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.
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 www.discoverscottishgardens.org 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.
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.
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.