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'We've learned a lot by trial and error': how two novice gardeners rejuvenated the walled garden at Gordon Castle in Scotland

Flower garden at Gordon Castle
Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox, non-gardeners both, have spent five years rejuvenating the walled garden at Gordon Castle. Pictured: Flower garden at Gordon Castle Credit:  Edmund Bollom

Gordon Castle, traditional home of the Dukes of Gordon, sits near the Moray Coast, Scotland’s “shoulder”, north-west of Aberdeen. For the past five years, owners Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox have been breathing life back into a sleeping giant: the eight-acre walled garden that is part of their estate.

First impressions of this expansive yet enclosed space are of a giant labyrinth of wide, brick-edged paths that invite exploration of a patchwork of colours and textures. As Zara says: “There’s something in our inner psyche that makes you feel very safe in a walled garden. Here, there’s also a wonderful connection to the soil that has been worked and productive for hundreds of years.”

But what you see today is a new garden within old walls. By the time Angus and Zara took over the estate, the old kitchen garden had become a hay meadow – and turning it back into an attractive and productive garden open all year for visitors has been quite a project. “It’s been a steep learning curve, we’ve learned a lot by trial and error,” Zara admits. It has also been a huge team effort.

Past Glories

The garden established a place in Scottish horticultural history during its Victorian peak when head gardener John Webster and his 40-strong team grew an amazing range of fruit, vegetables, and cut flowers for the castle. He bred fruit varieties suited to the local climate including ‘Beauty of Moray’ and ‘Northern Dumpling’ apples and ‘Gordon Castle’ plum, all still here.

But the estate fell into decline and huge death duties forced the 9th Duke of Richmond to sell it to the Crown in 1938. Nearly a decade later, Angus’s grandfather, a grandson of the 7th Duke of Richmond, bought it back for the family.

Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox Credit: Edmund Bollom

The estate focused on traditional farming, salmon fishing and holiday cottages. Although Angus’s grandmother grew raspberries commercially in the Sixties – a link with nearby Baxters continues today – the labour-intensive walled garden was grassed over and mown for hay twice a year. While eight of its nine glasshouses crumbled, the garden walls and the 250 fruit trees trained on them survived. Fortunately, Willie Robertson, employed as a gardener in 1948, stayed on after ­retirement and was paid to prune the trees annually (he still lives on the estate). They’re living links with the old regime, thanks to one gardener’s expertise.

Fresh start

In 2010, when Angus and Zara assumed full responsibility, a fresh strategy was needed to bring the estate into the 21st century. They decided that the garden had to become productive again, both horticulturally and financially. “We wanted to make it a beautiful space for people to come to see how kitchen gardens grow, how productive they were once and can be again today,” says Zara. For year-round appeal, it had to be more diverse to attract locals and visitors alike and fit with the Gordon Castle “brand”.

She and Angus were not gardeners. “We realised that being untrained and with such a large space, we needed some help.” Several garden designers were approached: two had ideas that didn’t chime with their vision, and one suggested they shouldn’t even think about it. Then they found Arne Maynard: “Arne understood the scale of the space and why we wanted to make it beautiful and productive. He’s a great plantsman. Angus went on one of his kitchen garden courses at his home, Allt-y-bela, near Abergavenny. That convinced us he was the right person,” Zara explains.

Aerial view of Gordon Castle Credit: Edmund Bollom

Maynard was intrigued and keen to be involved. The task of dividing up the space was evenly balanced with answering the question: “What are we going to do with all the produce?” he says: “We immediately started talking about ideas for how we could plan a garden to provide year-round fresh seasonal produce for an on-site restaurant, farm shop and a range of Gordon Castle products.”

He adds: “Angus and Zara had a clear idea about what they wanted the garden to achieve, but we worked collaboratively on the plans.”

Maynard’s design removes the traditional four-bed crop rotation scheme but keeps the border dimensions along the central path running from Garden Cottage dead centre on the north wall – a major axis. Pattern is important: a series of smaller rectangles make contemporary ground shapes. Each space has a different purpose, with interest to draw visitors around the site, yet it has a cohesive feel. This was never going to be an “instant” garden.

As Maynard says: “The master plan was always intended to be a guide for Angus and Zara to use to build the garden gradually, naturally over time.”

Project progress

A trellis of hanging gourds with restored greenhouse in background Credit: Edmund Bollom

The hands-on approach of the couple has impressed Maynard. And from the project’s start in 2013, Angus and Zara involved the local community. “It’s particularly important in isolated places, it adds to the sense of community, being proud of heritage and taking this forward for future generations. Many friends said ‘don’t open the gates until the garden is ready’. But we disregarded them!” Zara laughs.

Work started with the central important elements of lavender garden and cut-flower borders: “the most intensively cultivated” part of the garden, as head gardener Ed Bollom says. “These borders frame the view of Garden Cottage. We can reinterpret some of the garden’s history in this area from records going way back,” he says. Giant ribbons of lavender ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Alba’ are harvested in late August, and the crop is turned into essential oils for use in the estate’s bath products. Lavender and mint grown in nearby borders are the main botanicals used in the award-winning Gordon Castle Gin.

Bollom was in post almost from the start. He’s worked at Chatsworth and Osborne House, but gained directly relevant experience of working to a high standard and successional planting for year-round supply of produce at Highgrove, Gloucestershire, with its smaller but prestigious walled garden.

This garden presents exciting challenges: “I’ve never worked in a garden that’s so young before,” he says. Although the growing season is later, around one month behind the South West, he explains: “It’s shorter, more intense, and we’re very careful with hardening off plants before planting out, as cold, scorching winds can kill off anything tender.” But longer hours of summer daylight are a bonus.

A dahlia known only as ‘Apricot’ Credit: Edmund Bollom

Workloads have forced changes to the master plan without diminishing aesthetic appeal: a cherry orchard now spreads through crescent moon-shaped landforms where Maynard planned several specialist gardens. The airy meadow grass maze will eventually be planted with a hedge – hornbeam and crab apple are under consideration. But as planned, the lone surviving Mackenzie & Moncur greenhouse is restored and back in use: a stylish café fills some of the space where the other eight once stood.

Bollom thinks it’s important the work is done by “people who know and understand the fabric of the garden” – echoing Angus and Zara. All the hard landscaping is by local David Robertson. Bollom’s team of three full-time and two seasonal gardeners is supplemented by volunteers. Some are locals who relish working in the wonderful space, and others work for their keep under World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms scheme – “Wwoofers”.

It’s an attractive project that’s never going to be “finished”. Zara remains hands-on involved. She thinks “gardens always evolve and change. Gordon Castle Walled Garden is no different.” But its ambience makes it such a fascinating place to visit now.

Gordon Castle, Fochabers, Moray, Scotland IV32 7PQ (gordoncastle.co.uk). Forthcoming events include The Flower Farmers Big Weekend, today and tomorrow; Garden Market, Sept 28; and various shows in the grassy performance area.