Exploring the walled gardens at Culter Allers
THERE has been a garden in some form at Culter Allers since about 1620. The house, at Coulter, near Biggar, is late Victorian, but its walled garden is on the site of a house begun in the 17th century.
When the new house was built around 1880, stone from its predecessor was used in the walls of the kitchen garden that remains today.
The garden is an odd shape, not square, not circular and it’s not completely walled. One side has a hedge and iron gates from Spain on the path from garden to house. An ironmaster from the McCosh family, owners of the house for 100 years, had been on business there and shipped two sets of gates home – the other is at a house a few miles away in Broughton. The original gateway at Culter Allers’ garden was redesigned to fit the new ironwork. The well for the old house is another interesting decorative feature.
The grounds bear the ghosts of the past in several ways. The main path through the kitchen garden once joined a lime tree avenue to the parish church, but the direct route was interrupted when the new house was built. At about that time, a McCosh family forebear left his Lanarkshire farm to spend the latter part of the 19th century working in South Africa, taking with him an acorn to plant. Nearly 100 years on, his daughter returned to the Johannesburg estate and retrieved an acorn from the mature oak tree. This was planted at Culter Allers, and another oak now stands in the driveway.
Like many country houses, Culter Allers was used for the shooting season and its garden was designed to cater for visitors in July and August, providing flowers for the house, fruit and vegetables sufficient for large parties. The house is occupied year-round now, and the garden is one of very few gardens still used for its original purpose. Vegetables are grown for most of the year, and the garden is run on a communal basis for about 20 family members, who live locally. Flowers are grown in enough quantity for large family events.
The walled garden has a number of smaller areas planted with herbs, roses, a peony walk, espaliered apple trees, vegetables, lawn and deep herbaceous borders. Connecting paths are lined with yew, box and beech. Herbaceous perennials provide colour throughout summer and in August, the show includes rudbeckia, helenium, veronicastrum and crocosmia. Sweet williams, dahlias, marigolds and cosmos represent the flowers for cutting, grown close to the house.
Extending the growing season is quite a challenge in this area. Culter Allers is at a height of 700ft in the upper Clyde Valley, an area prone to very late and early frosts. Culter Allers’ full-time gardener, Lindsay Kinnaird, has seen frosts as late as June and early as August. Her previous job was on the west coast, where the climate is much milder. “I was told when I came here that the area had the shortest growing season in the country, and they were right,” she says. Not that a short growing season leaves nothing to do. Outwith this time she sows annual seeds and digs manure into the beds.
Lindsay has re-established the rose garden, choosing hybrid teas recommended as cut flowers, but also hardy and strong growers such as the yellow ‘Elina’, ‘Alex Red’ and ‘Ice Cream’.
The vegetable garden has spinach, roots, potatoes, leeks, onions and brassicas. Lindsay sows salad early in a polytunnel and believes this makes all the difference for bringing plants on before they go outside for the short growing season. Sweetcorn and courgettes also appreciate the shelter of being started off inside, although Lindsay tries courgettes outside to see how they fare. There are also peas, beans, tomatoes, and plums, pears and apples – some of them on original trees from the 1890s. These include ‘Keswick Codling’, ‘Lord Derby’ and ‘Lord Grosvenor’.
Despite the garden’s size, Lindsay manages to keep on top of pests without pesticides. Bean weevil struck this year, but she managed to pick them off by hand. “I like to garden as organically as possible, so only the gravel paths are sprayed,” she says. These would take too long to weed by hand. To fight pests, she used Nemaslug, a biological control system, picks off caterpillars by hand, and puts horticultural fleece over vegetables to keep off root fly from carrots and brassicas. “Aphids are not as bad as they would be in a hot summer,” she adds.
Part of its success as a vegetable garden is down to the fact that it’s been established for so long and the soil has been well cared for. Lindsay rotates the crops and digs in plenty of manure. Fleece to beat frost could be kept on as late as June. “The polytunnel also makes a huge difference, if I didn’t sow things in the tunnel I wouldn’t have got so much.”
The locality may see frosts far earlier and later in the year than elsewhere, but it can also keep even experienced gardeners guessing in the winter. After the two previous severe winters claimed all the dahlia tubers, last autumn Lindsay stored them into her spare room, only to find that they had sprouted thanks to the milder winter. Four centuries of gardening it may have under its belt, but Culter Allers can still be tricked by the weather.
The garden of Culter Allers, three miles south of Biggar on the A702 in the village of Coulter, is open for an afternoon under Scotland’s Gardens, Sunday 12 August, 2-5pm