for the Snowdrops.

Galanthus nivalis, the common Snowdrop
Our hearts and minds lift at the first sight of these tiny, delicate yet extremely hardy little gems. I have several cultivars dotted about the garden and also the Common Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. The species spreads itself around very well if it is happy. The cultivars take a bit longer to bulk up, apart from Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Plena' which spreads as readily as its species cousin. The G. nivalis here at Easter Mosshat were one of the very few plants that still survived in the original garden of the derelict house we bought in 1999. I have spread them around the garden a bit since then, but there are still some in their original place at the corner of the front garden.

Galanthus 'John grey'
Galanthus 'Lady Elphinstone'

In recent years Snowdrops have become a bit of a collectable genus in the horticultural world. Their collectors have even earned their own collective name: Galanthophiles. People will pay a small fortune for one tiny bulb of rarer varieties, with some going for over £300! I once bought 3 bulbs of Galanthus 'John Grey' for £8 a bulb and thought that was excessive. There are many books on the subject and several specialist nurseries selling them. Popular and very collectable at the moment are yellow snow drops such as G. 'Wendy's Gold'. Another yellow is G. 'Lady Elphinstone', a double and so very striking.

Galanthus plicatus 'Billy'
Snowdrops require very little in terms of growing conditions. They prefer a shady woodland situation and will grow in most soils. Mine do very well on our clay soil here at Easter Mosshat. Some of the more unusual varieties are a bit more choosy and because they are a bit more expensive to buy, I like to grow them in my alpine troughs, so I can keep an eye on them and they have fewer plants to compete with. Left to their own devices, G. nivalis and its double cousin will give you carpets of pretty white flowers in February after a few years.

When buying snowdrops, it is always better to buy them in the green, i.e. when they are in leaf, not as dried bulbs. There are lots of nurseries advertising snowdrops in the green: be sure they come from a reputable source and are not being dug up in the wild! For some of the rarer gems have a look at the following nurseries:

Snowdrops and aconites
A great way to see Snowdrops en masse and spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon with the family is to visit one of the many gardens that open in February for the snowdrops. The easiest way to find out where there is one near you is to do an internet search for "where to see snowdrops". Here are some of my favourites and recommendations: 

Cambo gardens, Fife

Howick Hall, Northumbria

Galanthus 'Hill Poe'

Galanthus cutivar
Galanthus 'Desdamona'

We were away last weekend in Northumbria and went to see the Snowdrops at Howick Hall, which was near where we were staying. We had a pleasant walk there after a fun walk on the beach to tire out Bracken the dog. Their gardens and arboretum are carpeted with snow drops and their cream teas are excellent too. Howick Hall is also the home of the Earl Greys of tea fame. It was a great weekend, even the weather was good. We ate lots of fabulous food, the cottage was perfect and Bracken had a great time on the beach. Here are some shots of Bracken, the amazing fuzzy dog!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Ending the month £70 better off and 7 pounds Lighter!

Well that's the first month of the year over already! I've not got as much gardening done as I'd hoped. Last weekend the weather was miserable and this weekend looks to be the same too, plus this weekend we are away (yippee). More hibernating methinks.

I thought I'd do a wee round up of my new years resolution-type plans...

Getting Fit and Losing Weight
Yes, I am sticking to the exercise and weight loss plan. I've upped the number of 15 minute workouts I do to two a night: hard work but worth it. I really do feel much fitter already. I've fallen off the better eating plan on a few occasions but toughened up the next day and not slid into the "well I've eaten something or eaten too much so what the hell, lets keep eating" habit of old and ta da ... I've lost half a stone since the beginning of January, which is a miracle. I've really struggled over the past year or so to lose this extra stone and a half that appeared from nowhere and I feel amazing. My clothes fit again and I feel fitter. Only 10 pounds to go and I'll be happy, a stone if I really push it.

Living Well while Spending Less
As for saving money, especially on the food bills, we are doing well. We have saved £70 over January, each week after shopping I have put the savings straight into a savings account so it doesn't get frittered away. We are not eating less,  but eating just as well by shopping in different, cheaper stores, not always buying brands and being more open-minded about our shopping. I shopped in one store all the time because it saved time and effort on my part as a busy working mum. Seeing the savings we can make has changed my mind a lot! I just did another monthly shop on the Approved foods website last night, spending £36  and saving £63 off the RRP! Over a year this should make a big difference and enable us to do something substantial, meaningful or fun. The list is endless, but here are a few of my ideas:

~ A poly tunnel (at last - please, please!)
~ A holiday for us and the kids abroad next year (fun, fun, fun)
~ Save up and pay a chunk of cash off the mortgage (sensible, but not so much fun)
~ A wedding? (Hmm, I said I'd never do it again, but if the missing bit of your jigsaw comes         along...)
~ Endless home improvements and new projects (fun and creative)

We're not only saving money by spending less on food, we're trying hard to avoid wasting any once we've bought it and making it go far. For example making one 2 kg chicken for £4.99 do 3 meals for 4 people. 

So tonight we had roast chicken for dinner (yum, my favourite). After the four of us had eaten I picked all the meat off the carcase and added it to the left over rice and soya bean salad with korma sauce left over from our Japanese night last week. This will be Sunday night's dinner. I put everything else in a pan with some water and made some stock. I will then add some veg that need used up to make a pot of soup, served with some crusty bread and cheeses this will make another meal. How cool is that? All left overs used up and no waste.

Getting my new business off the Ground
As for the business plans, I have to admit I haven't done nearly as much as I should. A few big ugly stumbling blocks have reared their head this year regarding the house, OK massive big boulders that have got in the way and need climbed over and dealt with, which is frustrating as they're all about timing, money, ex husband and legal stuff,  especially as we thought everything was tickety boo and sorted out. So my motivation in this department has hit a bit of a low.

Winter Colour on the decking

I've been reading a lot of frugal living, gardening and simplified life blogs, which are interesting and it's fun to see everyone else's ideas. Virtually everything they do I do already, but there are some great ideas and characters out there, some of which are on my blog roll to the right. 

All in all January has been a good month, apart from the house stress. I feel and look better, we are saving money and have made some progress in the garden, weather permitting. My eldest son is learning to drive, as is middle son, who is on study leave and sitting advanced higher prelims. The youngest continues to settle well into his new school and Bracken the dog takes amazing to a whole new leve, step daughter has just tuened 20 (eek) and Step son has become the poultry god, tending to our flock when comes to stay at the weekend.

This weekend David and I take a well earned break for our Christmas gift to each other: a long weekend away in a wee, cosy cottage by the sea. I can't wait, I'm ready for a rest and a break and hopefully I'll get rid of the lurgy that has lurked for weeks.