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How one historic garden grows

Over the centuries, the garden at Crathes Castle has changed dramatically. Today it looks toward the past and the future.

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2002


Gardens never stand still. Even young ones develop and alter from year to year. Plant growth and weather alone see to that, whatever a gardener might contribute.

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But when a garden has evolved for centuries, it is bound to have undergone continual modification or even radical reinvention. New design fashions, the taste of different owners, access to plants, wealth (or the lack of it), are all factors that may contribute to the reshaping of very old gardens.

No wonder Callum Pirnie, head gardener at Crathes near Aberdeen, has history on his mind. He stands on the upper terrace surveying part of the three-century-old garden he manages.

To take in a comprehensive view of this compartmented garden, you must climb the spiral stairs in the 16th-century castle standing tall behind this terrace. Then, through a small high window you look out over an almost bewildering mix of the formal and the informal.

Crathes is an opulent tapestry of flowering shrubs and perennial plants rubbing shoulders. Lawns, old stone walls, yew hedges, and monumental topiaries are dominant features.

"There have been eight periods of development here," Mr. Pirnie says. "Layer upon layer."

In 1951, after 350 years of being owned by the same family, the castle, garden, and almost 600 acres of estate were made over by Sir James Burnett to the National Trust for Scotland.

Today, Crathes is a visitor attraction. But, more important, it represents "heritage." That label, not too difficult to pin onto a building, is trickier to attach to a garden. A living garden can't be treated as a museum artifact, frozen in time.

But how do you respect and conserve what remains of a garden's many layers of history? "It can never be the same as it was," Pirnie says.

He sees his task as restoring the garden "back to the essence" of what it was. He feels that in the 1980s "it lost direction a little bit" by losing touch somewhat with its past. But finding the "essence" is complex because "there isn't just one period to go back to." Three years ago an archeological survey showed the garden's development was less simple than previously realized.

When the trust took it over, the garden was seen as basically reflecting the interests of Sir James and his wife, Sybil. They had made it their own since 1926.

He collected trees and shrubs. She was a perennial plants enthusiast. Many of the trees and shrubs that Sir James added to his garden were from friends' plant-hunting expeditions. Shrubs from China, Chile, and Japan still flourish here, and they are increasingly seen as a valuable "genetic pool."

They have "a very, very good provenance," Pirnie says. "That's a big issue now in horticulture." So a major concern at Crathes today is conservation and propagation of rare plant material.

Lady Sybil was a hands-on designer. In some ways she shared a sense of natural style with still much-admired designer Gertrude Jekyll, but her intuitive sense of brightly contrasting color juxtapositions was surprisingly different from Jekyll's. Garden enthusiasts visiting Crathes get fresh ideas round every corner.