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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Scottish Herbaceous Border

By Jim Bishop.

This month we'll take a brief detour away from my life chronology told through plants.

In July, 2012, I was fortunate to join 23 horticultural-minded individuals on the Pacific Horticulture Society tour, Gardens & Castles of Scotland. All of the gardens were outstanding and we were very near the peak summer bloom. Scotland had a very wet and cold spring until mid-May and has since been abnormally warm and dry bringing everything into bloom at once. Several gardens were very old (or even ancient compared to history in the U.S.) and wonderfully designed, now part of and maintained by the National Trust of Scotland. However it was the private gardens that really showed the attention to detail and gardening that only a garden owner can provide. Of these the House of Pitmuies garden on the east side of Scotland stood out.

The garden was built around a 1730s white plastered house with a typical Scottish slate roof. Recently, after a lifetime of maintaining the garden, Marguerite Ogilvie has turned over maintenance of the garden (after a 10 year training period) to her daughter-in-law. The estate garden has numerous features: a stream, a very large formal kailyaird (an ornamental kitchen garden), a gothic chapel styled old wash-house, a medieval fort styled turreted dovecot, a glass conservatory, a small pond, a Loch (Scottish for a lake ), a ha-ha (a steep drop off to keep sheep out of the garden, giving the impression of an endless lawn) , a conservatory (where we would later be served tea), a huge flower garden and spacious lawns. You know, the common backyard features we all live with every day (ha-ha!). However, the best part was the herbaceous border, a feature of most estate gardens in the U.K. The English and Scottish have developed it into a high art form. An herbaceous border consists of a walkway or lawn with wide plantings of annuals, perennials, bulbs, and shrubs on either side. It is often contained within tall walls and/or hedges to create a warmer microclimate and protect it from the wind. Often a nearby house, castle or mountain helps complete the view. Marguerite’s consisted of 4 long planting beds. The middle 2 beds had a narrow grass walkway with a larger open area in the middle centered on a pedestaled sundial. These were separated on either side by a wider lawn area and then 2 more beds. One of the outer beds backed up to a 14 foot tall hedge and the other a traditional Scottish limestone wall. Behind the garden was the 3 story white house with Victorian conservatory and, on the day we visited, puffy clouds were set against the blue Scottish sky.

On first inspection, borders look very simple with taller plants in back and shorter in front arranged with layers of colorful flowers. In reality, they take years of planning and experimentation and each shows the unique tastes and talents of the designer and gardener. By playing with sun and shadow, flower and leaf color, mass plantings, specimen plants, repetition, height and texture combinations the gardener creates drama and different moods. In this case, one area was backed by electric 8 foot tall delphiniums that had been grown from seed of the originals planted in the garden some 75 years ago. These were fronted by white roses and backed by a burgundy-colored copper beech trees sheered into an informal hedge. Other areas highlighted old roses, lilies, or other specimen plants. The garden changes throughout the day as the shadows cast by nearby trees and buildings, as well as the plants, move across the garden.

My favorite part was the center of the border. The gardener had chosen layer upon layer of mostly small flowered and leaved plants in various pastel colors. Plants were allowed to grow into each other and spill out onto the grass pathway. In the middle of the path sat the sundial. The overall affect was one of lush fuzziness that engulfs you into a world of color as you pass through. It was all pretty amazing and even more so considering that all of this was created from long rectangular beds more typical of a vegetable garden. I made several passes in different directions so as not to miss anything. After touring the gardens we had hot tea and homemade cakes served on china in the drawing room and a short talk by the current matron of the house and garden. Since several hours had passed, I did another quick pass through the garden to see how the shadows had changed before reluctantly boarding the bus.

You can view photos of the garden at or my photos on facebook at:

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