Autumn has arrived, late again, but full of gusty energy and glowing with colour. Rowans flamed bravely but briefly, doused by that ferocious east wind. I just hope we get a chance to enjoy the red oak before the next storm blows in. We can depend on the beech trees, they will not lose their leaves until next spring and this year they seem brighter than ever – you can see their glow reflected in the pond and from quite a distance as you approach from the road.
This is where we came in. For us autumn is the anniversary of a beginning, not an end. Thirty Septembers ago Ray and I found our way to Pond Cottage, lured by an advertisement in The Scotsman. Only then there was no road.
We were here for the trees which was just as well. The cottage was derelict. A sturdy ash tree grew through a hole in the roof. The pond was silted up. And the old quarry was a neighbourhood dump.
But we heard water flowing over the sluice and sun was shining through autumn leaves. We were well and truly caught. We think no one else was foolish enough to bid for the property being sold by the Kinross Estate. So, with excitement and trepidation, we secured ten acres of swampy woodland and a ruined cottage without electricity, plumbing, or planning permission.
What got into us? I blame (and thank) the good friends who commissioned me to research and write the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh book of the Scottish Garden in 1989. That took us to magical places, and woodland gardens of Scotland’s wild parts cast their spell.
We had no magic wand to conjure up instant woodland glades full of beautiful flowering shrubs but we did find Jimmy, the legendary local JCB operator. With near-magician skills, Jimmy would become a friend, making our road, burying the dump, dredging the pond and producing hundreds of tons of silt which eventually turned into the Water Garden.
Meanwhile we faced the challenge of turning an acre of bare field into something akin to a garden. We planted an essential shelter belt for protection from destructive south westerly winds. Competing with hordes of hungry rabbits for the healthy survival of any seedlings or saplings, we learnt the value of flowering ‘weeds’ – there is beauty in drifts of wildflowers: red campion, yellow ragwort, purple thistles, and lacy white umbellifers buzzing with bees. Precious (and pricey) shrubs have to be protected but reseeding foxgloves and ferns have generously spread down the banks of the evolving Water Garden and this year produced their best display ever despite alternating heatwaves, droughts, and downpours.
Rewilding was not a word in the 1990s, but we saw no point trying to eradicate the lush growth claiming fertile ground around us, so Ray mowed tempting paths through nettles, docks, and grasses. Since we had no grand plan, the curving paths outlined a structure for planting. As years passed, they led temptations to secret places for our grandchildren and garden visitors of all ages.
Perhaps one of the best things about gardening is the constant childlike delight in discovery. Knowing how little I know, in our early days here I attended a conservation module at Oatridge Agricultural College and remember the thrill of discovering evidence of ancient woodland around our pond. Beneath the youngish beechwood are much older hidden treasures emerging each spring: bluebells and primroses, wood avens, and dog’s mercury are living proof that trees have been a vital part of this landscape for many generations.
Adapting to climate change we are adjusting what, how, and where we plant with some unexpected benefits. Mulching reduces at least some of the unwanted weeds, helps thirsty plants through long dry spells, and also seems to deter burrowing rabbits.
Having rebuilt the old cottage two decades ago, we recently added external insulation and (as an off-grid household) extended our renewable energy. Life at Pond Cottage is still all about the trees, dead or alive. When we first came here it was dead elm that stood out on the horizon, now it is sad to see ash trees falling victim to dieback.
Yet dead wood is a vital resource for thriving diversity and two fine old ash are now handsome ‘wildlife monoliths’. So far bats seem to prefer our roof space, but jackdaws reared a lusty brood in an inviting crevice in the ‘Bat Hotel’ overlooking the pond this spring.
Thirty years later we are still bewitched. Despite unrelenting bad news, there is a kind of rebellion in the simple pleasure of planning and plotting next year’s planting.
We have never regretted falling in love with Pond Cottage. We are discovering a comforting continuity in recent history. This was the much-loved family home of the Louden family who lived here until the 1960s. The present generation still visit (including our ‘magician’ digger Jimmy) sharing memories of their childhood holidays long before we arrived. To our delight we realise our grandchildren are playing much the same games, making mud kitchens and dens among the old trees. Some things never change.
The Pond Garden is open by arrangement through Scotland’s Garden Scheme supporting the inspiring work of Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS).
If you would like to see your garden featured in a future edition of Scotland Grows magazine, please do get in touch to firstname.lastname@example.org - we would love to hear from you!