A Trip to Threave

I always find there is something bitter sweet about going back to somewhere that had a huge impact on my life in a good and / or bad way. It is always interesting to see how a place has changed, evolved or deteriorated over the passage of time and sometimes it is good to go back somewhere and overlay the bad or sad memories with happy ones. Recently I've been  quite contemplative about life. It's come as somewhat of a shock to realise I'm probably more than half way through my life, and that it is decades and not a few years since I was that 18 year old setting off to college and a new life. where the heck did all that time go? I can't possibly have a son who turns 22 in two weeks time, but I do. Which then sets me on the path of thinking well if that's the stage I'm at how am I going to approach the rest of it? What do I REALLY want to do and see of my bucket list, because realistically unless I win the lottery I'm not going to achieve a fraction of it. 

Hamamelis, Threave

Anyhoo that all sounds a bit maudlin, but it doesn't do any harm to stop once in a while and sit and contemplate and re-access where we are going and what we want to do or achieve in life. With that in mind when I got an invitation to visit Threave a couple of weeks ago I took up the offer. Threave is the National Trust for Scotland's School of Gardening set up back in the 1960's to train gardeners to work in the trust's expanding collection of gardens.

Equisetum hymale

The house and gardens are situated just outside Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway on the slopes of a hill giving many different gardening situations for students to learn from. There are ponds, bog gardens, rock gardens, a walled garden, woodland gardens and walks, conifer beds, herbaceous beds and so on. Everything an aspiring young gardener needs to learn their trade. The gardens are set around Threave house, which is now used as it was back in my day (!) for the students to live in and for classrooms. So lets begin our walk around the gardens on an overcast, not too cold mid- March day. 

Mahonia in the Patio garden

I set of to study at Threave in 1987 as a just about to be 18 year old. Excited and terrified at the same time, desperate to get away from home, shy (very) but with an underlying sense of adventure. By then the gardens were well established with good specimen plants in maturity and plans for new gardens under way. Along with myself and seven other students in first year there were eight in second year, a complete set of gardeners and handy men. So there was plenty of bodies to keep the garden in great condition, neatness and plenty time to teach the skills we needed. As I walked round the gardens on this day it was quite obvious the lack of gardeners and money has taken it's toll. Things are not quite as exact as they were, areas are simplified for ease of maintenance and plants not replaced because there is no money to buy new ones! 

The Patio garden, tucked in against the outside of the walled garden, with paving, small pond and
seating area

Walking out of the patio garden and along towards the walled garden you pass the lower pond, in summer it is surrounded by big leaved moisture loving plants such as Rodgersia, Dalmera and Gunnera and lies at the bottom of the cascade from the rock garden. Today the Gunnera are tucked up under last years leaves, looking like giant spiders waiting at the side of the water for some poor unsuspecting gardener to happen by. There is also an impressive planting of Equisetum hymalis, a plant I first came accros in Norfolk several years ago. It also caught the eye of my youngest who insisted that we buy one to take home. Never being one to resist buying plants or discouraging my offsprings interest in all things gardening I did. It grows happily in a pot on the patio these days. 

The hibernating Gunnera spiders!

Beyond the pond are the peat beds, expanded and re worked since my days here. There are some great mature dwarf Rhododendrons and clumps of Galanthus 'S Arnott', extraordinarily tall and looking like it's on steroids! Since being re-worked and more wood chip added to the paths, some of the beds are awaiting new plants to fill them up. There has been some thining of trees to the right too.

The peat beds

Galanthus 'S Arnott'

Opposite the peat beds is the entrance to the walled garden. This is probably one of my favourite areas because I love the uniformity, lines, order and growing to eat. The greenhouse range is new, replacing the original longer range I worked in. Now there is a central house and one house on either side. When I studied there, a long corridor ran from one end to the other, accessed from either end or the door to the potting sheds in the middle. There were several houses off this corridor featuring different climates, growing conditions and plants. I wish I could find my photos in the attic, but it's a nightmare up there with all the moving boxes! It was good to see the central house still had a traditional display of flowering and seasonal pot plants. But back out side for now......

Entrance to the walled garden with a good vista to the glass houses through the dormant herbaceous beds

All around the walls of the garden are fruit trees, trained in, pruned and fronted by cane fruit on supports or veg and herb beds. I liked the way the cane fruit looped up and down the wires and the bark chippings under the cane fruit must make a big difference in suppressing weeds and reducing work. Threave is where I first came across Loganberries and Tayberries, those monster crosses that don't look quite real but taste great. 

