Cambo Estate, Fife: a Festival of Snowdrops

I am of the opinion that a strongly held viewpoint should be put regularly to the test. A few weeks ago I boldly stated on Instagram that I would never spend two (and definitely not three) figures on a single Galanthus bulb. Committed galanthophile though I am, I remain perfectly content with the charms of lovely G. nivalis, the common snowdrop that crowds our British woods and hedgerows at this time of year. The people who commented on that post agreed: most were happy to buy ordinary snowdrops, especially if on sale. Either that, or no one was confessing to any extreme snowdrop splurges in public.

Nonetheless, questions and doubts remain in the back of my mind. There must be some reason that sane gardeners splash out relatively large quantities of money for snowdrop varieties that vary in often minute (read: undetectable) ways. What was it that I was missing? Rona Dodds, owner of Quercus Garden Plants, recently posted a piece on her Quirky Bird Gardener blog about the seven or so varieties that she grows, including a helpful photo of them side-by-side and crucially face-up. Arranged like this it was easy to see differences between them. One was chalice-shaped, another shaped like a stylish wind turbine. Inner splashes of green and yellow varied enormously, and double varieties threw a whole extra dimension into the mix. And yet, when we view snowdrops in the garden or in the wild, we don’t see them face up, we see them from above and often from a distance, tepals pointing downwards with all the inner intricacies hidden from sight. For me, the beauty of snowdrops has always been in their plurality. What could be more breathtaking than the sight of a woodland naturalised with those countless tiny white heads devoutly nodding together like a congregation praying for spring?

And so every year I go snowdrop hunting. Not just to the woods and fields close to Edinburgh, but also to gardens that showcase unusual varieties of snowdrops. I like to look at the different varieties on display and try to spot the differences. Some are easy to notice, others need a trained eye. I also like to look at the prices if varieties are on sale, and if I am with someone else I like to point the prices out to them and enjoy the ensuing debate. ‘What, £28 for a single bulb?’ my companion will inevitably gasp. ‘But it looks exactly like all the others.’ And so far I have not yet advanced far enough in my galanthophile training to counter their astonishment with a sturdy defence of the prices.

Only two special Galanthus varieties have ever stopped me in my tracks. One is G. ‘Primrose Warburg’ (£18 a bulb), a delightful little yellow variety, recognisably different from the common snowdrop to even the rookiest observer by its little yellow topnot (though I can’t distinguish it from G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’). The other is G. ‘Daphne’s Scissors’ (£8 a bulb) which has a sweet little pair of scissors marked on the inner segment. Both of these I saw first at Shepherd House Gardens and are still on my mind a year later.

Snowdrops are celebrated each winter during the snowdrop festival at the Cambo Estate in Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh. Cambo is home to the national snowdrop collection. As well as 300 special Galanthus varieties, their 70 acres of beautiful woodland is home to endless G. nivalis that wander as far as the eye can see. According to Cambo’s website, members of the Erskine family, who have lived and gardened at Cambo for generations, would spend hours digging, dividing and replanting the snowdrops across the woodlands in order to create the impressive colonies we see today. A couple of weekends ago I took my sister to Cambo with me to admire the naturalised woodland snowdrops and the fine collection of specials, and to have fun gasping at the prices of those on sale.

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The walled garden at Cambo

Before heading for the woodland walk, we took a quick tour around Cambo’s famous walled garden, with its naturalistic planting of grasses and tall perennials, its lovely glasshouse with stained glass panel, and its gentles slopes running down to the little brook that bumbles merrily through the middle, traversed by three pretty bridges. The walled garden had an air of dormancy, a sleeping beauty. I had some fun taking shots of the perennial seedheads that had been left standing to such good effect, and vowed to return in summer when it will be at its best.

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The glasshouse in the walled garden, with stained glass window
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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The walled garden slopes down to a brook
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The glasshouse in the walled garden
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Woodland snowdrops

The woodland snowdrop walk was everything it promised to be. Acres of venerable old trees had beneath them vast undisturbed expanses of snowdrops (I’m trying not to use the word ‘swathes’ but it’s hard). They grew thickly alongside the paths, down to the brook and away into the distance where they merged to give the impression of far off snow. In some places they were interspersed prettily with yellow Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite. The woodland path, satisfyingly mossy at the edges as most Scottish woodland paths are, ran down to the seaside about half a mile away, where children were clambering on the rocks and the landscape briefly joined forces with a golf course. The route circled on a lower streamside path back to the big house and the snowdrop collections.

