Scottish inspiration 1: Cambo Gardens


The Walled Garden at Cambo House

You’d think that living in France would be inspiration enough for someone creating a garden, wouldn’t you? Not so. Little did I know, when I started making this garden, that I’d have to do without the following: horticultural grit, decent propagating containers, vermiculite, perlite, interesting herbaceous perennials – oh, and interesting shrubs.

Of course, I can (like anyone else) shop online for the plants that are missing in my life, but it’s not quite the same thing as picking up a special something on a day out, is it?

But the most serious gap in my gardening life is garden inspiration.

Consequently, when at home in Scotland once or twice a year (as I am at the moment), I often try to cram it all in. The rigid seed trays go into my hand luggage for the return journey (horticultural grit is a step too far), and sometimes I clock up the miles ogling fantastic gardens.

On Saturday 23 July we visited a garden in Fife, just south of St Andrews, that I’ve long wanted to see. Cambo Gardens at Kingsbarns.

Some of the information that follows comes from a wonderful piece that Stephen Lacey wrote about Cambo in The Telegraph way back in 2012. Do follow my link and read the original if you are interested in learning more about Cambo.

The estate has been owned by the Erskine family for three centuries, although the original house burnt down in 1878. The existing house is austere in the best Scottish sandstone tradition.


Cambo House from the rear, on the paths that lead to the Walled Garden


The front of the house, near the visitors’ car park


To the rear again …


What I would give to have an echium of this stature in front of my house …

The Cambo estate has become Scotland’s answer to ‘galanthomania’, because you can walk the woodland paths in February and drink in a wave of snowdrops to equal those further south in England. I can only drool these days …

Catherine Erskine began the snowdrop festival in 2003 and since then a number of other Scottish gardens have joined in to make Scotland’s own snowdrop trail. Have a look at for more information.

Apparently when Catherine  arrived at the house in 1976 with her husband, Sir Peter Erskine, she didn’t exactly see eye to eye with the head gardener in post at the time. She suggested adding herbaceous plantings in the top corner of the old walled garden and was denied the liberty – this was the only place the wretched man could grow onions.

Fortunately Catherine found a more sympathetic head gardener in the shape of Elliot Forsyth who came to Cambo in 2001. When I read today that Forsyth’s wife is a landscape painter and he himself is an admirer of Piet Oudolf, I understood Cambo’s transformation from the days when herbaceous perennials were denied access …

I’m concentrating on the Walled Garden in this post because it set me on fire. Only a short walk through the gardened woods behind the house and into another world.



A kind of greeting on the other side of the Walled Garden door … here we have modern chaos of the nicest kind, rather than Victorian order.

Yes,  there are many of the features you would expect to find in a Victorian or Edwardian walled garden.

The long pathways lacing the various elements of this two and a half acre site together.


A peaceful horticultural oasis of lawn at the garden’s heart …


There are the old greenhouses – one straddles a stream that runs through the centre of the garden.


It is not schadenfreude to admit relief at the sight of box blight damage … if we suffer, we feel relief that others are soldiering on in spite of it.

The stream ornamented with a small gazebo and bridge in a vaguely Chinese style …


Box-edged herbaceous borders in a more classical style …



Some terrific plant surprises … stupendous Veratrum seed heads rising against the classic box hedges …


… and treasures like this foxglove (which I believe to be Digitalis parviflora).


And the usual vegetables you’d expect to find in an old Scottish walled garden … although they are teamed with some rather odd bedfellows. The potager (below) was ‘resting’ in 2016 because it is currently being revamped. It gives you some clues as to how the rest of your visit will go. This is not your standard walled garden.


The remaining planting uses a very modern prairie style in a limited plant palette – its creators have let rip in the most exciting way. I cannot begin to name all of the grasses, although Stipa gigantea, Stipa tenuissima, Miscanthus and Calamagrostis are prominent.


Associating with this backbone to striking effect are Achillea, bronze fennel, Agastache, Salvia, Veronicastrum, Veronica, Monarda, Eupatorium and Eryngium … in huge variety.  And lots and lots of Sanguisorba – in reds, whites, pinks. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.