Trained fruit canes in the walled garden

The walled garden is divided by paths into four squares, each one giving a different vista from side to side. Each square is then sub divided into beds for fruit and veg with impressive hedges running along the back of the herbaceous beds down the centre. The lines of fruit trees have been under planted with spring bulbs to give a splash of colour under their bare branches. The carpet of crocus were impressive and I had crocus envy!

Crocus under the fruit trees

Crocus close up

The greenhouses are much shorter than they were originally, leaving room at either end for beds against the wall and cold frames. The small wooden greenhouse that stood in the corner is also gone. Climbers that enjoy a milder climate are planted long the walls where they can bask in the sun. I was particularly taken with the combination of Ophiopogon nigrescens and Valerian phu 'Aurea' which I will be copying in the nursery. It's very similar to the pot planting I've done with Ophiopogon and Heuchera 'Marmalade', I'm also pondered a combination of the Ophiopogon and Luzula 'Hohe Tatre' with its citrus yellow leaves. 

The new greenhouses

Ophiopogon and Valerian phu 'Aurea'

Ozothamnus 'Threave Seedling'

The new greenhouses are much more ornamental now with propagation having been moved to new greenhouses beyond the potting sheds outside of the walled garden. One house is home to a cacti and succulent bed, cooler with some nice specimen plants, it also houses a fish pond. The metal structure of the houses is so different from the original wooden houses. You can see the expanses of metal in the photo below.

Cacti house

Hello fishes

The veins of Xanthosoma violaceum

Walking back down the other side of the walled garden the crocus are a different colour, bright and vibrant, planted under cordon fruit trees, all neatly pruned and tied in to their wires. On the corners of the paths Iris 'Katherine Hodgkins' has been planted, the dainty wee flowers a bright spot against the bare earth of spring.

Colourful crocus

Iris 'Katherine Hodgkins'

Terracotta Rhubarb forces

It's good to see double digging is still a thing

From the walled garden I wandered up to the rock garden through the peat beds. At the west end of the rock garden lies the formal garden. Sadly this area of garden is not what it used to be. As a student I was one of those who helped build the formal garden over the two years I studied there. We manually levelled the ground, raking it to create perfectly flat ground on which to sow lawns. There was a large formal pond, borders, a pavillion and shelter, parterres, a Penstemon collection and a walk covered in honeysuckle and other climbers. Sadly the pond, parterres, Penstemons and many plantings aren't there anymore. The pleached trees are really good, underplanted with box giving the impression of a two tiered hedge.

Entrance to the formal garden

Looking from the pavillion to the entrance of the formal garden

Last year's honeysuckle vines

Coming back out of the formal garden I meandered over the beds of the rock garden, lots of nice specimen shrubs, including an old friend Ulmus 'Jaqueline Hillier'. I don't think it's the original as it's to small for 30 years old, but the plant I had at Easter Mosshat my last house and garden was the grand daughter of the one at Threave, the daughter being in my mothers garden. I took cuttings of the one I had in the last garden and a couple took, but they were smashed by the dog's ball last autumn and never recovered, so I lost my link to my beloved plant. I now have new cuttings to try so fingers crossed they take and I'll have a new line of Threave sourced Ulmus! There were good clumps of Narcissus cyclamineus and Iris danfordiana which I had for sale last year in the nursery.

Narcissus cyclamineus

A new to me feature in the rock garden

Slate urns in the secret garden surrounded by Bergennia

Upwards and onwards from the rock garden is the lily pond. Surrounded by trees this area features a large pond and bog area which now has a wooden walk way and bridge taking you to the secret garden away from the main path. There is a nice vista of Threave House from here, framed by mature trees and the herbaceous borders in front. From the main path you enter the secret garden through an arch and follow the grass paths until you reach the sunken patio at the perimeter of the garden. Here the slate walls and paving form a sheltered seating area, brightened up by pots full of bedding in summer. There are some outstanding specimen Acers in the secret garden, grown even more old and gnarrly in the past 30 years including Acer 'Ozakasuki' and Acer griseum. As well as mixed beds full of shrubs, herbaceous and grasses there is a dried river bed planting.

