BORN into a family of gardeners, Alastair Noble is a knowledgeable plantsman who, if he had not decided to become a doctor, would have enjoyed a career as gardener. The grandson of a professional gardener, he learned about plants from childhood. “I was brought up in a competitive gardening environment and taught to propagate from an early age,” he says. “I was also encouraged to collect plants.”
Alastair and his wife Joan, also a doctor, who happily admits to being less of a horticulturalist, spent years collecting seed on trips abroad and raising precious plants, many of which evoked happy memories.
But after 25 years of tending, the family’s one-acre plot on the edge of Nairn in Moray, had become out of control. Composed of gravel and sand soil on the remains of an ancient beach, the garden was highly productive but there were just too many plants, many of which were being kept for sentimental reasons.
In danger of becoming a slave to the garden, Alastair sought the help of Wendy Matheson of WM Garden Design. Despite admitting to not being grass man, he had long admired Wendy’s new-style prairie planting at nearby Boath House, the hotel she shares with her husband Don. “Wendy has an eye for shape and form, and knows how to work plants together. She came and talked me through the garden and brought me some current planting ideas.”
After much discussion, the decision was made to be “quite radical” retaining the existing features that give the garden an established feel. These include the ancient apple trees, an elegant Scots Pine and the drystone dykes the couple built. The plot, with its views of the Moray Firth, also acts as a haven for wildlife, including a colony of red squirrels.
The first area tackled was the vegetable garden sited near the greenhouse, home to a collection of rare and tender rhododendrons and azaleas from Glendoick Garden Centre in Perthshire. A present from his patients when Alastair retired, the greenhouse provides a chance to garden in all conditions.
In the adjacent space, Wendy designed a layout of raised, geometrically shaped beds, that have revolutionised vegetable gardening. “The raised beds are the right size which restricts the number of vegetables you can grow, thus avoiding seasonal gluts,” Alastair says.
He also finds the beds easy to tend. “I can weed them in half an hour without getting down on hands and knees. The beds look so much better and healthier.”
Wendy also laid out the rose-smothered pergola, a screen between functional and ornamental areas, which is now covered with successional plantings of pink Rosa ‘Little Nell’, yellow ‘Mermaid’ and ‘Maigold’ combined with clematis for a long season.
The high point of the scheme and the space that captures your attention immediately on arrival are the generous curved beds to the rear of the garden. Here, Wendy planned a light, naturalistic scheme, combining grasses with a range of brightly coloured herbaceous plants.
“This style of prairie planting combining grasses and herbaceous plants is well suited to this free-draining soil and the relatively dry micro-climate here, south of the Moray Firth,” she says.
Strategically placed tall prairie grasses set the tone of the planting while creating rhythms and, crucially, helping to support the perennials. Staking is limited and plants are managed on a natural, low-nitrogen diet. “Once established,” Wendy says, “they remain attractive year round.”
Valuable players used here are Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ with its reddish plumes, Stipa tenuissima, tall, S. gigantica, soft silvery Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and golden brown Carex buchanii. Maintenance, she adds, is relatively easy. At the end of the season, self-seeders such as Stipa tenuissima are removed and the remaining plants are left standing. In February, the scheme is cut back with a strimmer or a hedge cutter. Cuttings lie where they fall to be pulverised and redistributed with a rotary lawn mower set at the highest setting; humus is added to retain moisture if required.
Best-performing perennials include Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty,’ tall, maroon Joe Pye Weed, soft red Monarda ‘Cambridge’ and scarlet dahlias such as ‘Bishop of Landuff’. A variety of pink and cream lilies add scent: they, at least, have enjoyed the wet summer.
Height was cleverly introduced by the addition of a raised, rockery set with a small, tumbling burn and waterfall. With a low-intensity lighting scheme the rockery comes alive at night. Here, as in the prairie beds, bark helps keep the weeds down.
Retained from the original scheme are the collection of alpine-filled troughs on the patio – blue and purple campanulas stand out at the moment.
While Joan cuts and scarifies the lawns that link the different areas Alastair admits, he “spends less time in the garden than ever, with hardly any time doing things that did not amount to much.” What strikes you in particular is how much this experienced gardener enjoys this refreshed space and, despite all his knowledge, benefitted from outside help.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west