The Challenges of Gardening at One Thousand Feet
I have just taken my cup of coffee down to my garden pond to check my hosta. It is my daily ritual, borne out of necessity.
You see we live at 1000 feet on the very edge of the Cairngorm National Park. On a day like today, when the sun is shining and the garden is blooming, there really is nowhere I would rather be. I love a pretty garden and I love this time of year. But as you can imagine, gardening at this altitude has its challenges.
I used to live in leafy Cheshire, where anything grew. The worst damage was caused by slugs or snails and the occasional vine weevil in a pot. When we brought our home in Scotland, little did I appreciate how much we would really need to work to have a proper garden. Nearly two acres was going to take some filling! Excited, I dug and split plants. I bought seeds and cultivated. I was incredibly optimistic. Or perhaps naïve?
Watch out for the wildlife!
We still think ourselves lucky to see roe deer and hare almost daily. But as their own food stocks get low, they book a table at our garden restaurant. We have lost a magnolia to the hare, our much anticipated Christmas Day sprouts to the deer and my precious young tender hostas to the rabbits. We struggle to keep evergreen hebes in leaf over winter and Azalea buds make a delicious starter. The deer take charge of pruning, like it or not.
Wrap up warm!
If there is snow around, then at a 1000 feet it will almost certainly pay us a call. With temperatures down to minus 15, super hardiness is now a key factor. If I am planning a project, I use the RHS website to draw up our wish list. It has a great facility to filter plants by a hardiness factor. I aim for 6 or 7, with the odd 5 in a sheltered spot. It has meant I have had to accept some of my personal favourites will now stay a memory of gardening in leafy Cheshire.
Of course, freezing temperatures are a risk to any gardener, but by far our biggest challenge is the biting wind. The prevailing winds blow in from an easterly/south easterly direction, uninterrupted, bitter and strong. On the other hand, the north side of the house is sheltered by woods. When the winds come from that direction, they are much less painful. It has taken us a while to make this a priority in our planting. While my beautiful acers, thankfully, escape the wildlife, their first delicate shoots are vulnerable in cold winds. They are, by far, happiest now growing snug up against the sheltered north facing walls of the house.
I confess, the one thing I never really considered when we began to plant was the impact existing vegetation would have. You see being at 1000 feet brings a greater challenge. Our land was once all woodland on the very edge of heather moorland. Nothing but a simple croft among trees, heather and blaeberry. The land was claimed when trees were felled, but ancient stumps still exist. And their roots. The only plants which would grow were those strong enough to compete with the natives. Enter the ground elder!
Ground elder has always been our nemesis. It’s tough stuff and was everywhere at first, until we discovered regular mowing stopped it – and the blaeberry too. We now have mown grass over much of the site. Not to be defeated, the elder still attempts to invade our beds. There was only one thing left. Systematically we have lifted and transplanted perennials, treated and stripped the elder. Then covered the beds with weed suppressant matting and a good layer of chipped bark. Effectively turning them over mainly to shrubbery. New beds get a good quality topsoil before we apply the same finish. We recently used Threaplands for our bulk delivery. It was super quality. Screened and weed free.
As for the tree stumps, I quite like them. We uproot them if it is feasible, but equally I am quite happy to incorporate a beautiful orange larch stump in a bed for added interest.
If you face similar issues, then don’t despair. It’s taken us nearly ten years to finally understand how to make it work for us. I now remind myself, a happy plant will give more pleasure than one forced into a place it doesn’t want to be.
That’s why I love a proper local nursery where plants are still grown and cultivated on site. Where the staff get their hands in the soil and know their onions. That way, when I am about to impulse buy, I can get some realistic advice on suitability. If it isn’t hardy, isn’t going to love its position, and I can’t be fairly confident it isn’t a wildlife favourite, then it doesn’t make my trolley. Another great thing about a good local nursery is they should be stocking lots of plants suited to the local climate too. We are lucky to have Threaplands fairly local to us. They are real plant people! Always healthy plant stock, genuinely knowledgeable staff and practical advice.
When I think back to our first years here, there was a big clue to the challenges ahead. The “garden” was almost entirely made up of three plant families. Geraniums and Oregano. And enough Alchemilla Mollis (Lady’s Mantle) to harvest for florists. It still has a stronghold.
A lot has changed now. There is more colour and texture and it finally feels like a garden not a croft. Of course, it’s not all roses in the garden, as they say. My hydrangea and delphiniums didn’t come back. My pyracantha is awful peely-wally. But my spirea, viburnums, acers, roses, berberis are all thriving.
As for that Hosta, I admit, I broke my “don’t buy it” rule. The truth is we don’t have many rabbits here now, so it’s my experiment. I am happy to report, it’s doing great. And if those bunnies should come munching, I will fence it off!
Gardening at One Thousand Feet was first written for and published on Threaplands website in June 2018. And I am happy to report the Hosta is doing just fine. The shrubs too have survived their first winter and some are positively are thriving in parts. The Sambuccus didn’t do so well however. Nor did my second attempt at hydrangeas.