Magnolia in bud in the Secret Garden

I can never make my mind up whether I am a fan of conifers or not. If grown well, healthy and not pruned within an needle of their life and left to grow as they should (apart from Leylanii of course) then yes, definitely, I do like them. When grown with space to develop their natural shape and growing habit as they have been here in the conifer gardens at Threave then yes. These are a fine example of what a conifer will do over it's life time. Some of these plants are over 40 years old and it was useful to get some photos of them in maturity to use in the nursery.

Part of the conifer gardens, Threave

Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata Aureamarginata'

From the conifer gardens the path takes a sharp climb to the top of the hill and gardens where I was pleased to see there is still a planting of Eucalyptus trees. Their peeling bark revealing new patterns and colours for the coming year. They are still under planted with Heathers, and this year a new crop of plants is being planted under a trial run by the RHS. From here on a clear day you get fine views over Dumfries-shire, but not today. From here I decided to explore the woodland walk around the top of the hill, something I've never done. I walked up to the bird hide where there is plenty of feeders to attract our feathered friends. I followed the path back the way I had come and as I did so caught a movement in the trees. Unusually I took the time to stop and was so glad I did, and continued to for the next half hour as I watched a pair of red squirrels playing in the trees, what a treat! More than that I managed to get some reasonable photos despite not having the bigger lens with me, so that really made a good day even better.

Red squirrel in the woods, Threave

Spot the squirrels

On the move to another tree


From the woodland walk I walked back down the hill, past the conifer beds and through the dormant herbaceous beds in front of the house. I stood and looked at my old bedroom window and pondered the nonsense we students used to get up; locked out after hours, drunken wanders home from Castle Douglas, high jinks and youthful adventures. The large room that was our classroom where we spent two to three mornings a week doing class work. The dining room where we were fed the most awful food and expected to do eight hour hard physical days on it! But we survived and it probably helped make us partly what we are today. 

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aphrodite' just down from the visitor centre

From here I wandered through the daffodils on the hill, not out yet but a magnificent show when they are, and indeed it is one of the things Threave is most known for. I stepped into the woodland garden where there were good plantings of Helleborus foetidus in flower and plenty snowdrops. The best show of snowdrops are the ones cleverly planted under the huge weeping ash, mirroring the shape of the weeping tree. From here you get a good view of the old stable block, back in my day this was two gardeners cottages and the tractor shed. Now it is an office and cafe.

View from under the weeping ash tree

Snow drops under the weeping ash

So that was my unexpected visit back in time, I had lovely soup in the cafe for lunch and really enjoyed a chance to have time to thoroughly explore the gardens and see red squirrels. It was very interesting to see the changes, not all for the better or good sadly, but that quite often is the way of things these days. It was inspiring to see trees and shrubs I planted 30 years ago now grown into mature plants, and if I have achieved nothing else in life, I've planted trees for future generations in many places and gardens through my life.

The gardens are well worth a visit at any time of year, there is always something interesting to see and lots of events are held throughout the year.

For information about the gardens and for planning a visit see the website here Threave Gardens

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  1. Such a beautiful place, thank you for the tour xxx

    1. Hi Fran, thanks for reading and commenting, it's a diverse and interesting garden x

  2. Hey Rona,
    What a fascinating post. A real step back in time for yourself. It must have been a wonderful time, learning all the tricks of the trade at such a beautiful place. And such a shame that time and money haven't been so kind. Like you said, it's a sign of the times. I haven't got a formal bucket list. But having turned forty six this weekend, I have been thinking about things I've not don that I'd like to.
    Have a good week.
    Leanne xx

    1. Hi Leanne, thanks for commenting, it was certainly an amazing place to learn and study. I think now it's about doing those things we've always wanted to try or do (if we can), even small things and silly things (a lot of those on my list, personal things, eating certain foods, milking a cow! plus seeing different places in the word and this country) very very random are my list and I! Have a great week x

  3. I've agonised over returning to Newcastle where I spent some most happy days as a student many moons ago Rona but although I've been to Northumberland since I've never returned to the city. Maybe one day. What a fabulous place for you to study. I only wish that I had known that horticulture was an option when I was eighteen although having said that who knows what path the younger me would have chosen if I could go back in time. I'm not surprised that you have crocus envy. What a view from under that ash tree!

    1. Hi Anna, who knows indeed, if we knew then what we know now, although I wouldn't have chosen a different career path, I know that :) It certainly wasn't easy as a girl even in the 80's to choose horticulture when still at school and trying to get the right subjects. But I got there and here I am. I can imagine it would be a very different Newcastle these days, but isn't everyhere? The planting of the snowdrops with in the size of the ash canopy is inspired!


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