Hidden behind a hedge, 270 feet up a windy hillside in Moray, Mandeigh Wells has created a pollinator’s paradise in a tiny garden which is just 72 foot from the back gate to the front hedge. This is a place where species of cultivars mingle with wild plants such as ground elder to create a rich feast for the eyes and the senses. This small cottage garden contains a sunny courtyard, a Japanese area leading into a tiny woodland garden and onto a mixed herbaceous border immersed in nectar-rich plants and bright colours.
“When the rep for Scotland’s Garden Scheme first visited to see about opening my garden, I told her I had no weeds. I know she was a bit sceptical when she spotted the ground elder that forms the backdrop under the front hedge, and sow thistles popping up in various places. While I may ‘weed out’ plants at times, if an area is getting crowed, I’m happy to leave many wild or native plants in situ until I want to use the space for one of the cultivars. The words of AA Milne who said, ‘Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them’, always stay with me.”
Mandeigh gardens for wildlife, particularly for pollinators and invertebrates but she counts herself as lucky to have a long eared bat hang out in the shed and a common lizard in the courtyard. With two ponds, the fish pond and the wildlife pond, toads, newts, frogs and dragonflies are all well supported.
This tiny garden wraps around the house on three sides and the journey created round the space makes it feel bigger. The shape of the garden has been quite influential in the planning and design and enabled Mandeigh to have a series of rooms.
“I remember watching a gardening programme,” Mandeigh tells us, “and Monty Don had advised the couple to ‘edit expectations’ as their garden wasn’t big enough to do everything they wanted. I’m the opposite, I want to do everything and work out a way of getting there. I’m forever looking at ways to increase planting opportunities.”
With a bank of tall oak and beech trees along the west side, in the height of summer, in early afternoon, part of the garden is in deep shade while the front garden and courtyard basks in hot sun. It has given Mandeigh the challenge and opportunity of planting a greater range of plants and helped in creating the different areas.
Tell us what the garden was like when you first moved in.
“When I first moved into the cottage five years ago, I was so excited to have my own garden especially with a pond and I thought the garden was huge, ironically now I would love another few acres! There were two 15 foot high conifers dominating the front garden and the rest was mostly a combination of grass and a weedy area where an old mobile home had sat. Round the back there was a tattie bed constructed from sleepers.
“There was a lot to do and I initially attempted to design it on paper, with no design experience and no gardening experience, but it just didn’t work. In late winter 2016 I stood in the garden and tried to imagine what I wanted it to look like. I knew that along the fence line I wanted to have a deep border with tall plants and a real cottage effect. There was already a small pond and as I started to clean it out I discovered it was a fantastic habitat with newts and dragonfly nymphs already established which scuppered my plans to keep goldfish until I constructed another pond.
“Although the garden was pretty much created from scratch, I was fortunate to inherit a fantastic, huge Ceonothus at the back gate which becomes a tsunami of blue in late spring and a well-established Camelia.
“The garden has evolved, bit by bit: small flower beds became big flower beds and now the grass has been reduced to just paths between the beds.
“Every now and then I uncover a bit of the garden’s past, like when I found a bit of brick path that I had been mowing over for two years and bulbs that I definitely didn’t plant that appear in unusual places. I also found a young oak growing under the conifer near the gate and it is now 6 foot tall and trimmed to size each year.”
What have been the greatest challenges in the garden?
“One of the greatest challenges gardening 270 feet up is the south-westerly wind that blows across the hillside. A gentle breeze at the bottom of the hill is gale force up here. To help combat this pretty much everything is staked early on and I’ve let the hedge on the west side get up to 6 foot plus. Even in summer the wind can be very drying which means lots of watering of pots.
“I would love to make use of the borrowed landscape, especially with fantastic views across the Moray Firth, but that would mean lowering the hedges. It’s interesting so see how the wind affects different parts of the garden, even in just a couple of feet around the garden, there can be a big difference.
“The main garden pests are snails, huge snails! I frequently relocate them to woodland behind the cottage but otherwise I rely on nature to create a balanced ecosystem. Last year I discovered a pile of snail shells under a pallet and found out that they are predated on by ground beetles who leave the shells in a neat little pile.
“With illness comes reduced income I’ve created the garden on a shoestring budge, making good use of Freecycle and been very fortunate to have generous friends who have given cuttings, two greenhouses and everyone now gives me garden centre vouchers for Christmas and birthdays so I can treat myself to a plant or two.”
What grows well in your garden?
“I think it’s more by luck than judgement that most things grow well in this garden. I do seem to spend quite a bit of time moving plants about – even tulips in flower. I’m learning that while the effect of having plants packed cheek by jowl might look good, many plants really take offence at being crowded and I have lost a few this way.
“I don’t use much in the way of fertiliser other than a handful of fish blood and bone and despite being a fairly light soil the plants seem to thrive. This year, I had to water the whole garden early on but usually the garden pretty much looks after itself.”
What gives you most pleasure in the garden?
“My garden really is a place of wellbeing and learning. When I started it, I was going through a fairly significant health crisis and developing the garden became my therapy so I started blogging about my garden journey.
“While I love the absolute abundance of the garden in high summer, my favourite time of year is definitely spring: that moment when the new leaves on the trees unfurl and the landscape changes from austere to voluptuous. The warming days and the first colour appearing in the garden is what I live for. I love to sit by the fish pond on a warm spring morning while in the height of summer I am grateful for the shady spots.
“As the garden has been developing over the last couple of year and gradually filling out, I never quite know what to expect or how it is actually going to look. Last year I grew Monarda didyma from seed and it produced one stem with a single flower head and yet this year, it is two foot wide and three foot high with many flower heads. It filled the space, much quicker than I expected.
“I have so many favourite plants! I’m completely in love with Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’, and the Candelabra primula ‘Pulverulenta’ by the fish pond. The Corydalis elata flowered this year and I was just in awe of the delicate ice blue flowers.”
What are your future plans for the garden?
“The courtyard is undergoing a bit of a rejig for next year. Inspired by how well the Fatsia japonica has done in the Japanese Garden, I’m attempting to turn it tropical. So already I have a Tetrapanax papyriferer that has put on good growth with two banana plants – Musa sikkimenis from Asia and Ensette ventricosum from Africa. While some of these plants will need some cossetting over winter it will be interesting to see what is truly hardy in this climate and what isn’t.”
Any top tips for other Scottish gardeners?
“There are just two tips I would give to Scottish gardeners: the first is experiment and push the boundaries of what is possible. Gardens are personal, put in what you like, choose the colours that you love. The second is in the grand scheme of things just relax, you can tweak the garden but you are never really in control and I think 2020 has illustrated that perfectly!”
More information on the development of the garden can be found on Mandeigh’s blog and you can keep up with her keen photography in the garden on her Instagram feed.