Since Margaret and David McGowan streamlined the garden at Rhu Lodge, it almost takes care of itself
IMAGINE being able to chop your way to a stunning view. If there is built-up housing or roads beyond, of course it wouldn’t be worth it. But what if, behind a thick line of shrubs, lay a spreading maritime vista?
It was just such a view that was hidden behind bushes at Rhu Lodge. Just over the boundary lies a road, and beyond that, a gravel beach and the Gare Loch. When they moved in, David and Margaret McGowan could not see the view clearly, so they set about bringing it back. “The basic structure was there but we nibbled away at the bits we didn’t want,” says Margaret.
Rhu Lodge, near Helensburgh, was part of the estate of the Duke of Argyll, who was married to Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter, but the royals almost certainly didn’t spend any time there. The McGowans have, by contrast, enjoyed every bit of their 16 years in a garden as good for children to play hide and seek as for entertaining groups visiting for charity. They have watched their grandchildren push around a wooden wheelbarrow made for David more than 70 years ago by his own grandfather, and Margaret has used the space to host visits by groups such as Contact the Elderly, a charity she volunteers with. They have decided now to downsize.
It’s all about the view now, but wasn’t always. It was not so much nibbling as chopping when it came to the Rhododendron ponticum and other shrubs. Not all of it went; some stayed to give winter shelter for a boat. When they got rid of that, more bushes went too. The couple moved from Helensburgh and were approaching retirement. They wanted to live by the water and to have a garden to develop and enjoy. “We knew we would be looking after it ourselves, so tried to make it low-maintenance with perennials and shrubs,” says Margaret. “Some azaleas were here, but we gradually introduced more variety of planting.” A beautiful wisteria frames the frontage, and the beds on the lawn affirm the proximity to the shore with several large and exotic-looking cordylines.
The front lawn sweeps gently down towards the boundary, which now perfectly sets off the southern edge of the loch and the hills of the west coast. An escalonia hedge acts as a salt barrier. Spring colour at the front comes from pink and red camellias, and from abutilons with orange and blue flowers. Two miniature elms grow by the path leading round the side of the house. The bank then rises to reveal a sea of pink, yellow and deep-red azaleas and rhododendrons, flame-red pieris and later peonies. This bed once contained two large conifers, nothing more. Now it is a dramatic show of colour. Recycled roof tiles form steps rising up through the border to a grassed area.
The top of the garden reveals another stunning view along the Gare Loch, with the Arrochar hills in the distance. Just as at the bottom of the garden, it was once mainly ponticum, says Margaret. The land drops down suddenly to the shore, and this steep bank winds up to the top of a mature tree belt, keeping the worst of the northwesterlies away from the garden. The coastal proximity has other benefits too: the garden overlies a gravel bank, and is well-drained and mild because of the surrounding water, allowing fairly tender plants to flourish.
“We wanted colour throughout the year,” Margaret says. Correa, with long yellow trumpets, blooms in January, as does winter jasmine. In spring there are daffodils and camellias before summer shrubs and perennials, including hostas, come, followed by hydrangeas in autumn. Margaret has used the shade under the tree-cover at the top to create a fern garden.
At the western edge, the McGowans made a water garden from a redundant swimming pool. They transformed the rectangular concrete basin into a more natural-looking pond with a cascade formed out of old stones from a farm. The tops of the walls blend into the rising landscape, giving it a secluded, sunken-garden feel that is enhanced by the iron-gated entrance. A curved bridge, designed by their nephew, an architectural engineer, crosses the cascade at an angle. Rising and falling, and with no handrail, it is slightly unnerving to cross, but perfectly stable. “To begin with, the old pool was used as a rabbit-proof area where new plants were stored before planting in the main garden,” says Margaret.
After rabbit-proof fencing was installed, she developed the area, using just maples and cool colours – it’s a pink-free zone, she says, contrasting with the hot and vibrant colours of many of the azaleas and rhododendrons.
Cool colours come from small rhododendrons and a Magnolia stellata (star magnolia), white azaleas and clematis, and later the blue of hostas. Clouds of blue come from the appealing Mysotidium hortensia (Chatham island forget-me-not), a fairly tender plant that usually grows on cliffs.
Another unusual resident is a huge Tetrapanax papyrifer (rice paper plant) at the top of the pool, with large lobed leaves and clusters of creamy white flowers, followed by black fruits. The upper boundary wall has a row of outdoor bonsais on top. The eastern feel is strong, with deep-red acers and a wooden gazebo.
Care of the garden is fairly easy. Apart from twice-monthly visits by an expert gardener, the McGowans care for it themselves. The autumn leaves are heaped and mixed with grass clippings, producing compost on a three-year cycle, which is used for mulching. The lawns get scarified and fed in spring, and through the seasons the garden just ticks over. Which leaves plenty of time to admire the views.
• Rhu Lodge is for sale with Rettie (www.rettie.co.uk)
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