Steady winds, the proximity of open moorland and no garden to speak of presented the owners of this Scottish house with a blank canvas 25 years ago. Julia Watson discovers how they turned it into a haven of flowers and honeybees. Photographs by Andrea Jones.
Just a short drive up the hill from Garvald Grange, you meet open moorland. At 500ft, backing on to the Lammermuir Hills in southern Scotland, this can be an unforgiving spot, blasted by wind and at risk of snow in winter, but it’s here that Hugo and Caroline Straker have made a home and an abundant garden.
Garvald Grange lies near Haddington in East Lothian, 11 miles from the North Sea, and you can see clear across the rolling, open landscape to the dramatic form of the Bass Rock off the coast. When the Strakers bought the mid-19th-century sandstone farmhouse and 35 acres in 1991, there was little on the land except grazing for the Welsh Mountain ponies bred by the then owner. ‘There was a cherry tree, a walnut and a few big mature oaks, sycamores and elms, but everything else we’ve planted,’ says Caroline.
Initially, with three small daughters to look after, she found the exposed location a trial. ‘I would take the children out in the morning and they were almost blown away. I can remember saying to Hugo “That’s it. I’m going to stay here for 10 years, but, after that, we’re moving”. But, of course, you create a landscape, then you get accustomed to it and then you begin to like it.’
While Caroline tackled the garden around the house, it was Hugo, who works for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and is chairman of its annual Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace, who began the transformation of Garvald Grange’s wider landscape, with a programme of tree planting that continues to this day. Working initially with cell-grown plants and then bare-root whips, he planted a mixed shelter belt and boundary strips and began clothing the area around the big pond at the front of the house and a smaller pond he dug with an old Massey Ferguson tractor at the back.
Further stretches of woodland and a Millennium Hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn have followed and the drive is lined with alternating small-leaved limes and purple acers.
‘He’s planted thousands of trees,’ Caroline says, ‘and it’s now a haven for wildlife, because with trees come every other single thing from roe deer to badgers. We have wildlife everywhere.’
Over the years, Hugo’s basic planting palette has consisted of numerous species of sorbus, oaks, beeches, Scots pines and other firs, field maples, hollies, laurels and silver birches, plus an understorey of box, spindle and snowberry.
Within the shelter created, the Strakers have been able to plant individual specimens, such as the trio of Eucalyptus gunnii that now stands elegantly by the pond, an umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) grown from seed they brought back from Portugal, a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) that was a gift from a local friend and a maple from Uzbekistan brought home by Caroline’s mother.
Caroline was new to gardening when they came to Garvald Grange, but she took to it with enthusiasm and the walled garden by the house is testament to her skill. Within the red-sandstone walls, she grows mixed borders of shrubs and perennials, flowers for picking and vegetables for the table.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, she says she’s ‘quite a lazy gardener’, by which she means that she happily accepts what will and won’t grow in their conditions and adjusts accordingly. Salvias, for instance, can be a problem, but other plants, including more unusual ones – such as the creamy border clover Trifolium ochroleucon, a tiny alpine alchemilla and a pink Phuopsis stylosa her mother gave her – turn out to be surprise stars and get spread around. ‘For my last NGS opening, which caused quite a lot of amusement, I had two boxes: one of labels of plants that are still alive and another, slightly bigger one, of all the things that I thought looked absolutely gorgeous that have died.’
In the vegetable garden, Caroline grows old favourites that she knows will get eaten by the family: a well-rehearsed rota of broad beans, runner beans, Swiss chard, lettuce, courgettes and the like. It pleases her to be as self-sufficient as possible: ‘Hugo catches fish, so there’s always something in the deep freeze and he also shoots, so there’s always a partridge, grouse or bit of roe deer. We’re not too Good Life-y, but I’d much rather use stuff from my vegetable garden, as everybody would if they could – we’re very lucky.’
Hugo’s recent interest in beekeeping fits the self-sufficiency ethos. Caroline’s father gave him an old hive and other kit four years ago when he himself gave up keeping bees, then a veteran beekeeper from the local village handed over a nucleus of bees. The capture of his first wild swarm followed. He now has hives at the front of the house among orchard trees planted some 20 years ago and produces what he has dubbed ‘hill-fringe honey’ in recognition of Garvald Grange’s location, poised as it is between farmland and heather moorland.
‘There’s such a cocktail within which to forage,’ he says. ‘That’s what makes Scottish honey so widely sought after, even though, weatherwise, bees have got a greater challenge up here.’ The tastes of bees are a study in themselves. They go wild over the yellow flowers of oilseed rape when it flowers, Hugo notes with a hint of resignation: ‘There’s a lot of glucose in the nectar and it sets very hard. I have to spin it out as soon as the rape stops flowering as it sets so hard in the frames.’
Later in the summer, the bees zoom over to the monastery at nearby Nunraw Abbey, where there’s a lime avenue they love, and, in August, he takes the hives up to enjoy the heather for a few weeks. The Strakers have been bowled over by the bees’ reaction to the Eucalyptus gunnii by the big pond. They don’t care that it’s an Australian species; when the trees flower in autumn, their small, white blooms are smothered in bees and continue to be so until the end of October, as the bees feast in advance of winter.Bee forage has become a priority at Garvald Grange and, last year, Hugo put in strips of borage, Borago officinalis, and blue tansy, Phacelia tanacetifolia, to help fill the midsummer hunger gap. The fact that they create a beautiful blue haze by the pond and out along the field boundary is a bonus.
Caroline has also been investigating good nectar plants – she visited Floors Castle last autumn to study the borders and spot late perennials popular with honeybees and is adding species such as agastache and persicaria to the walled garden to help extend the season.
She’s also solved the mystery of why Garvald Grange’s bees appear to ignore white clover, even when it’s available in abundance in the traditional grass fields. A bee expert at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, where she works as a volunteer guide, revealed that clover is very rarely a good food source. ‘You always think bees and clover, but he said that it’s got to be exactly the right humidity and temperature for the clover’s nectar to be right and it almost never is.’
To add to the confusion, the Strakers have noticed that written advice about nectar plants often lumps honeybees in with bumble-bees, when, in fact, they like quite different things. Everything about beekeeping has turned out to be more intriguing and less straightforward than it first appeared – ’bees don’t read books,’ says Hugo.
Last year’s harvest of Hill Fringe Honey amounted to 150 jars. The Strakers use it instead of sugar, give jars to family and friends and reserve a few to sell at garden openings, but their honey venture isn’t so much about commercialism as it is about the continuing enrichment of the land at Garvald Grange.
Need to know
- Area: 35 acres
- Altitude: 500ft
- Soil: Sandstone loam, although the walled-garden soil has been enriched with compost and manure since the house was built in the 1850s
- Climate: Cold and windy: ‘When we get snow, it’s thick snow’
- Special challenges: ‘The wind and the height mean there are so many plants I can’t grow,’ says Caroline
Favourite forage for the ‘hill-fringe’ bees
- April: Helleborus orientalis, pussy willows, hazel
- May: Gean (wild cherry), hawthorn, gorse
- May/June: Sycamore, skimmia, oilseed rape, old elms, evergreen honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), wild raspberries, blossom of plum, apple, crab apple, holly, sorbus
- June/July: Phacelia tanacetifolia, borage, clover, hebe, raspberry
- August: Buddleja, lime trees, heather
- August/September: Herbaceous perennials and shrubs in the walled garden, hyssop
- October: Eucalyptus gunnii
The Scottish Beekeepers Association offers advice and can put you in touch with local associations (www.scottishbeekeepers.org.uk)
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