Best of all – this is minimal maintenance. Forsyth (quoted by Stephen Lacey) says: ‘In February we cut them [the grasses and perennials] to near ground level with a strimmer, then drive over them with a mower on a high setting. The pulverised stems then get topped with bark. Any weeds get a wipe with glyphosate. We don’t do any staking or feeding, as we want plants to grow with low nitrogen levels as they would in a real meadow.’

Personally, I haven’t seen anything this beautiful since Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden. And I developed a serious love affair with Trifolium rubens


And cemented my already fond regard for Heleniums …


As well as Veronicastrum


And Sanguisorba … and Eupatorium … I never knew there were so many beautiful species and cultivars.


The only plant I saw at Cambo which would be doomed at Châtillon were the Eryngiums. So sad …


I looked and looked and took too many photographs. My overall feelings were the following:

1. Wow – I’m in a time warp! These roses and perennials were flowering 6 weeks ago at home!
2. This is what I’m trying to do at home … and maybe it will work …

That’s a good garden, when you want to rush home and get digging/weeding.

The only criticism I’d level is lack of labelling on the many roses. These are planted underneath the old fruit trees in the Walled Garden (possibly in too much shade) and against the surrounding walls.


In fact everywhere that the garden has been divided into smaller rooms, roses feature in the divisions.

The gardens are open from 9pm until 5pm every day and entry is £5.50 for adults. There’s a good cafe, handily positioned right next to the small plant centre, which offers the specialties of the garden, propagated on site.


If I meet you there next year, don’t show me your purchases. You’ll only make me jealous because I can’t fit them in my hand luggage.

This is only the first part of my Scottish inspirations … there are at least three more in the pipeline.



In a vase for Clare


This post is inspired by Cathy’s meme, In a Vase on Monday, but I am not linking in to it because my thoughts today have a more personal, rather than a horticultural, inspiration.

Do go over and see everyone’s vases, they are bound to be beautiful.

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A small group of us in north-eastern France had a very special friend called Clare who passed away last week at the age of only 67.

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Clare taught me many things about giving and loving. Her last words to me on 30 June were: ‘I want to come and see the garden!’

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That’s a huge and very special gift from one gardener to another … like musicians, we work all on our own, trying to create something that may never be appreciated by someone else.

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But we are unstoppable nonetheless! The strangeness of the inspired human being ..

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Last week was a turbulent week, wasn’t it? As we watched the Bastille Day fireworks from the garden of friends in Haute-Saône, little did we know of the horror that was taking place in Nice. Poor France. Hollande is correct – we are truly at war.

These  events have been a reminder to me (and I often need one!) that we need to hug our loved ones close today, because there may be no tomorrow.


I picked my first really big bunch of sweet peas last week (late, because of our season). They were simply gorgeous. I gave some to Clare, and I’m giving the rest to you – my friends in north-eastern France, in memory of our very special friend. I just want her picture on my (very public) diary …

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In a vase on Monday


Firstly, I’d like to apologise to all those whose Monday vases I didn’t find time to appreciate last week – if you are good enough to look at mine, then I should find time to enjoy yours!

But stolen wheels, dentists and contract endings – not to mention the referendum and the tricky situation in which many of us on mainland Europe now find ourselves – took over my life.

This is my contribution to Cathy’s meme at Rambling in the Garden. I’m hoping she’ll cut me a bit of slack in offering up a vase that sits in my kitchen, but doesn’t come from my own garden.

While visiting a dear friend, she was kind enough to trap and cut a small branch of flowers from the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. She planted two trees in her box parterre over 10 years ago and both are just completing their flowering here in north-east France on 27 June 2016.


The trunks of tulip trees were used by American settlers to fashion dugout canoes – presumably because the wood is soft and easy to work. Since the timber rotted fairly quickly in water, the canoes had to be replaced every 2 to 3 years.