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Cambo’s woodland snowdrop walk: the lower path wound alongside the brook
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The snowdrops were interspersed with winter aconites
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Sarcoscypha coccinea, the scarlet elf cup, a common native woodland fungus
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The woodland snowdrop walk
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Snowdrops and aconites: a classic combination
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Snowdrops and aconites beside the brook

Cambo’s display of special snowdrop varieties began in a long raised bed at the side of the house, and continued in the beds leading into and around the delightful little winter garden, filled with hellebores, iris, and fiery red dogwoods. Most were labelled (some labels were missing or unclear). In their close groupings, it was easy to see that some varieties were taller, or fatter, or more dainty than others; some had sharp, pointed tepals, others rounded. To choose a favourite would be impossible. These were not snowdrops to be naturalised in a corner of the garden; they were a true collection: to be possessed and categorised and labelled and displayed, part of their value being in their membership of the divisible whole. There is no point in owning just one or two specials. A collection by definition needs to contain as many varieties as possible, and it also needs to be expanding; there is no satisfaction in owning a static or dormant collection. Once a collector gives up his hunting and accumulating and sorting, he may as well sell the whole lot off.

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Special variety: Galanthus ‘Wasp’

Herein may lie the practical part of the truth for me. A collection consisting of just the one or two varieties I find genuinely interesting would be no collection at all if I didn’t foster the intention of adding further to it. I wouldn’t have the money or space for a large collection anyway, and since we’re unlikely to stay in this flat for the long haul, I’d only end up losing some of my precious bulbs if we moved. (Don’t tell me pots you know I’d forget to keep them moist for the other 9 months of the year.)

But there’s another, more abstract, part of the truth. It’s to do with two differing ways in which we humans observe and consider our environs. Some people are very interested in detail. They are the pointillists, the people who might buy a shirt not because it goes with anything else but because of the intricate pattern of tiny birds on the fabric, the people who follow a recipe to the very last gram or who notice every tiny bit of dirt missed by the cleaner. These are the collectors, the true Galanthophiles, the clever people who know their snowdrop markings well enough to spot a new hybrid popping up in the garden. But the other type of person is the painter of broad brush strokes, the person who is more interested in the overall impression, who has a sense of the bigger picture but forgets to notice the detail, or who would rather feel the pervading atmosphere than get down close with a magnifying glass. Not for us the tiny markings of special varieties. We just want our swathes.

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We just want our swathes
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Bright red Cornus (dogwood) in the winter garden with Bergenia and grasses.
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A red-stemmed Acer provides a striking focal point against a dark background in the winter garden
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Iris reticulata in the winter garden
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Hamamelis in the winter garden

This is not to say that I shan’t some day be persuaded to start my own special collection of Galanthus. Even as I write this and check the internet for my facts on prices and varieties, I feel my opinion changing as I stumble across pages with photos of unusual and beautiful snowdrops. Each year I will continue to take stock of my viewpoint by visiting places with fine collections of special snowdrops, and I already know which two varieties will be the first to make a dent in my pocket. But that won’t happen until I have a bigger garden, one with space for a collection worthy of the name, and one that I know I will be gardening in for the foreseeable future.

The Cambo Estate is at Kingsbarns near St Andrew’s in Fife, KY16 8QD. The Snowdrop Festival is on until 11th March and costs £5.50 per adult (children free).

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9 Ways I’ll Improve My Gardening in 2018

Happy new year! No, I’m not Chinese, but I have come to realise that I forgot to wish you all a happy new year at the beginning of January, partly because I was too wrapped up in revision for my RHS exams, and partly because I was in a rut with wanting to write a post about my gardening year in 2017, but didn’t know where to start. The reason I didn’t know where to start was because 2017 had mainly been characterised by not gardening, or at least, not enough, and that wasn’t going to make for very good reading. New Year, then January, slipped by in a flurry of snow and studying. Now that the exams are over, it’s far too late to start talking about 2017 (what a relief) so let’s move swiftly on and look ahead to this year. This year, my garden is going to be very beautiful, and here’s what I’m going to do differently this year in order to achieve this:

