Gardens: Taming crofts into a garden on Sheltand

Picture: Ray Cox (www.rcoxgardenphotos.co.uk)
Picture: Ray Cox (www.rcoxgardenphotos.co.uk)
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Da Gairdins i Sand means an enclosed patch of land in Old Norse, besides being the origin of the English “garden” and the French “jardin.” It’s also a place on the western coast of Shetland.

As the name suggests this multi-dimensional garden, filled with unusual plants and other surprises, was created from a bare patch of land. More than 20 years later it boasts strong links with the local community, while contributing major environmental benefits to the islands.

For Ruby Inkster and her late husband Alan, the creation of this garden which is separated from the sea by salt marshes, known as the Loch, a natural habitat for nesting and migrating birds, is the result of vision, commitment and sheer hard work.

The story begins in 1991 when Ruby, an islander, inherited Granny’s, the remote croft worked by her great grandmother. Five years later, with the support of the laird Peter Hick, the couple acquired the next door croft, Annie’s, named for Annie Johnson, who worked it. At that time Annie’s was just a field of dock leaves, but it became Da Gairdins’ foundation. The crofts are now linked by a short track and the site, threaded by circular paths and walks, encompasses 63 acres including 12 acres of more formally planted areas, woodlands and the Loch.

The philosophy behind the creation of the garden was straightforward. Ruby explains: “Alan was the thinker, I was the doer. He had the vision.” The couple, who lived a very simple life, diverted all their funds into the garden. “I grew up at a time when you made do,” she laughs, adding that she practically “lives in the charity shops”.

The project was started by Alan who planted a shelter belt of conifers, Ruby says. “Alan was knowledgeable about trees and keen on planting them, something that was relatively rare in Shetland at that time.”

It was a learning process: Sitka spruce worked, but Lodgepole pine proved too heavy and unable to withstand the wind. “We spent the first five years feeding the trees and rabbit-proofing them,” Ruby says, adding that over one particular two year period they planted 1,500 deciduous trees including sorbus and birch – a recent total is estimated at 30,000 trees.

The work paid off: the garden now attracts wrens, blackbirds, crossbills and short eared owls that began making this garden their home.

From the beginning there was an emphasis on wildlife, and keeping the site as natural as possible. Alan, who was keen on ponds, especially large ones, laid out the three, which are fed naturally by hill water and left unlined for the benefit of wildlife.

An immediate focal point and now the heart of the garden, the ponds instantly attracted frogs: Ruby jokes that she soon became familiar with the “life cycle of the frog”. Ducks and herons soon followed. The whole site is alive, says Ruby who recently saw a male merlin swooping down and picking up a young starling to feed its young. “It’s all part of the food chain, life in the raw. If you stand still and are quiet it is amazing what you will hear.”

Some of the meadows were mown until they turned into lawn while Da Modoo was left natural, allowing native Shetland wildflowers to spread to the benefit of bees and other insects.

Here are wild orchids, Heath orchid, different buttercups, the grass suppressant yellow rattle, purple Self Heal and mixed grasses. “It is just cut once a year and there have been no changes here for 50 years.”

Despite its reputation as a barren, windswept place with a short growing season, Shetland benefits from the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Once the shelter belt was sufficiently established Ruby and Alan made three trips to New Zealand, where they found the Southern Hemisphere plants that thrive in this garden.

Bouncing ideas off each other the couple laid out paths, built beds and lined walks. “When you have acres of ground you can adapt, widen paths and alter plans,” Ruby says.

Magnificent stands of phormium, as tall as any you will see in Britain and useful for the seeds they supply to birds and tall, breezy Pampas grass and even cordyline act as a backdrop for a collection of hebe, different daisy-covered Celmisia, bright pink Rosa rugusa, purple lupins and iris.

Da Willowerie was planted with different species of willow, the useful shelter plant that makes establishing a garden in Shetland relatively speedy. Picnic tables and benches are strategically placed throughout the garden to take advantage of the sea views. More whimsical is the boathouse, fashioned from the remains of an upturned boat.

In 2006, the couple established the Da Gairdins Environment Company, a charitable company to ensure the continuity of the project. Sadly Alan died in 2009 but Ruby, whose first language was Shetlandic and who did not speak English until she went to school at five, remains actively involved in support of her committed fellow directors and a band of volunteers.

“The sky is the limit,” she says. “There is so much potential. You wouldn’t think you were in Shetland, this is a vintage year, the cold spring held things back then everything started to sprout. Everything is still lush and lovely. It is the simple things in life that matter, not the rich and famous.”

Da Gairdins Environment Company (www.gairdins.org.uk) is a registered charity and is open regularly with just a donations box.

These directions give an idea as to Da Gairdins’ remote location. Take the A970 north from Lerwick for approximately five miles to the junction with the A971 west. Continue down the A971 for approximately 11 miles to Bixter. Take the B9071 to Reawick. After three miles, take the road on the left marked Sand. The gardens are signposted on the right after about 1 mile.