On arrival at Croftcat, it is immediately obvious that the plan for a smaller, simpler garden has failed and the irrepressible enthusiasm of two talented gardeners has triumphed. The unique multifaceted garden that unfolds on the challenging, steeply sloping, rocky land below the house owes as much to hard work as to vision.
The scene is set by the row of oversize, beehive-shaped laurels marching up the side of the lawn. Dating from 1997, the size and shape of these topiary outlines adds an established feel to the garden that links it to the rural landscape. From here it is a short walk up the drive, along the side of the burn, its banks excavated and now regularly strimmed by Iain so the water can be seen and heard at the house.
Seemingly floating on plants, the house is reached up a set of steps flanked with deep beds – rising up on either side of the front door – filled with small shrubs, and hardy, easy-to-grow colourful plants and bulbs that will give colour from spring to late autumn.
From here, a small cobbled slope leads through wrought-iron gates to the walled garden. The very heart of the garden and the undeniable jewel in the crown, this compact space measuring just 18m x 18m, centres on the shining water in a square pool, linked by a rill to a second, smaller rounded pool.
Such a perfectly proportioned small walled garden is, Iain admits, a rare thing and one that they nearly missed. “We didn’t see the walled garden when we first looked online,” he recalls, “but then re-reading through the property description I suddenly saw ‘walled garden’ and thought we should have a look.”
Having moved in, Margaret decided to simplify the existing, informal wildlife pond and herbaceous borders. Enlisting the help of water feature expert, Callum Gordon of Splash Gordon, she designed the pond, the surrounding herbaceous borders and layout of the gravel paths.
The combination of Margaret’s design skills and knowledge of plants lift this garden out of the ordinary. The cobbled-edged beds surrounding the pond are punctuated at the corners with trees chosen for their autumn foliage and fruit, including cercidiphyllum, the toffee apple tree, and Euonymus Europaeus ‘Red Cascade’. Herbaceous plants such as ruby red Sedums spectabile, ‘Purple Emperor’ and ‘Coca Cola’, bright blue agapanthus, purple salvias, nepeta and antirrhinums combine with lime green hostas and golden rudbeckia. Roses and clematis ramble up the walls, while in the deeper perimeter beds shrubs, notably in the bed at the foot of the north-facing wall, include creamy Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ glowing against the grey walls along with the scarlet flame creeper, Tropaeolum speciosum.
Tall, willowy stands of bamboo rising about stone boulders hint at the Japanese element incorporated into this garden, about which more later.
A westerly gate takes you to a circular lawn at the side of the house, which Iain explains was “just lawn when we arrived”. Now backed with beds this space forms a delightful foreground for the striking views over the valley to the foothills of Farragon Hill, a reminder that this garden is 310m above sea level and often vulnerable to cold winds, keen frosts and snow.
An indication of Margaret’s passion for different varieties of plants comes from the rock garden at the side of the house, where a wealth of treasures, such as dark red sempervirens, delicate harebells and Acis Autumnale, the autumn-flowering form of the snowflake family, reward close inspection. “The boulders that mark the outline were found in our garden and an adjacent field,” Iain explains.
The lower terraces below the rock garden overflow with nepeta, salvias, hot lips and royal bumble, shrub and ground cover roses, including the highly perfumed ‘Scented Carpet’ whose sweet but sharp scent wafts up to a raised deck area at the front of the house. Beyond the roses, winter flowering heathers surround a tall 6ft stone, on top of which tiny escapee silver and red sempervivums eke out an existence.
A walk down the drive takes you to the Japanese garden, the couple’s most recent project, also created with the help of Splash Gordon. Here, where a cluster of heavy alder trees surrounded a weed-filled pond and where the burn, prone to flooding, was crossed by a rotting wooden bridge, the couple have created a space that contrasts strongly with the rest of the garden.
The best place to survey it is from the viewing platform, the level space above the burn that looks down onto the newly built wooden bridge and into the oval pond. Crossed by a string of boulder stepping stones, the pond is partly enclosed by steep banks edged by boulders that form a small peninsula topped by dwarf pine trees. “Once the landscaping had been done, Margaret planted the banks and surrounding area with plants, most of which we already had,” Iain explains. The large bamboos, he adds, were moved with a JCB from another part of the garden when the landscaping was done and established with their own special irrigation.
The penultimate space is the Japanese tea house, an open seating area constructed by a local company from warmly coloured, scented Siberian larch. Close by is a large boulder with a small, carved bowl for water, a Scottish version of the Japanese purification stone. “We love this part of the garden,” Iain says. “It gets the early morning sun, a bit of evening sun and shade in the summer. We enjoy the dappled shade and light, the wonderful reflections and the feeling of peace and quiet. It’s a Japanese garden adapted for Highland Perthshire.” k