At home: Brechin Castle transformed into a winter wonderland

LAURA Keenan, the Threave-trained head gardener at Brechin Castle Gardens, has had a busy few weeks. The snow that blankets Scotland lies thick and deep in the 13-acre walled garden.

Although the ancient structure of yew hedges that punctuates the space looks magical when covered in snow, too much weight can damage young, tender shrubs. Laura, whose house overlooks the walled garden, explains: "We get plenty of snow up here. In winter I always have a broom ready to sweep the snow off shrubs to stop them getting damaged."

Reputed to be one of the largest in Scotland, this south-facing walled garden features just about everything you could wish for.

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There are formal topiary hedges and graceful statues of cherubs for winter interest, rhododendron and azalea-flanked vistas for spring, herbaceous borders in summer and a medley of flame-leafed trees in the autumn.

A bit of garden history is thrown in. The tender white-flowering Rhododendron dalhousiae in the Victorian glasshouse was named by plant hunter Joseph Hooker after the Countess of Dalhousie, whose husband was Governor General of India before the Indian Mutiny. The snowdrop collection outside the garden walls was established from bulbs presented to the earl during that time.

Originally designed in 1708 by Alexander Edward, the heart-shaped garden was laid out on a slope running down towards the River South Esk for the fourth Earl of Panmure. Successive generations have altered the layout of the garden and have always taken an interest in the planting. This continues to the present day: the current Lord and Lady Dalhousie took possession after the death of his father ten years ago.

A keen gardener who is deeply interested in plants, Lady Dalhousie admits she was "a bit daunted" by the size of the garden and the responsibility of taking over from her late father-in-law, who was passionate about the garden. It was he who established this important and world-class collection of rhododendrons, converting the face of the brae from a kitchen garden. But when Laura came to Brechin four years ago, an enthusiastic gardening partnership was born, with new ideas continually being mulled and possible plantings discussed.

The winter scene is set at the glasshouse gate with a group of white-barked, pink-tinged Betula utilis, under-planted with early daffodils, which adds an airy presence to a nearby border of early flowering shrubs and trees threaded with ribbons of snowdrops. Lady Dalhousie explains: "I love that this winter border is directly in front of you and not tucked away somewhere else. It's so exciting to see these plants representing the birth of a new season. In the middle of the winter, the sun creates an arc over the south side of the garden; when it hits the brown bark of the Tibetan cherry it turns blood red."

The low winter sun reflects on red-stemmed Cornus Midwinter Beauty and the snow-covered flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia "Jelena", under-planted with scented Christmas box, Sarcococca confusa s hookeriana "Digyna" and a range of hellebores.

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A clear layout based on a series of strong lines or axes is a major structural feature of this intriguing space.

Walking east, your eye is drawn along the top terrace, where the central paths are backed with lawns. To the left the tall walls lend an imposing presence, while to the right the lawns are backed with rounded yew hedges supported by buttresses.

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Immediately before a stand of brown-barked Acer Griseum, an opening in the yew hedge reveals a second informal shrub and tree-flanked view that frames the stone steps and path that lead down to a circular stone pool backed with box-edged beds and filled with the vigorous dark pink Rosa "Gypsy Boy". A blend of evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs ensures this view retains interest all year.

Below the pond, specimen trees, including acers, cercidiphyllum, sorbus and varieties of prunus, introduce an informal tone. Walking west, gravel paths lead under mature beech, Douglas fir and Wellingtonia. Further along, the unusual shapes of a Pinus Peuce "Icicle Pine", Wollemi Pine and Metasequoia add shapes that enhance the winter landscape. While the lower part of the garden is a frost pocket, the tall walls and trees help create a microclimate and shelter from the winds which enables the trees to retain their autumn leaves for weeks.

Establishing new areas is always difficult in an old garden where opportunities are usually created only when trees are blown down in the wind. Such an opportunity presented itself when one of the two mature Cedars of Lebanon blew down recently, leaving a wide-open space. "Sometimes things happen and nature takes its course," Lady Dalhousie says. "A tree comes down and opens up a space allowing us to replant or to move another plant elsewhere in the garden." Anxious to keep the garden fresh and up to date without detracting from its original character, she adds: "It is always fun to have a project on the go. You have to keep the ball rolling so that the garden is always evolving." k

Brechin Castle Gardens, Dalhousie Estates, Estate Office, Brechin, Angus DD9 6SG.

The garden is open under Scotland's Gardens Scheme and also by appointment. Plants and refreshments are available at nearby Brechin Castle Centre.