This blog reviews the latest products, plants and innovations in gardening. It also provides a link for my many gardening friends who are members of the GardenMessenger and Seedmessenger Yahoo groups and their sub-groups that I moderate.

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I am a semi-retired UK botanical garden curator and former international horticultural consultant, who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. I spend part of the year in Australia and part in Europe, mainly due to family and work commitments. I earn my living from writing and editing Internet copy, articles and books. I have written over fifty books on gardening and have been translated into twenty-four different languages. I am a former UK Garden Writer of the Year and a previous Quill & Trowel Award Winner from the Garden Writer’s Association of America. I am interested in developing gardening communities on the Internet and I manage the popular GardenMessenger Yahoo group, along with its various sub-groups like PondMessenger and SeedMessenger. I also edit International Water Gardener and its associated regional web-sites.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Scottish Gardens, Garden Terms and the Monkey Puzzle Tree

The Round Pond - Castle Kennedy

Our second eldest son Jim telephoned the other evening to tell us he was about to leave on a holiday to Glentrool in south-west Scotland. Apart from informing us of his impending visit he was calling for some guidance as to where he should go and what he should see. He is not a gardener, although he enjoys plants and the countryside. It was not so much the tourist element he was after, but to visit some of the places that he used to go to when he was a small boy and we used to live just outside the town of Stranraer. He only had vague memories and this was to be the first trip back for over twenty-five years.

At that time I was gardens manager at the famous rhododendron garden of Castle Kennedy click here. This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, situated on a peninsular between two lochs. It is not an intimate garden, but an extensive tree and shrub collection with huge specimens of rhododendrons planted around a massive terraced landscape created by the 2nd Earl of Stair, with work carried out by the Royal Scots Greys and the Inniskilling Fusiliers, of which he was in command during the mid-eighteenth century. It also has a wonderful two acre circular pond which reflects the ruin of the old castle during the winter and is full of waterlilies in the summer. The climate at Castle Kennedy is very mild for the UK, frost being almost unknown, but the rainfall, like all the west coast of Scotland is heavy, and creates a wonderful climate for growing plants from the Himalayas and other high rainfall areas of the world.

Our telephone call brought back a flood of memories, especially the gardening terms that were used by the local people. To some extent that corner of Scotland had been left to do its own thing. English folks who travel to Scotland on holiday tend to head straight up the country to the Highlands. Dumfries and Galloway, especially the district known as Wigtownshire, is by-passed, unless you intend heading to Ireland via the busy port of Stranraer.

"Cushie Doo"

Even the wonderful Scottish accent and dialect differ in that part of the country. The locals told me it is a dialect called Wigtownshire Irish, a kind of Scottish and Irish blended together, along with a sprinkling of old Norse. I soon got used to it, but the gardeners who I worked with would tease me as an Englishman, who in their terms "talked polite" i.e. without a definable accent. So I had the problem of coping not only with "do ya ken" (roughly translated "do you know"), but with different names for garden tools and terminology. A fork is commonly called a gripe, a rake a harl and the pigeons that raided the walled gardens were cushie doos. Without my well thumbed copy of the Scots Word Book, I would have been lost.

The interesting thing though, was that during my time in the district I wrote a monthly gardening column for the local newspaper and I was told to use standard English terms like rake and fork. The editor did not find local terminology appealing even if widely used in the community. Anyway great times. I thoroughly enjoyed living in south-west Scotland and made many very good friends there. Anyone taking a trip to that part of Scotland who is interested in gardening should certainly visit Castle Kennedy, especially at this time of the year. Also the remarkable nearby annexe of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh called Logan Gardens, where one of the finest collections of sub-tropical plants in the UK are grown outdoors in Wigtownshire’s balmy climate click here.

If you happen to be in the district on 20th and 21st May, then look in at the Galloway Garden Festival being held at Castle Kennedy Gardens click here.

Araucaria araucana

One of the most remarkable features of Castle Kennedy Gardens is its avenue of Monkey Puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana. Either the largest or second largest avenue in the UK depending upon who you talk to, an equally famous one being located in the south-west of England in a garden in Devon. The trees at Castle Kennedy produced a great bounty of seeds each year, which were in part grown at the gardens to produce young trees for sale to visitors, the remainder being sold on into the nursery trade. We could have never coped with all the young trees if we had germinated all the seeds. Not that we ever would, for they are not the easiest tree seed to germinate. Along with acorns and horse chestnuts they are oily seeds that demand very particular and immediate attention.

Monkey Puzzles produce their seeds in strange cones that rarely fall whole. They usually shatter on the tree and scatter the seeds on the ground below. In Scotland the cones were mostly destroyed by jackdaws, great black crow-like birds with a voracious appetite and seemingly vicious intent. Whether they ate the seeds I never did discover, but they might have struggled to get them down as they can be up to 5cm (2ins) long and with quite pointed ends. Anyway, the seeds fell into the short damp grass beneath the trees and if not gathered immediately started to sprout. In fact it was fascinating to see how many of the fallen seeds had hit the ground pointed end first and partially buried themselves into the soil as if ready to germinate. Maybe this is part of a strategy for enabling an early start to the germinating process.

So from the behaviour of the seeds it was clear that they were ready for immediate germination and clearly enjoyed the damp conditions after falling to the ground that the clammy damp nights of that part of Scotland provided. Having previously gathered fresh seeds and stored them dry, only to find that after sowing in spring only a few erratically germinated, I decided to sow them immediately. For the most part the seeds germinated, but I had a lot of failures with rotting off. It was then that one of the retired gardeners from the estate who periodically visited the garden on walks with his dog told me how they used to germinate the seeds years ago. They were put into wet sand in a bucket and stood on top of the greenhouse boiler. They almost cooked, but as long as the sand was not allowed to dry out they germinated very quickly.

I copied the principle of his system, placing seeds in damp sand in a sealed plastic container, and then putting this on top of the hot box heater. Condensation formed on the plastic lid and so I inverted the container daily so that the dampness would seep back evenly through the sand. To my surprise over 80% of the seeds quickly germinated. As soon as the seed coats ruptured and tiny roots could be seen emerging, I planted the seeds individually in small pots of good potting compost and they grew away strongly. Growth continued freely in a light frost-free place. It seems the high temperature just kick-started them into germinating. After that they did not require any artificial heat. A warning though, leave the roots to emerge much beyond the seed coat before sowing and the chances are that it will perish.

Happy Gardening



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Photos: Andy Stephenson

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