Situated in Angus, on the outskirts of Dundee, Julianne Robertson shares her garden with her husband, two daughters, six chickens, and a secret.
“When we first viewed our house more than six years ago, there was one key feature which won me over instantly – and it wasn’t inside the property. It was a section of the back garden, hidden behind a rickety wooden door, containing six huge raised beds and backing onto woodland. I knew as soon as I clapped eyes on that bonus bit of garden – it wasn’t even mentioned in the property schedule! – that I would have my own little sanctuary, a place to grow whatever I wanted, my own little corner of earth. And that’s exactly what it has become.
“The Secret Garden, as I now call it, is my happy place and where I grow fruit, vegetables, and cut flowers. Although it was a ready-made back garden allotment, it was not without its challenges, principally weeds and soil condition. My parents were drafted in straight away to help me clear the whole site of herb-robert, Geranium robertianum, which was knee-high in places. There’s a gravel base so this little geranium grows happily in there, still popping up all year round, although I’m more tolerant of it these days. Once we removed the covers from each bed it soon became clear that the soil was in need of some TLC.
“For the first couple of years I had mixed results, with some crops (carrots, parsnips, annual flowers) appearing weedy and frail and others thriving (including peas, beans and dahlias). I’m a no-digger, so every year I spread on a thick layer of homemade compost, usually with some horse or chicken manure mixed in, to try and restore the quality of the soil and improve my harvests. I also add organic fertilisers during the growing season to make sure the plants have plenty of access to nutrients.
“A couple of years ago I also added a very special feature to the Secret Garden – my greenhouse. There was a space right at the top of the plot and although it’s underneath a big, overhanging sycamore tree, it’s in a really sunny spot, and I’ve installed water butts to reduce the amount of trekking back and forth to the outside water tap on the house. This is where I sow seeds, pot them on, take cuttings, and overwinter my tender plants.
“Once I was bitten by the gardening bug I knew I wanted to grow tomatoes and dahlias, some of my earliest memories are of the scent of tomatoes growing in my grandparents’ greenhouse and my mum grows them every year too, so I felt it was important to carry on the tradition! Each year in my greenhouse I raise around half a dozen tomato plants of different varieties and I love the process of coaxing them to life, protecting them from the often chilly Scottish spring, and then tying them into their cordons and waiting for the delicious fruit.
“I’ve also become addicted to dahlias in the past few years – another family favourite – and so the greenhouse is where I nurture them until the threat of frost has passed and they can be planted out in the borders or in one of the raised beds which I’ve dedicated entirely to growing these brilliant blooms. I think I must enjoy a challenge, as neither dahlias nor tomatoes are the easiest plants to grow, but they are so rewarding that I don’t mind!
“Although the Secret Garden is arguably the most productive part of my garden, the house is centred on a fairly large plot which more or less wraps around it. When we moved in the garden was mostly filled with shrubs – mature rhododendrons, pieris, and conifers, some spring bulbs, but with few perennials – it was a classic mature, acid-loving Scottish garden. As nice as it was to have an established garden, I soon realised I wanted more colour and variety, so I began the process of selectively removing some of the shrubs to make way for more perennials and annuals.
“Now the front garden has a thriving, mixed border full of roses, salvias, geums, echinacea, alliums, and several varieties of geranium, pulled together by various grasses and featuring my favourite dahlias during the summer and early autumn. It’s alive with bees and hoverflies from spring to autumn as I make sure to include plenty of pollinator-friendly plants. It’s not complete by any means, but every year I extend the border a little bit further along the boundary walls, filling in gaps, adding more varieties and extending its season of interest.
“Around the back I’ve also made some dramatic changes – in the past year alone I’ve stripped out woody conifers, overgrown rhododendrons and cut back a clematis which was threatening to engulf an entire border. There’s a patch by the back door which I’ve filled with shade-tolerant woodland plants, ferns, dark-leaved geraniums, and in the centre a Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ whose huge white flowers pop out among peachy foxgloves and glossy, green ivy.
“One of the best additions to the back garden has been to build a large chicken coop for our six hens, who bring life, entertainment (and quite a lot of rich manure!) to our garden. We cleared a seriously overgrown patch along the back border next to this and now they have a fenced off area attached to the main run. It’s made the garden look much bigger because the dense vegetation is gone, and most importantly, it improves the function of the whole garden – the hens have their own space and we have much more control over how and when they free-range, which means cleaner grass and less damage to any young plants in the early spring from nosy beaks or scratching feet!
“I love that the back garden is a little bit more wild and looser in style than the front – I leave the grass a bit longer for the bees, there’s a little pond in a tin bath and the bird feeders are regularly stocked, so we have constant visitors such as goldfinches, long-tailed tits, wrens, and great spotted woodpeckers.
“We are lucky to live right next to the park – the trees just over the wall are a great borrowed view and it means we’re visited habitually by a wide variety of wild birds, plus we often see bats flying overhead and red squirrels like to scamper along the branches and raid the nut feeder. Even though we’re close to a road and just a few miles from the city it feels like a rural spot, and we’re surrounded by nature.
“Although I say the Secret Garden is my happy place, in truth the whole garden is. It’s where I feel restored and calm; I pause to enjoy birdsong, fresh air and sunlight. I can have a cup of tea on the bench while watching the chickens busy about in their run or enjoy a glass of wine on a warm evening watching the swallows flying around the fields out front. It’s almost a cliche to say it’s a blessing – but it really is. The garden has been my sanctuary since we moved in, and I enjoy it afresh every year. As soon as those bulbs nudge their way above the soil and a new growing season begins I want to be out there as much as I possibly can – it calls me!
“My advice for other Scottish gardeners is to play the long game, especially if you have quite a large space or a renovation project like an ‘inherited’ garden. Make a start, create the bones of the garden, and then enjoy adding new layers each year, moving plants around, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. I do sometimes buy bigger plants for instant effect, or if it’s something tricky to grow, but I really enjoy the process of growing from seed – and the money I can save by growing my own. I also love to pick up bargains at plant sales and shows, and often swap plants with friends or family. The fact is, it’s usually not realistic – or cheap – to have an instant garden, but the process of creating it over time is so enjoyable, why would you even want to?”
You can keep up with Julianne’s garden on Instagram at @mycornerofearth.