Situated on the edge of a village in the Scottish Borders, less than a mile from England, Rachel Meehan takes inspiration from her garden in her artwork.
“As an artist I use the plants that I grow in the garden as the basis for most of my work. I am not a botanical illustrator, but plants and birds feature in my designs and I love to go out in the morning and cast around for plants which catch my interest. I moved to this creative business on a full time basis earlier this year and we are currently building a studio space in the garden so that I will be surrounded by the colours and beauty of the plants while I work.
“My interest is in the individual plants, the detail of their foliage, the petals, the insects they attract, and the wonders of watching them burst from the soil in spring through to their decline in late summer.
“I think this cycle is one of the reasons I particularly like perennials, even if their displays are short, I know they will return bigger, and hopefully better, the following year. My favourite plant to draw, so far, has definitely been the New Zealand Flax which, after 10 years of growing, now flowers prolifically every year. It is a beast of a plant but the colours in the foliage and flowers are inspiring.
“Our house sits on the north east corner of the half acre plot which is bound by a main road to the south, neighbour’s house to the east and the grounds of the local manor house to the north and west.
“When my husband and I first saw the house and garden over 20 years ago, it was in the depths of winter. It was empty and bleak, but one look at the size of the plot made us keen to buy. At that time it consisted of some conifers planted in a bed behind the house, a Wendy house, a run down shed, dilapidated aluminium greenhouses, some old apple trees dotted around the plot and rough grass. The garden level was a foot higher than the house so lots of clearing and excavating was required.
“The site is exposed and very windy, so we have tried to overcome these problems by dividing the space into separate areas using hedges, trees, and trellis with climbers which help to provide a wind break. This also enables us to experiment with a range of styles within the different zones.
“The vegetable plot has its own fencing to keep out the ever constant threat of rabbits.
“The plot faces directly south but some shade is provided by a number of ancient deciduous trees set into the extensive garden grounds behind us. This means the sun and shade changes across the space, hour by hour.
“Until 2021 the surrounding area was covered in nettles, rosebay willow herb, and ground elder which would creep under the fences and spread their wind blown seeds. We tried to overcome this annual invasion by mulching any unplanted areas using our home-made compost and leafmould. We are though, quite tolerant of a number of weeds always being present and try not to obsess about this or we may be in the running for hosting a national collection.
“As we are close to the River Tweed, with its centuries of alluvial deposits, the whole garden benefits from over half a metre of deep, rich top soil. Good quality soil is every gardener’s dream, but be careful what you wish for: the speed at which some plants have spread and self-seeded within our garden has been phenomenal!
“Behind the house we have a formal pond and lawn with three 1.5 metre wide perennial borders. Around the pond we have giant gunnera. We bought the original plant at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh in a 3 inch pot and now have 4 giant clumps with leaves over a metre in size.
“Our longest perennial border is double-sided with a narrow a path down the centre. It makes you get up close to the plants although it can be a bit impassable in the height of the season, dotted with clumps of giant inulas and angelica alongside tall grasses, crocomsia, and day lilies. I have tried to grade the colours from hot reds, oranges, and yellows at one end through to the purples and whites of phlox and delphiniums at the other – although some plants seem to migrate.
“To the left of this is a small summer house with formal box parterre. The giant flax is at one end with apple trees and borders to the right containing echinacea and Iris siberica which I have drawn many times. The iris is short lived but so splendid, and the echinacea help to bring in that late summer colour and look good, even when the blooms are fading.
“At the furthest point from the house, running north to south is a long narrow space with balls of box, which need some serious cutting back. These sit on a small curved hill which provides some shade to a small fernery. At the south end of this area there is a small wild pond, and to the north, a bog garden overshadowed by the neighbouring trees.
“At the rear is a shady area enclosed by two low, curved dry stone walls built using reclaimed stone. It contains several old apple trees and some new additions including a small Ginko biloba and a Paulownia tomentosa, grown from seed, which so far has survived the winters, but never flowered. The under planting consists of bluebells, snowdrops, ferns, hostas, hellebores, epimedium, and Fritillaria imperialis – which are fabulous to draw. In spring this is my favourite area as it is first to flower and the range of foliage and shades of green never cease to amaze me.
“My favourite plants tend to be the larger perennials such as Rodgersia pinnata and Ligularia przewalskii. Giant inulas, which look like unruly sunflowers and have leaves which grow half a metre in a season, provide some brilliant colour in July and August.
“Many of my favourite perennials came from my mum’s garden and this is one of the joys of gardening, to keep something growing and to pass on pieces to friends so they can also enjoy them. I love buying from the bargain areas at the garden centre, or at plant sales, or swapping with other gardeners, and do not mind waiting for those small plants to grow bigger. It is part of the reason for gardening.
“We share the garden with a great variety of wildlife. The ponds have encouraged a huge number of frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, and water beetles.
“They provide bathing and drinking water for a lot of the birds from bullfinches, nuthatches, blackbirds, crows, wood-pigeons, and pheasants, who invade the garden in the autumn to eat the windfall apples.
“We get large number and variety of bees, wasps, and hoverflies along with more than our fair share of ants. A few times a year we are privileged to see the resident stoat out hunting, or on one occasion courting!
“The garden is a constant work in progress and some days it looks great, on others it looks wild and unkempt. Whatever state it is in though, the garden is the inspiration for my work, it is the place I go to relax, and is a source of constant enjoyment and amazement.”
Grow Russian comfrey, (the seeds are sterile) and make your own plant food. Cut it in May or June and ideally put the leaves into an empty water butt – pack it in. Weigh it down with a bucket of stones, pop the lid on and wait.
Within a few weeks you will have strong brown liquid which you can extract using the water butt tap. Do not add water to the water butt – this makes the liquid smell. Add water to the concentrate liquid as you use it, just like you would with shop bought plant food. Use it for your flowers and vegetables.
At the end of the season pop any remaining liquid into plastic bottles and store. Empty the sludgy remains into your compost bin.