In the warmth of the Gulf Stream a plantsman’s garden on a Scottish loch takes inspiration from South Africa
By the banks of a Scottish loch, warmed by the Gulf Stream, two talented gardeners have created a fabulous garden that takes its inspiration from southern flora
The austere landscape of the northwest Scottish Highlands, and the gentle but insistent rain, give no hint of the shining jewel of a garden that I am about to discover in the hamlet of Durnamuck, in Wester Ross. But as I descend an isolated track that winds around occasional crofts towards Little Loch Broom, I glimpse, sparkling in the distance, the dazzling garden that Will Soos and Sue Pomeroy have created on the loch shore.
The couple met while they both working nearby at the National Trust for Scotland’s Inverewe Garden, where Will was responsible for the spectacular walled garden and Sue focused on plant propagation. Like Durnamuck, Inverewe is caressed by the Gulf Stream, allowing plants unseen in colder parts of Britain to flourish. Inverewe’s plant collections, together with extensive travels in Chile and South Africa, nurtured the couple’s interest in plants from the southern hemisphere.
When Will and Sue bought the croft to make a home they were confident that the mild climate would be perfect for the plants that they wanted to grow. They built the house themselves in 2009, often working on site in the early morning and late evening, time sandwiched between long, hard days in their gardening jobs. The garden began with a deer fence – a must in the Highlands – followed by the construction of a series of narrow, stone-edged ditches to drain excess water down to the sea.
As well as dealing with the high rainfall of the area, Will and Sue knew that they would need to protect their collection of plants from strong winds. On the windward side of the garden they planted a line of willow and beside that a hedge of mixed native species. For the leeward side they chose a row of evergreen Olearia species. A favourite of Sue’s, these are a group of shrubs from New Zealand that enjoy the mild and wet climate, growing quickly to provide shelter and giving the garden a sense of maturity. They have now been pruned to echo the line of the distant mountains.
At the front of the house I am welcomed by narrow, raised, stone beds crammed with plants from New Zealand
INSPIRATION CAME FROM TRAVELS IN CHILE AND SOUTH AFRICA AS WELL AS COLLECTIONS AT NEARBY INVEREWE BOTANICAL GARDEN
and South Africa. Fat glossy leaves of the Chatham Island forget-me-not, Myosotidium hortensia, neighbour the delicate silver spears of Celmisia semicordata. Tumbling among the stones is the silver foliage of Rhodanthemum hosmariense, the last of its daisy-like flowers a testament to the wonderful sight it would have made earlier in the year. My progress through the garden is slow, because every plant captures my interest, and every plant looks healthy and happy. Although the place is crammed with unusual plants, it doesn’t have the dry and serious atmosphere often found in plant enthusiasts’ gardens.
I turn the corner at the side of the house and what a view. Dazzlingly bright flowers – cultivars of Agapanthus, Crocosmia, Watsonia, Rudbeckia and Sanguisorba – tumble down towards a sober native meadow and the loch, echoing the contours of the mountains that sweep steeply down to the sea.
There was no design on paper. The garden grew from talking about what was needed, how to deal with the rain and the wind, and how to find space for all the plants Will and Sue had collected. When laying out the garden the surrounding landscape was always the focus, and the plants always lead the eye towards the view.
To the front of the house are two curved beds, filled with plants, that enclose a lawn. The planted areas are raised above soil level by low walls created with rocks dug from their land
THE PLACE IS CRAMMED WITH UNUSUAL PLANTS, BUT DOESN’T HAVE THE DRY AND SERIOUS ATMOSPHERE OF MANY ENTHUSIASTS’ GARDENS
and filled with soil mixed with gravel and grit. This helps with drainage and also keeps the soil fertility low. Rich soil would encourage soft, sappy growth and the plants would not be able to stand up to the wind. In many parts of the garden the soil is mulched with sharp sand, which helps keep down weeds, improves drainage and also serves to unify the garden visually.
Grasses are used throughout the borders. Miscanthus, Panicum and Stipa have been chosen for their ability to move in the wind without being beaten down by it. Among the grasses are large clumps of grass-like restios, native to South Africa’s Cape Province and KwaZulu-Natal, looking relaxed and at home here in the Scottish Highlands, surely the most northerly place they are grown. Another spectacular South African native, Dierama, sparkle around the restios. Known as angel’s fishing rods, their tall, narrow stems arch over under the weight of the flowers. At Durnamuck they are taller than I have ever seen, the result both of the climate and the selections Will has made of plants grown from wild-collected seed. The Drakensberg region where they grow is snow covered in winter and has a high rainfall in summer, conditions similar to Durnamuck.
My favourite part of the garden is a high mound covered with flaming red and orange Crocosmia. I love it even more when Sue points out stone steps, hidden among the plants, that lead to the top of the mound and a low stone bench around a steel fire pit. It is also a belvedere from which you can see the layout of the garden and admire views across the cultivated area to the meadow beyond and then down to the sea. It is a sight you could never tire of.
THE SURROUNDING LANDSCAPE WAS ALWAYS THE FOCUS FOR THE GARDEN, AND THE PLANTS ALWAYS LEAD THE EYE TO THE VIEW
USEFUL INFORMATION Address 2 Durnamuck, Little Loch Broom, Wester Ross, Scotland IV23 2QZ. Tel 01854 633761. Website scotlandsgardens.org Open The garden is occasionally open under Scotland’s open garden scheme. See website above for details.
Right On the loch side of the garden evergreen Olearia shrubs have been planted at the perimeter of the garden to screen the deer fence. So that the shrubs do not obscure the view they are clipped low, their rounded hummocks echoing the distant hills. Because of the high rainfall and mild weather, growth is lush and plants that are often slow to spread, such as Hylotelephium spectabile and the agapanthus on the left, soon form large colonies.
Clockwise from top left The muted shades of grasses and restios echo the tones of the nearby hills. Grasses are prized for their ability to dance in the wind without being battered down. In the background are the fronds of Chionochloa conspicua while in the centre its cousin, Chionochloa rubra, is surrounded by a bright-yellow crocosmia. Layers of planting on sloping ground hide the garage and tool shed from the garden. The white blades of Phalaris arundinacea var. picta ‘Feesey’ muscle their way in front of Salix lanata. Tall eupatoriums, sangisorbas and rudbeckias form the background and Chelone obliqua creeps along the front. In some gardens Eupatorium maculatum ‘Purple Bush’ is thought to be too big and too thuggish but here it is allowed to spread so that its deep-purple flowers can help to create a screen and its foliage a background to shorter plants. The golden flowers of Crocosmia Walberton Yellow (= ‘Walcroy’) shine out at the front of this border. The house was built by Will and Sue on the highest point of their land so that the views from the large windows are out over the garden as well as out towards the stunning landscape. The planting around the house is in raised beds that closely skirt the building.
Right The fresh white bells of the summer hyacinth bulb, Galtonia candicans have been planted among the glowing red flowers of Crocosmia ‘Hellfire’ and the adjacent Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora ‘ Coleton Fishacre’, a cultivar that has formed large clumps in the garden. As a contrast to the soft mounds of colourful flowers, this bed is punctuated by the upright, sombre stems of restios. This is one of the most northerly gardens where restios are grown.