Be tidier (but not too tidy)

When I confess to you that my garden is a mess, I am not just talking about a few stray seed heads or the inevitable pile of plastic pots that all gardeners accumulate in dark corners behind sheds. My blind spots include: discarded plant labels lying on paths; empty plastic compost sacks blown into hedges; piles of topsoil that I have no idea what to do with; the four-foot stalks of last year’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ left on the terrace because there’s no room in the compost bin; empty seed trays collecting stagnant water; uprooted Everedge lying like dismantled bear-traps on the grass. When I wanted to find my root trainers to sow my sweetpeas, I had to scour the privet hedge for the inserts (I found all but one of them). None of this is beautiful to behold. But this year I will be tidier. I vow that I will be able to take photos of the garden from any direction without having to crop out the ugly parts. Conversely, it should hardly need pointing out that healthy gardens are not too tidy, nor heaven forbid, sterile. Gardens with wild areas, where nettles grow, and insects hibernate in old logs, and the seedheads are left on for the winter birds, are gardens with reverence for the ecosystems that make them what they are.

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Avoid plastic

You can’t have missed the current debate around plastic, unless you come from another planet, perhaps one that is not mad enough to have designed single-use items out of a material that lasts for ever. Plastic garden villains include: pots and trays, compost sacks, plant labels, polypropylene ‘fleece’ (a sad misnomer), netting, modules, plant supports, rabbit guards, bird feeders, the ‘lights’ of a cold frame, the protective packaging around plants sent by post, and even the plastic cover around gardening magazines and seed catalogues. As well as hanging around undegradable for hundreds of years, clogging up waterways and damaging wildlife, plastic is ugly, and gardens are for beauty; therefore, ought plastic to have a place in the garden? We gardened successfully for centuries before the invention of plastic; could we return to a life without it? The June 2017 issue of the RHS’s The Garden magazine (which arrived in its polythene wrapping) carried an article written by Sally Nex about her attempt to eliminate plastic from the garden, which inspired me to try doing the same. Like Sally I have started with wooden seed trays and terracotta pots as well as copper labels; I will report back with more ideas as they come.

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Improve winter structure

Eager to cram in as many delicious herbaceous perennials as one can discover, it’s easy to forget that for six months of the year the garden is essentially bare of herbaceous perennials. This is undoubtedly a lesson that many beginner gardeners learn to their cost as they gaze out at the garden of a frosty January day and see only the sad emptiness of a garden without bones. My experience in this regard has shown me that a garden ought to be designed primarily with the coldest months in mind — the gaps can always be filled in later. Luckily, it’s not too late for me to correct my early mistakes, and there’s a variety of ideas that I can add to my garden to get it looking good in winter: patterns of topiaried box and low hedging, arches, and neat edges along elegant or intriguing paths.

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Educate myself…

Well, I am already deep into this one, having followed my Certificate of Practical Horticulture straight into the RHS Principles of Horticulture Level 2 course. The improvement in my horticultural and botanical knowledge has been intensely satisfying — but talk about the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to learn, and there always will be. I intend to carry on learning as much as I can, firstly by trying to attend further a further course once my current one is completed (I haven’t decided which yet), and by reading my steadily multiplying collection of gardening books as I go. Then there are gardening shows, magazines, the blogs of other gardeners …

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… And do things the proper way

When I do things the proper way, the way I have been taught on my various courses, taking care and paying attention to the small details — using the correct type of compost, labelling my seed trays, pruning each plant at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, and so on — the garden rewards my efforts with better-looking and happier plants, improved yields, healthier soil, more diverse wildlife: a better and more beautiful garden. I have noticed that since applying the techniques and skills that I have learnt on my practical horticulture course, my seed germination has become much more reliable, my cuttings root successfully, and I waste fewer plants by keeping them happy and healthy. A seed tray that has been filled and tamped properly and evenly sown with an appropriate quantity of seed not only germinates more successfully but looks good too. Sometimes doing things the proper way seems to take more time, but this time is often saved elsewhere later on.

