Gardening on the Edge

One of the things we can agree upon in Scotland is that we need tough, hardy plants able to survive harsh winds, clay soil, steep inclines and a shorter growing season.

Rona Dodds embraces all of our challenging Scottish growing conditions in her nursery on the side of a hill, 850 feet above sea level, with views to the Pentlands.

Quercus Garden Plants is an independent nursery which propagates, grows and sells plants, that are suited for Scottish gardens. 97% of the plants they sell are propagated on site in the nursery, so they are tough and strong from the outset, meaning their chances of survival are optimised.

Over the last six years, the nursery has developed a collection of gardens on site to inspire customers and show what can be grown in more challenging and exposed conditions, like cold, clay soil, wet soil or dry shade. The gardens include a wildlife garden, herb garden, scented garden, wildflower meadow, shade borders, stream garden, native plant borders and various mixed borders all around the nursery, planted up in different colour schemes and planting combinations, to show what is possible in different conditions. 

We asked Rona to tell us a little more about Quercus Garden Plants. 

How do you make your plants tough and hardy for the Scottish climate?
“Our plants are propagated from those growing in the nursery and gardens, so I know they are from healthy, strong stock. The few plants I do buy in are from other Scottish nurseries, thus reducing their carbon footprint and the risk of introducing pests and diseases to the nursery. This is vitally important, given how many devastating diseases are now on the move through Britain. Almost all our plants stay outside all year so they are very hardy which reduces loss and waste through weak plants. If they don’t do well after a couple of years, I don’t stock them.”

Raising plants organically is important to you. Tell us a little about the work you do in the nursery to undertake this.
“While we are not registered organic, we are situated on an organic farm and work as organically as we can. We are committed to encouraging wildlife and helping our insects, pollinators, bugs and beasties, so we have lots of areas within the nursery and gardens designed especially for them. The bankings between the terraces have been improved with many varieties of wildflowers, which provide food, shelter and interest all year round. 

On the middle terrace we have left one area as a wildlife meadow which has become a real haven for bugs and beasties, with over 40 species of wild flowers throughout the year.”

We use no chemicals in the nursery and because the surrounding farm has been organic for many years, the balance of pests and their predators is matched and we have few problems with pests or diseases. Our frogs, toads and newts keep on top of slugs and snails and the abundant bird population eat plenty of pests from the plants and soil.

Two big challenges for nurseries lie in reducing reliance on peat based composts and the use of plastic pots. What steps are you taking to address these issues for customers?
“One of the biggest problems nurseries face now is in the use of plastic. We are looking into using pots that can be recycled. For now we re-use our pots and trays over and over until they finally fall apart. While the problem still exists on how to get rid of them at the end of life, we know we’ve made full use of them. I will be trialing cardboard pots that customers can take their plants away in, leaving the plastic pots at the nursery for us to re-use. We will also be encouraging customers to return the pots they got from us so we can again re-use them. 

We are using biodegradable carrier bags, again not perfect, but we are always looking for better ways to help our environment as products are developed.

We continually seek to improve and reduce our impact on the environment. Last year we moved to using and selling peat free compost. This is a big investment for the business as peat free compost is still significantly more expensive than peat based compost, but I feel it is an important step to make. The plants are certainly doing well in it and it is lovely to work with.”

What projects and plans are being developed at Quercus Garden Plants?
”In 2021 we plan to create a winter garden and a topiary garden, which follow on from each other on the bottom terrace and will finally complete this terrace of the gardens. The winter garden will be planted with trees and shrubs that have good stem and bark interest in winter and then underplanted with early bulbs, such as aconites and snowdrops. Perennials will include bergenia, pulmonaria, hellebores and evergreen grasses and ferns. The topiary garden will be quite simple, with box hedging, box shapes, Ilex crenata and conifers, gradually trained over time to create interesting forms. 

We have also taken over a piece of woodland which will eventually be planted up, with paths and bridges across the stream.” 

Is there a space in the nursery that is particularly special to you?
“In 2017 we built the scented garden and herb garden and it was here, in August that year that David and I were married. We were surrounded by friends and family, who loved the outdoor wedding, the setting and the quirkiness of it. It was a perfect day, made all the more special through creating it ourselves.

The scented garden winds its way up through vibrant plantings of scented shrubs, perennials, grasses and annuals. There is a seating area where you can enjoy the buzz of the bees and the heady scent of sweet peas when they are in flower. The herb garden is made up of small beds and gravel paths, leading you through culinary, medicinal and household herbs to a seating area at the end. 

We have a garden railway on the middle terrace. This 16mm narrow gauge railway runs twice a month on a Sunday afternoon, in the summer. The timetable is on the events page on our website. 

Another special spot is a dedicated silent space, where visitors are welcome  to sit and contemplate the view and peace of the gardens, from a bench in our orchard.”

What advice would you give to new gardeners or gardeners looking to redevelop the space in their garden?
“The style and use of plants is important. Use plants that have texture, that look good in large swathes, knitted together with grasses and shrubs to form a tapestry of colour and movement. Use plants that are colourful or have interesting foliage, flowers and seed heads through autumn and into winter, thus creating a garden that has interest all year.

If you have an exposed garden on difficult soil and need advice, we are the place to come for inspiration. Part of my 35 years in horticulture included 20 years of gardening and growing plants in exposed, windy conditions on clay soil – I called it gardening on the edge.”

Selling old favourites, unusual and tough herbaceous perennials, native plants, plants that encourage wildlife and insects and that have many uses in the home and kitchen, you can find Quercus Garden Plants open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm at Quercus Garden Plants, Whitmuir Farm, Lamancha, EH46 7BB. 

If you want to get in touch before you go, you can email quercusgardenplants@gmail.com or give them a call on 01968 660708.

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