Michele Buss and her husband moved halfway up a mountain to a quiet area of Sutherland with wonderful views up the Strath in October 2016 from Alves, near Elgin.
The garden is mainly a cottage garden that wraps around an 1800’s original cottage, used by the Lord that used to reside at Balnagown Castle as his summer retreat. The cottage and the garden called to both of them but sadly a year later, Michele’s husband died from cancer.
What was the garden like when you moved in?
“During that year, my husband really made his mark on the garden when he felt he had enough energy to do so. He constructed the huge cottage garden bed that lays under our dry stone wall, a raised bed behind it, erected the lean-to greenhouse, and made a huge 8 foot high obelisk from copper pipe.”
“The garden was just grass when we moved in, with out of control conifers. These were all felled, so a newly planted hedge of hawthorn was planted adjoining the inherited beech hedge, and I have germinated Rosa rugosa for other boundaries.”
“The rough stone paving was constructed by my husband too, so he leaves reminders across the garden. I planted a seed-grown laburnum in his memory which sits neatly tucked in between the two beech hedges.”
“After my husband died, the garden was put on hold for a while until I had a deck built in my husband’s memory, as it was one of the things he wanted to do, and more beds have evolved from that.”
“The deck is roofed so it is a lovely place to sit and take in the garden, but it does get hot under there too. It’s also nice to sit out there whilst it is raining, or in the evening with a glass of wine.”
Take us on a walk around your garden…
“The front garden faces mostly south on a slope, but it is not deep. The pine forest behind us is being cut down slowly, and light is now flooding in. The whole plot is 1/4 acre, so not large, but I have packed the front south facing side with plants.”
“The rear of the cottage garden houses the chickens, a soon to be built polytunnel, the lean-to greenhouse, and a mini woodland plus a huge bed of hemerocallis.”
“The soil is dark but sandy, and very fertile. I make leaf compost from the leaves of the majestic Aspen that are dotted around the garden: 6 giant massives, and one lost due to wind damage, but not wasted as clematis are being trained to grow up the massive trunk. They bring in all types of birds, despite us now having five outside cats. Luckily they tend to go for mice and voles but it is upsetting to find the odd bird, so I try not to feed the birds for that reason, although the robin thinks I should!”
“I did a composting course which was great fun, and there are so many things you can compost. Activators are fun too, especially as one is urine! I am very pro-active on composting and compost as much as I can of anything organic. Compost is used on the borders, but not every border every year due to the size of some and the fact that I can’t make enough compost to fill every single one!”
“We recycle as much as we can, using articles in the garden where appropriate for building or finishing, such as the obelisk my husband made from old copper pipes we found under the floor of our previous property.”
“There were plenty of rocks to make raised beds with, I think I have added a total of five beds, and one is ‘cooking’! This is a raised bed made from weeds and other rubbish. Eventually this will break down, make a fine tilth, and I will be able to plant it up. Just now it is covered in black ground fabric and potted plants sit on top to keep the fabric from blowing off.”
“Alongside the north side of the cottage is the early flowering bed, with corydalis and dicentra amongst others. I have plans to dig all the way along the base of the cottage wall and fill it with hosta and Alchemilla mollis.”
“This year, my new partner has made an arbour to sit in the centre of a new grass bed I have been developing over the last eight months. This evolved as an idea when I was sitting on the deck, looking at the garden and deciding that it needed a feature bed with some kind of structure to pull the garden upwards.”
“We have some New Zealand Toe Toe grass, Cortaderia richardii, in there along with calamagrostis and stipa. I have allowed half a dozen Echinacea purpurea to creep in for colour but I usually lose these, so am delighted to discover that they all seem to have survived!”
What challenges have you come up against and what solutions have you found?
“The garden gets wind, being halfway up a mountain, so although a wind screen is starting to grow, there are occasionally losses due to desication. In its favour though, the wind does deter the midges!”
“I started with a small alpine bed under the window, which has blossomed well. It was a funny little slope, so I levelled it off, and my main problem here is a mole who seems to come back every year. This area faces west where the majority of our wind comes from, so I am trying to get a mixed hedge to grow in this flowerbed to slow the wind down.”
“The hottest part of the garden is next to the porch and faces south. I took the decision last autumn to dig this out and turn it into an iris bed. Prevailing wind is stopped by the porch, and the bed is warm and sunny, so iris flowers can grow without being ripped to pieces.”
“Some of the borders are quite challenging. The one under the queen Aspen tree is particularly dry and riddled with roots, so I have used home-raised plug plants to get them into the gaps between. Hesperis matronalis and Silene species have worked well this way.”
Which plants do you think grow particularly well in a Scottish garden?
“In the winter of 2020/21, temperatures plummeted to minus 20C and stayed at least at minus 17C for over a week. Plant losses included both of my umbrella bamboos, Fargesia murielae, the eucalyptus tree, and all the buddleia.”
“I’m choosing perennial plants carefully now, as I don’t have enough space to be as plant greedy as I have been in the past. I want a perennial that works hard, flowers for a long time, and gives good, valuable growth every year.”
“Shrubs have to earn their keep too, and I choose carefully either for foliage colour, such as the dark leaves of Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’, with small pink flowers that last for quite a long time, and Physocarpus ribesifolius ‘Aureus’, that has white flowers over yellow foliage.”
“I used to sow over 300 pots of seed a year. I have whittled it down to about 30 this year, mainly perennials that are cheap to grow from seed. A lot of perennials that hail from places such as the Himalayas, Andes, Chile, Turkey, and North America seem to be hardy in my garden. Soil pH is around 6.5, and our UK plant hardiness zone is classed as 8b. Plants grow well here and survive if they are tough, hardy, and grown hard as seedlings. Seed grown plants are always better in the garden as they acclimatise at such a young age.”
“Hemerocallis grows well here at Oape, as I am very fond of them as a genus, and they feature heavily in the densely planted borders which cuts down on weeding. At one point, I had over 300 different named varieties. A member of the British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society once told me I possibly had the largest private collection in North Scotland!”
What are your plans for the future of the garden?
“I have extended the bed opposite the greenhouse and am hoping to get some veg growing this year. Vegetable growing has always been hit or miss on my part, I have never had the coordination other folk do to make the most of the spaces between crops. So armed with a book about planting by the moon and a good vegetable growing book, I am tempting fate by giving it a go.”
“Erecting the polytunnel is also a priority this year for growing vegetables undercover. It’s going to be an interesting year.”
“We open the garden here at Oape in June and July by arrangement under Scotland’s Garden Scheme and this will be our second year.”
“I used to run a plant nursery many years ago, and I still have flat areas for plants to sit until they are planted. My aim is to have nothing in these nursery areas at all within the next few years, except a trolley of plants for sale for garden visitors. My trouble will be keeping to this as I love propagation. I took an RHS Propagation Course, as well as the RHS General Exam in Horticulture.”