In recent weeks, Steve McNamara has been occupied with the same tasks to which most gardeners have turned their attention – pruning and mulching, ensuring that the plants are fed, the weeds are suppressed and the crowns of new growth are protected from whatever lingering frosts there may be, the flipside of these lovely sunny spring days.
But the garden in which McNamara works has a richer history than most, for he is the man who looks after Branklyn Garden in Perth. It may be only two acres, but this is a gem of a site containing National Collections of Cassiopes and Mecanopsis as well as a wealth of other plants, including rare and exotic species from the Far East.
The garden is the living embodiment of the legacy of Dorothy Graham Renton, recognised as one of the finest gardeners of the 20th entury. Renton was born in 1898. She moved to Barnhill Orchard, Perth with her husband John Taylor Renton where the couple decided to build their house, Branklyn. What began then was the creation of their garden on what had been an overgrown orchard. The couple sought rare and exotic plants with which to adorn the land on the side of Kinnoull Hill, overlooking Perth. From the 1920s to the late 1940s they designed and created their site, becoming founding members of both the Alpine Garden Society and the Scottish Rock Garden Club in the process.
Having been bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland after the deaths of Dorothy Renton in 1966 and her husband in 1967, the garden still features National Collections of Meconopsis, Rhododendron Taliense, Mylnefield lilies and Cassiope, small heather-like shrubs which produce a white bell-shaped bloom, some of which have already appeared. For McNamara and his wife, Anette, who arrived at Branklyn in 1997, running the garden is both a pleasure and a privilege. Still bringing plants on from seed, their task is to preserve what the Rentons created but also to ensure that Branklyn is continually enhanced and continues to develop.
“We’ve got guidelines and we always stop to think would the Rentons have wanted to grow new things and my feeling is yes they would,” says McNamara. “So we can bring in new collections to enhance the garden. We’re always trying to think in terms of rare and unusual things, things which are tricky to obtain.”
From rhododendrons to lilies, acers to primulas, triliums to magnolias, Branklyn demonstrates nothing more than Dorothy Renton’s skill at combining plants from diverse locations, using colour and texture to complement each species. “The garden is designed in a way that almost every position that you’d want for plants exists,” says McNamara, “from very acid shade, there is even a little bit of alkaline in the rockery. It covers all bases in a small area. It gives you a great variety of options to work with and we can pretty much grow anything.”
Renton grew most of her plants from seeds, using those collected from Tibet, Bhutan and China collected by George Forrest, Joseph Rock and Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff, the pre-eminent plant hunters of the day. She was always ambitious about welcoming new plants and discovering where in her garden they might best flourish. Such was her skill that in 1954 she was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch memorial medal for her work introducing and cultivating new plants.
“For the time, Renton was very keen on all the rare plants that were being brought into Britain,” says McNamara. “Of course, nobody knew how to grow them so there was a lot of experimentation. The Rentons were always very upfront about not really knowing where a plant would thrive but being willing to experiment with putting it into the scree rock garden, where a lot of things did well.” In fact, Dorothy Renton wrote, “There was no preconceived rule of design about the garden. It has been evolved naturally and the principal aim has been to give the plants the proper conditions.”
Spring at Branklyn sees the emergence of colour on the rhododendrons, including the thomsonii, while beneath them spring-flowering primulas and the dog-tooth violet (erythronium) make their appearance. In the summer, it’s the turn of the foliage-rich shrubs and trees to shine, including the Japanese acers (shirasawanum aureum) and the Acer palmatum, before the lilies and herbaceous plants come into their own.
When the Rentons designed the garden, many of the plants they selected were dwarf species. But getting on for a hundred years since the garden was created, most have outgrown their original size. Still, says McNamara, the shrubs and trees originally planted continue to provide the backbone of the garden around which he plants, ensuring that Branklyn retains its place as one of the finest gardens in Scotland.
And if the plant collections aren’t enough to tempt you then there are plenty of other reasons to visit Branklyn, with garden-specific activities being a key part of what is offered at the site. On 4 May, the garden will be open as part of Scotland’s Garden Open Day and on 25 May there will be a walk with the Head Gardener at 2pm as part of Meconopsis Day. A couple of weeks later, on 8 June, Ray Cox who provides the photographs for these pages, will be running a Garden and Plant Photography workshop.
Dorothy Renton was a gardener who always looked to the future and that’s another legacy that’s still going strong at Branklyn.
• Branklyn Garden, 116 Dundee Road, Perth PH2 7BB, tel: 01738 625535. Opening times, daily 10am to 5pm, 1 April to 31 October. For information about the photography workshop or any of the other events at Branklyn Garden, log on to www.nts.org.uk/Property/Branklyn-Garden/Events or call the garden.