Gardening: Kirsty Maxwell Stuart’s Southern Upland garden flourishes behind walls, hedges and tree belts
MAINTAINING a successful vegetable garden 900ft up in the hills is quite an achievement, especially when the double demons of frost and rain are frequent visitors. At 30 years in the making, the garden at Baitlaws is at home in its environment, high in the Southern Uplands.
Here, the garden has been coaxed to flourish behind protective walls, hedges, tree belts and in corners to show off colour and structure as well as produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.
The hardy surrounding landscape is the home of a sheep farm, owned by Kirsty Maxwell Stuart and her husband. Kirsty arrived there as a newlywed 40 years ago, but didn’t start gardening until her children reached school age. The previous owners had given over much of the garden to fruit, but the Maxwell Stuarts decided to extend the house, and the garden boundary had to be moved. The roughly circular lawn in front of the house sweeps upwards, with borders of hot colours on one side, blues and pinks on the other. The deep blue irises stand out, and there is an Alstroemeria ‘Dover Orange’ whose flowers should be peaking this month – although, this summer, like many gardeners, Kirsty has noticed everything being held back.
As you climb the lawn to look back towards the house and over the hills, you gain a sense of the landscape. About 30 years ago, a garden designer drew up a plan and planting suggestions. “I was not a gardener then but once the children went to school I got interested in it,” says Kirsty.
It was a learning curve. One of the first lessons was with a pieris that she planted, which shrank for three years and finally died. Early-flowering shrubs don’t do well because of the frost. Fields at the side of the house were converted into a parterre as the couple wanted something to look down on from a raised conservatory.
Having got the gardening bug, Kirsty has spent years planting things that flourish at height while putting a lot of thought into colour. Her expertise in knowing what helps make a garden look good has been put to use in her role as district organiser for Lanarkshire with Scotland’s Gardens. It is her job to identify gardens that are worth visiting by the public, with openings raising money for charity. To be worth visiting under the scheme, a garden must have enough to keep keen gardeners interested for at least 20 minutes.
For her own garden, she has been drawn towards rich colours and anything with interesting leaves, like variegated philadelphus, and lots of cornus, whose highly coloured stems are useful in winter. The very hardy shrub deutzia does well, producing masses of clustered flowers in early summer. Kirsty likes hollies too – but so do rabbits, especially the bark. A path from the lawn leads to an alpine terrace that has lots of fleshy sempervivums (houseleeks) and Polemonium foliosissimum, a shorter form of jacob’s ladder, with bell-shaped, sky-blue flowers that appear on spires.
In her greenhouse, Kirsty loves to propagate plants to send to the Lanarkshire gardens that have openings. Many are grown from seed. Sitting among her pots of geranium are courgettes, doing very well, along with her tomatoes. All the veg is sown in the greenhouse and is seasonal – as soon as the purple sprouting broccoli is over, in go the courgettes.
Between the alpines and the greenhouse is a pond. Here, there are hostas and the hardy, long-flowering ground cover plant Prunella ‘Pagoda’ in purple and pink. Verbascum chaixii brings height. Down from the terrace is a border bursting with lots of rich purples, like a campanula that contrasts well with deep red heuchera leaves, a pink wild campion, Silene ‘Rolley’s Favourite’, and a purple form of cornflower, Centaurea phrygia.
A beech hedge divides the vegetable garden from the front lawn. Because cold and rain can hit this location hard, Kirsty never knows how much produce she will get. It is often a race against the frost to harvest runner beans, and sometimes there are no crops from certain vegetables, such as broad beans. She has learned to choose basic varieties of vegetables. Fruits that do well are gooseberries, blackcurrants and worcesterberries, a mellow cross between the two.
She recommends Geranium ‘Rozanne’, an outstanding performer with big sky-blue flowers over a long season. The late-summer-flowering sedum also does well, and Kirsty has seven or eight varieties dotted around. There is plenty of bright colour to light up dreary days, with red potentilla and acid-yellow phlomis. Cicerbita alpina adds a stately presence next to the veg, and another rich purple comes from the leaves of Persicaria microcephala ‘Red Dragon’.
The parterre was designed to have different areas of colour, including a corner lit up with shrubs and trees in yellows and golds. More recently, a line of birches has been planted at the far end to change the view.
Closer to the house is a border in yellow, blue and white which replaced some juniper trees. Foxgloves, campanula, hypericum and hostas give the area a light and airy feel, reinforced by foliage and grasses in different colours. In her early gardening days, Kirsty read a book on foliage by Christopher Lloyd, owner of Great Dixter in East Sussex, and got a lot of ideas from it. “We fight a never-ending battle against bishop’s weed,” she says, and in the yellow, blue, and white border it is sometimes allowed to flower simply because the cream clustered heads are not out of keeping with the rest of the plants there. Unusual yellow foxgloves sit well with blue irises, the long slender petals of Corydalis elata and a purple orchid Dactyorchis foliosa ‘Lydia’.
Kirsty has been involved with Scotland’s Gardens for about 30 years and had a five-year stint as chairperson. “I love all the gardens in the area that open, but most have a problem with height in Lanarkshire.” Plants like phormiums don’t tend to do well in the area, although one garden in Hamilton did have them until a recent cold winter.
There are many interesting gardens coming up that Kirsty has her eye on for opening. Some of these may be a collection of village residents who open several gardens on the same day. They can be very small, and some of the most interesting gardens are those that speak to owners of smaller plots, showing them what can be accomplished in a more urban setting.
While Kirsty has been at her garden for 30 years, some of the newer gardens in the scheme have been transformed from bare land in just a few years. Some gardens take many years to perfect, some only a couple, but all are works in progress – weather permitting.
• Baitlaws can be visited by arrangement until 31 August through Scotland’s Gardens (0131-226 3714, www.scotlandsgardens.org)
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