Tracy Wilson's impressions of gardening on the Scottish coast

20th December 2006

Three weeks ago I rather bravely decided to venture north of the border, for both business and pleasure. It was the longest time I had spent in Scotland and predominantly on the east coast. It was quite an eye-opener, really, as I’d always had a vision of the east coast as bleak, or very bleak, with not an awful lot between it and Russia as far as the weather is concerned. Whilst it is true that there are places where it’s extremely bleak and growing anything taller than grass is rather a challenge, there are some areas on the eastern half of Scotland where there are in fact some beautiful gardens and some very good plantings. I suppose that in many respects it’s rather like Cornwall in that it’s a country of severe contrasts: you have very wild, barren, bleak areas contrasting with areas within a few miles which, whilst they have to cope with much greater cold than maybe we do in the south-west, certainly give you beautiful gardens, woodland landscapes and many different things like that.

So it was interesting to see what would, and wouldn’t, grow up there. Scotland, on both east and west coasts, has got some very famous gardens. One of the places we visited was the Rhododendron specialist at Glen Doick Garden Centre. The gardens were originally started by Peter Cox and are now run by Peter and his son Kenneth. They are very well known for their Rhododendrons: they were responsible for breeding the ‘Bird’ series. A lot of people will be familiar with their ‘Arctic Tern’, ‘Snipe’ and so on – a whole series of dwarf Rhododendrons and ideal for smaller gardens. Because these have been bred in Scotland you know damn well they’re going to survive in the rest of the UK. They’re very good, 'top-drawer' Rhododendrons of extremely high quality. It was interesting to see how wide the spread of Rhododendrons is up there. It was not just Rhododendron ponticum (which is a weed, there’s no getting away from it) but I saw the big species and hybrid Rhododendrons being used as windbreak plants because although they’re evergreen they’ll take the wind. The one thing that is predominant in Scotland – and it really does strike you, particularly when you come from a county like Cornwall – is how predominant the Conifers are, as far as windbreaks are concerned. I wouldn’t say the country’s covered in Conifers, because it isn’t, but there’s a lot of subsidised forestry in Scotland, using Conifers for softwood production.

There’s also, interestingly enough, a thriving Christmas Tree market up there. It’s fascinating to see these being grown as a cash crop in Scotland. Three weeks ago, when I was there, the place was already knee-deep in Christmas Trees: there were tractors and lorries and just about every form of transport you can imagine being used to move Christmas Trees from one end of the country to the other, a lot of them being shipped south. Scotland is a very good country for growing Christmas Trees because it does take advantage of the fact that it is much colder: Conifers don’t run on so quickly so you don’t get that long, leggy leader which doesn’t have any branches on it, about which so many people complain when they get locally-grown trees down in the south-west. The Scottish trees are fabulous, they really do grow lovely Conifers up there. There’s a greater number now of the non-drop varieties as opposed to Norway Spruce, but both do well. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, I do like my Norway Spruce, which is what I am sitting next to at this precise moment. It smells lovely. I know it drops needles, but if you keep it well-watered, not that many. It’s beautiful, I like it, but then that’s me, it’s traditional.

People worry about using a real Christmas Tree, thinking it’s not environmentally friendly – but you should just think of it as a sustainable crop, and that’s all it is. It’s rather like, I don’t know, Brussels Sprouts or Cabbages! You plant them, you crop them and then you plant some more. As for height, with a Norway Spruce you’d normally anticipate them to put on about 18 inches a year, so you can estimate roughly how big your Christmas Tree is, six years from planting. The non-drop variety are a bit slower and normally grow nine to twelve inches in a year – which is why you pay considerably more for them. There are normally three main varieties that are used for non-drop: the Abies nordmaniana – that’s the one that was always the most popular and probably still is. Increasingly popular now is the Abies fraserii: the reason this one is becoming more popular is because it’s narrower. The third one is Abies koreana. To me, it’s always a bit of a travesty that it is used as a Christmas Tree. It’s the slowest-growing of them all: you’re looking at six to nine inches annual growth, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful Conifer, making a very dense pyramid with gorgeous deep Lavender cones on it – but someone’s going to chop off as a Christmas Tree! It just seems criminal. But they are replaced on the ground, they are usable and there’s no reason why not, I suppose, but it just doesn’t seem quite right to me. The first two species and the Picea abies (the true Christmas Trees), all of those I have no problem at all with chopping them for Christmas Trees – but not the Abies koreana is not a good choice. You will also see some people growing Abies grandis for Christmas Trees, but I have to say that in my own opinion it’s too soft and too floppy – you hang your baubles on it and if your baubles have any weight at all you’ve got a rather pendulous Christmas Tree! It can work reasonably well as an outside Christmas Tree where the baubles are very lightweight plastic things, it doesn’t look too bad then. It grows very quickly – this give it long, soft, floppy growth – so it’s not an ideal tree for indoors.

People’s houses are rather like their gardens, getting smaller nowadays: they haven’t got room for socking-great Christmas Trees any more. People are looking more for narrow, dense Christmas Trees so that they can hang their baubles on them: they’ll still look good but they won’t take up quite as much room. Abies nordmaniana is quite wide, so some people will trim them as a young tree and try to keep them tighter in at the sides – they are quite trim-able and although it doesn’t sound very sensible, it works very well. A lot of the professional Christmas Tree growers trim up their trees for Christmas with a hedge trimmer: they then get nice, fleshy, young growth on them the following year and a nice dense but narrower tree. It’s surprising what you can get a way with. It's big growing country for Christmas-Trees.

Away from the Christmas Trees, there are a lot of other Conifers up there. They’re mostly used for pole or softwood production. The trees also provide a windbreak, whether they’re Pines, or Douglas Fir (there are a lot of Douglas Fir) or Piceas, they're used all over the place. You’ll see them up in the Highlands where they’re used extensively in the mountains – of course the land can’t be used for much else. You’ll also see quite large tracts of Conifers on the coast.

I have to say that Aberdeen is in a very prosperous area, but unless you’ve got particularly blinkered vision, I don’t think anyone would ever say it’s pretty – it’s very harsh 'oil-rig country'. When you look out of the window as you’re driving northwards along the motorway, that is exactly what you’re looking at – oil-rigs off the coast. It’s a very bleak, exposed area. But once there is a little bit of protection with those Conifers, or deciduous trees, then within that they’re growing a lot of the plants that we would expect to see in any exposed garden in the west country or indeed any coastal area of England. There are Birch, Sycamores and Ash: a lot of traditional trees that you’d think of for an exposed situation are doing well up there. The difference is that they have to cope with much, much colder levels in the winter, so we’d be talking -5°, -8° with a serious intake of breath – but up there it can be -18°, -20° and they don’t bat an eyelid, so it’s a different ballgame up there!

© 2006 Tracy Wilson