Introduction to Abriachan

Today I started my work placement at Abriachan Garden Nursery. The intention is that I offer my labour and in return am able to benefit from some of the knowledge and wisdom and expertise that Donald and Margaret have developed through their many years of horticultural experience. Today I offered no labour at all, but I did learn a huge amount from Donald on a guided tour of the garden. Fantastic, amazing, mind-blowing – the plants, trees and shrubs that are there, and what he knows about them. He very kindly said that it was good for him to take a walk through the garden and see what was happening.Yellow blossom tree
It was a treat and a privilege. I learned an enormous amount today, far more than I could have imagined or dared hope. I felt like a bit of a sponge, in more than one way perhaps, but just trying to soak up and retain as much knowledge as I could. I took no notes at the time, that would have seemed rude and intrusive on the experience. Halfway through the morning I remembered I could take (not very good 🙁 ) photos with my mobile, to serve as a kind of record and hopefully jog my memory when I got back. Here’s what I remember now.Betula jacquemontii
The RHS site describes Abriachan as a ‘gem’ and that’s putting it mildly. The garden is terraced rising high above the lochside, it has a mild microclimate (today a very balmy warm wind was blowing gently over the loch) and spectacular views down and across Loch Ness. There’s a look-out hut at the top surrounded by bird feeders and seats at strategic places where you can drink in the view over the garden to the loch and hills beyond. The trees and bushes were still heavy with berries because the birds that would normally eat them (blackbirds, fieldfares, thrushes) are still in Scandinavia on account of it’s still warm enough for them to have postponed their journey to winter quarters. The garden is planted with native species and a huge variety of southern trees and shrubs (mainly from New Zealand, the Falklands and South America). The terraces and steps are built from stones dug from beds, supplemented by breeze blocks, concrete fence posts (laid on the ground) and a large length of iron railway track possibly salvaged from the defunct, never completed Inverness to Fort Augustus line.Like the shape
Things I learned about trees:
There are loads of different varieties of oak (Quercus), birch (Betula) and beech (Fagus). Examples at Abriachan include an evergreen oak (always in leaf to some extent) and a red oak (amazing broad red oak leaves), and an amazing birch with smooth white bark (Betula jaquemontii). There are two large oak trees that may be around 250 years old, but not much older on account of all the mature oak trees in the area being felled around 1800 to make ships for the Napoleonic wars.
There are many varieties of holly (Ilex).Red-leaved oak
There’s an apple tree wearing a large bunch of mistletoe, which just shouldn’t happen this far north. It hasn’t shown any berries yet, maybe it’s too young, or too male 🙁
Ash is the last tree to show leaves and the first to shed its leaves.
Beech creates a dark canopy so not much can be planted underneath. Birch lets in more light.
Poplars are lovely trees.
There’s a tree whose leaves smell of burnt sugar. One had fabulous deep russet bark that shimmered – Prunus serrula, described in the RHS Encyclopedia as mahogany red, silky sheen.
There were two lovely acers in full, contrasting autumn colour.
There’s a Ginkgo biloba (the family with one species) – I’m thinking that a wee nod to Goethe would not be out of place.
There are some magnificent southern flowering trees of a genus whose name I have forgotten but want to get to know better.Two acers
Things I Iearned about plants:
Biennials have a two-year life cycle, they flower and set seed in their second year, then die, but their seed germinates and plant develops the next year. Examples are evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and foxglove (Digitalis).
Annuals can be used judiciously to fill shrub beds and add colour.
Bamboos and grasses add structure. There are two kinds of bamboo at Abriachan, one is rather lovely and the other is threatening to take over more than its share.
You can only really take successful cuttings from a woody plant that is still young.
Self-seeding perennials tend to revert to type – for example a yellow aquilegia will set seed that will eventually revert to the natural purple (if the yellow plant dies people may think the original plant has changed colour but in fact it is the reverted plants from seed that are growing in its place).
Variegated varieties also tend to revert to type – you can stall this process by removing ‘true’ green shoots from the plant.
Gunnera needs boggy conditions. At Inverewe this year they have cut down the leaves and left them on the ground to protect the roots. Variegated Winke
Things I learned about running a garden business:
It’s important to do a recce and know the main plants that grow in an area. Check the trees, what grown well will give an indication of the soil type.
Use landscape fabric in prepared beds.
Buy bulk quantities of bark mulch to cover landscape fabric and maintain paths.
Some hard landscaping will be needed – paths, steps, walls, terraces. Use stones that are dug out of beds to make walls and terraces.
Fashions play an important role in garden planning and design. There are fashionable colours – what’s in this year. This has less to do with what gardening programmes are recommending than with cultural events and icons (apparently the Spice Girls did wonders for sales of pink flowers some years ago). The astute nursery manager is able to predict these trends. Sometimes the big garden centres have not planned stock to enable them to meet an unexpected demand – smaller nurseries that have fewer examples of more varied stock can take advantage.
All year round colour is possible. In the Highlands some people are only interested in high colour during the summer months – the rest of the time their holiday property is empty and they don’t care.Prunus serrula

One of the big lessons of today is that a garden is its own micro environment and a microcosm of the wider world. There’s a historical significance – St Columba’s font in the Abriachan garden is a Grade 2 listed historical monument. A huge slab of stone with a deep well bored into it which apparently never runs dry (the Davidsons’ dog has had a good try at this on more than one occasion though). Monks used to visit from the Fort Augustus Abbey to fill a bottle for their baptismal font. The location of the rock would have lent itself to a site for worship, in a relatively flat dip in the hillside where people could have gathered. There is a big gash through the middle of the rock where at some point in the not too distant past people tried to dig it out with pick axes.
There’s a geological significance – a deep reddish intrusion of a rock called Abriachan granite (the link is to a Harvard/NASA paper about using Abriachan granite for understanding lunar rocks as apparently the composition is similar). There’s a huge variety of fauna, including a red squirrel dray, pine martens, weasels, stoats, field mice, wood mice, various kinds of shrew and voles. St Columba's Font
Abriachan has all the requisite elements of a Japanese garden – trees including acers and Gingko biloba, running water and a still pond, paths, stones, even a tree-and-rock feature (mountain ash growing out of a stone), a shrine (St Columba’s font) and vistas of distant mountains. Contemplative, serene, magnificent, uplifting and life-affirming. Betula ??

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