Continuing the success of her family’s garden centre was a steep – but fun – learning curve for Fiona Hutchison
Seventeen years ago when Fiona Hutchison, then a philosophy graduate at St Andrews University, offered to help out at Kinlochlaich House Gardens, a career in horticulture was far from her mind. Run by her father, Donald, the business was established as a market garden in 1956 by her grandfather, Edward.
“My grandfather sent cut flowers and strawberries to Oban, which were put on the train each morning,” explains Fiona. From that small start, the business, situated just off the scenic, winding road between Oban and Ballachulish, has developed into a huge nursery garden centre, selling the most amazing variety of plants.
“Just plants,” Fiona stresses. “I had never considered working in the nursery, but I found I really enjoyed it and as there was a vacancy I stepped in. If you enjoy something, you learn fast.” Practical knowledge was supplemented by an RHS correspondence course and Fiona, who took over from her father ten years ago, jokes she “mostly qualified by speaking to the plants and having an intrinsic feel for what they liked best”. When her children, Dòmhnall Aonghas, nine, and Marsaili, six, were born she continued working, carrying them in a sling on her hip.
This atmosphere of old-fashioned values, coupled with a passion for plants, is clearly the root of the success of this nursery, one of the largest in the west Highlands. As Fiona points out, the mild climate from the Gulf Stream lends itself perfectly to the production of acid-loving trees and shrubs, as well as many more tender shrubs.
Three generations of trial, error and hard work have resulted in a wide variety of trees, shrubs for spring and autumn interest and an unusual, for the west coast, range of summer plants: roses and clematis, herbaceous and old-fashioned bedding plants, all of which are grown for their tolerance of damp conditions.
Reached along a short drive just a stone’s throw from the main road, cream-harled Kinlochlaich House – parts of which date from the 17th and 18th centuries – is surrounded by grounds studded with mature trees. A woodland walk is laid out, along with a spring garden, formal garden and an extensive fruit and vegetable garden.
In spring, the woodland walks boast magnificent rhododendrons such as soft pink Rh Loderii ‘King George’; white Falconerii and yellow Macabeanum and many scented azaleas. In July the red bells of Crinodendron illuminate the front of the house, followed by the creamy Eucryphia, which triumph in a rich scattering of carpets of white petals. In autumn the grounds are alive with the fiery reds from 20 varieties of acers, red and yellow leaves of Enkianthus and the dramatic maroons and oranges of Parottia persica.
But perhaps the heart of the garden is the 1.5 acre octagonal walled garden built by John Campbell in the 1790s that incorporates a hornbeam and beech hedge on the sheltered south side. It is now divided into three parts: a formal garden, a fruit and vegetable garden and the nursery area. “All the plants we sell are grown in the family garden in the grounds,” Fiona adds, “so people can see what they are like when fully mature or growing en masse.”
Reached along a short path, the walled garden is entered through a wrought iron gate, and the impact is immediate: all around you are plants of all different types and textures. Old-fashioned pink and white rambling, climbing and shrub roses – Cerise R. Californica plena stands out – sprawl up the walls and over pergolas. Beds are packed with herbaceous plants while the scarlet Argyll Flame Creeper, Tropaeoulum speciosum, scrambles through everything. At this time of the year, the air is filled with the fragrance of roses and philadelphus; later, clouds of butterflies will hover over shades of white and purple buddleia.
In contrast, the strong lines of the central focal point, a striking 250-year-old yew tree trained into a cylinder shape, stand out. Old and tall enough to accommodate the children who climb into its hollow trunk and clamber along its dark green branches, it adds to the air of permanence.
Other trees that punctuate the grounds include the exotic Handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrata, a native of China, which flowers profusely in May and can reach a height of 6m. There is a huge Magnolia campbellii ‘Alba’ which can be seen from the main road.
“My father bought it 30 years ago, labelled as ‘Charles Raffell’, and waited 25 years for its vibrant pink flowers, to find out that it had been wrongly labelled and was white. But it is still stunning.” She has since purchased another Charles Raffell and hopes her father will see it flower.
Roses, especially old-fashioned shrub roses, are also on display and available to purchase. These varieties, which are easy to grow and relatively disease-free, Fiona points out, are “getting harder and harder to find”.
This she attributes to the difficulties posed by transport as she feels that these shrub roses prefer growing in large containers.
“They can look a bit scruffy in small containers,” she adds, suggesting that this deters many nurseries from stocking them due to added transport costs. But this is exactly the kind of challenge this nursery relishes, preferring to grow traditional varieties that have fallen out of favour for no good reason.
So what of the future? Catherine, who has been at Kinlochlaich for 20 years, and Hugh, for four, work alongside Fiona, while her children are “very keen on gardening and both have their own little gardens”. A paddling pool has been assembled in one of the polytunnels for their entertainment.
“We are an old-fashioned garden centre,” adds Fiona, who “always” works seven days a week. “The fact is, we just sell plants.
“There is no tearoom or craft shop, but visitors will always get an old-fashioned Highland welcome; when we pause for a break we ask them to join us for a cup of tea and a caramel wafer.
“This often opens up a dialogue: it works for us. People are often taken by surprise at being given a cup of tea for free. Regulars time their visits for ‘coffee time’.”
• Kinlochlaich Garden and Plant Centre, Appin, PA38 4BD, open seven days a week, all year round, 9am-5pm, www.kinlochlaichgardencentre.co.uk
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Monday 20 May 2013
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