Yet another bush skill borrowed from Native Americans. The Lenni Lenape, a tribe in Delaware, called Liriodendron the muxulhemenshi or ‘tree from which canoes are made’. Daniel Boone and his family moved from Kentucky to Missouri (to an area at that time known as Upper Louisiana) in a tulip tree canoe in 1799.

They did use wagons to transport their household effects – but I’ve just had the picture of myself, husband and four cats crossing the Channel from Ireland to France in a canoe flash into my head.

And here I am (the small, rather tubby one in the middle) … safely arrived in France by means of more luxurious transport and able to enjoy the flowers of a young tulip tree in yet another French garden. I’ve included this picture because it emphasises that even quite small trees flower well. (With thanks to J. for the photo!) During the week I’ll be posting about that fascinating garden in Haute-Marne, which is open to visitors.


When I came home from my friend’s house, I put my flowers, with their leaves, in a small green bowl and have allowed myself to be drawn into and lost in the unbelievable colours every time I pass – flowers as meditation!



With thanks, once again, to Cathy for hosting this meme whose friendly contributors now come from all over the globe – England, Scotland, Italy, the United States, Romania, France.

Now go on over to Rambling in the Garden and have a look at their wonderful vases this week (I’ll be just behind you)!



In a vase on Monday


My vase this week for Cathy’s meme at Rambling in the Garden uses flowers from an area of the garden that I planted up in March this year. The lower half of the Hornbeam Gardens has been planted as a shrub garden – we didn’t have much in the way of good flowering shrubs here until late winter 2015.

This year I added herbaceous under-plantings to try and achieve a meadow effect without wild flowers (although they are not barred, if they care to join in).


The garden doesn’t look much like the vase yet, but the colours of the vase are what I’m trying to achieve.

I started with Calamagrostis ‘England’. Only one plant in 2014, but this year that one plant has provided me with about 20 divisions.

The foliage is yellow and green variegated and when it flowered pink in 2015 I was a bit shocked – pink and yellow together! Ugh! But if you look at the stems you will see that they are yellow and the ‘pink’ flower spikes are composed of violet-tipped individual florets.


How we change – now I think it’s perfect (I’ve even grown to like pink weigela with the upright spikes of Asphodeline lutea – is there something wrong with me?)

To the Calamagrostis I added a few stiff, nearly flowering stems of Deschampsia cespitosa (which add more in life than they do in my pictures).


Then I dotted in the ‘meadow’ flowers growing down in that part of the garden:

Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ and a dark-leaved Geranium himalayense seedling that came from Hardy Plant Society seed. The foliage of this last proves that you don’t need to buy a named cultivar to add a good plant to the garden.

I think I’ve mostly photographed the dark-leaved seedling, because even the stems, buds and sepals are a good dark colour that pleased me.


Then golden Geum ‘Lady Strathenden’ …


… and Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’. This last is probably a bit too droopy for a vase, but I’ve got high hopes of the taller S. caucasica plants added in March.


There are also the dark stems of Salvia ‘Caradonna’ …


… and a bit of Nick’s delphinium ‘King Arthur’ to add deeper colour. This is a cheat, because it won’t obviously be growing in a ‘wild flower’ meadow – even a fake one. But maybe I could add some larkspur to do the same job? Does anyone have experience of it self-seeding?


Finally, I picked some more of my precious Scabiosa atropurpurea, because my new plants are now doing really well (huge with all the rain – they must be nearly three foot tall from soil to flower tip) …


… and the first ‘almost there’ flowers of Achillea ‘Pomegranate’. This, with ‘Strawberry Seduction’, were also new additions to the garden for 2016. They know how to name plants, don’t they? Choosing between a number of achilleas was hard and I think the names swung it in the end.


And my ‘meadow in a vase’!


I doubt it will be long-lasting (and you can see my house needs a lot of work doing to it!), but it was fun to dream about what that part of the garden could look like in the future.

Here I hesitate … but I will. My vase is dedicated to Jo Cox and her family this week, because both the vase and the woman represent (to me) all that’s good and joyful in life.

Now take a look at everyone else’s Monday vases at Cathy’s blog … and see you next Monday.