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Try new seeds

Although I never get tired of my old favourites (Cosmos ‘Purity’, cornflowers, Ammi, ‘Café-au-Lait’ dahlias) it’s good to try new varieties and discover new favourites. Last year I successfully grew heartsease violas for the first time, cheerful little faces that kept my spirits up throughout autumn and winter. This year I’ll be trying sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Claret’ and ‘Double Dandy’), poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii), Dill, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sahara’, two new sorts of gypsophila, and two new dahlias, ‘Linda’s Baby’ and ‘Penhill Watermelon’.

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Protect my soil

A healthy garden begins with a healthy soil. Preventing the erosion and capping of topsoil by protecting it with mulches, ground-cover plants or green manures is one of the simplest things to be done to keep a garden healthy and beautiful. I started this year as I mean to go on, by mulching my herbaceous beds with heaps of delicious home-made compost. This will protect the surface of the soil and feed the soil organisms, providing nutrition for roots and organic matter for moisture retention. My raised beds are mulched with mushroom compost, which again protects the soil and provides organic matter and good weed suppression. But there are still areas needing improvement, places where I ran out of mulch, spots that have been neglected: an area of bare, compacted soil underneath some trees, patches that shouldn’t have been walked on (but were). Taking care of soil means being kind to earthworms too, and this will be of even more importance since last week’s discovery of two small New Zealand flatworms near my compost heap (a total scream-mask moment).

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Keep better records

Detesting plastic as I do, I’m not the best at labelling my plants. My record keeping is patchy at most, because it’s not easy to write things down on paper while wearing muddy gardening gloves, especially if it’s raining, and because I enjoy planting things spontaneously, grabbing the nearest suitable pot and kidding myself that I’ll remember what tulips I planted in six months’ time, an effect that is ruined by pernickerty record-keeping. And often a lovely surprise awaits: a terracotta jar of ‘Apricot Beauty’ suddenly appearing in April is no bad thing. And I can usually tell what my seedlings are by the leaves. However, records help us to learn from our successes and failures, and can be a pleasure to read back to oneself after a year or so. On top of blogging, I have started keeping a handwritten diary of the garden: what I tried that day, what I did, what was in leaf or flower or died or looked awful or sprang like Lazarus from the bare soil. What the weather was like, what birds were singing, what it felt like to be out in the garden on that cold morning.

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Just garden!

In the end, all these improvements will come about only if I step outside and actually garden. Life is very good at getting in the way: emails that need sending, laundry to attend to, husbands that want something (almost always involving having to stop whatever I’m doing to admire a piece of carbon-fibre cycling equipment). Then there are the excuses: weather awful, too cold, wrong sort of leaves on the ground, don’t know where to start. By prioritising gardening wherever possible I am hoping that the garden will respond in kind, and I have been inspired by Laetitia Maklouf’s ‘Five Minute Garden’ because there is so much you can do in five-minute bursts if that is all you have time for, and those seemingly insignificant bursts will eventually add up to a great deal of improvement.

So these are the things I will be doing better in 2018, in the hopes of a new, improved garden and a better gardening year over all. I’d love to know what you will be doing this year to make your garden a better place, or to hear about any changes you made in the past that had a fabulous impact on the health and beauty of your garden.

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La vie en rose

Now that I’ve finished work for the autumn I’m busier than ever, but life’s pretty rosy all the same because all the chores and obligations that are keeping me busy from 6am till dusk are wonderful ones. First, there’s the garden to sort. I’m still digging over space in the back garden for refugees that will come over from the front (roses, penstemons, a recalcitrant peony, a geum, lots of aquilegias), and that involves digging out roots of unwanted ash saplings and so forth. Then I’ve plenty of studying to be getting on with, mainly Portuguese, and also the RHS Level 2 course, which I began last month.

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Today was a good day for digging under a cool blue sky, and a good day for al fresco study time later on in the afternoon once the air became warmer and I remembered where I’d put the picnic rug. Picking flowers is a good procrastination technique. After all, how can one study botany effectively without a white jug of flowers at one’s side? One literally can’t.

The rose is a repeat flowerer called something silly like ‘Many Happy Returns’ (see what they did there) and it stopped me dead in a garden centre earlier this year. Turns out I forgot to check that it smelt of anything before buying it, but never mind because it flowers its socks off. Not such a silly name after all.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, who I hope will not mind at my tardiness this week, especially since I have no excuse not to have taken part yesterday, except it was a bit cold.

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