Shepherd House Garden

Yesterday I cleared one of the biggest hurdles of this school program, a graded unit exam covering every course and topic undertaken this year. No matter that we were tested as the year progressed, the Scottish Qualifications Authority thinks it fun to trot everything out again for one more rodeo. Back from storage came notes and flashcards on soil science, plant nutrition, integrated pest and disease management, taxonomy, classification and systematics, ecology and plant conservation, and designing and managing botanical collections. In the two weeks of intensive study for this exam, hardly a day went by that I didn't rip a flower to shreds, prodding its nether regions searching for clues to its family. I spoke half my words in Latin, and my mind was wound so tight I was telling people in my dreams, "I'm so tired." 

But with the exam behind me, and despite more academic challenges looming ahead, today is devoted to full-on mental recovery. The Edinburgh weather is cooperating with cold (45°F, 7°C) grey, and steady rain. Despite being put through the wringer lately with all things horticultural, I choose to decompress by writing about a garden. That's a pretty good sign I'm doing something I love. 

A few weeks ago, on the first truly spring-like day of the year, I took a trip to Shepherd House Garden in Musselburgh. I'd been last year, and this repeat visit confirmed that this is one of my favorite small gardens. At about one acre, it's a perfectly manageably sized jewel and a treasure trove of ideas I'd like to implement in my own next garden--including the resident white doves that strut and coo along the rooftops. 

The garden's creator, Ann Fraser, is a trained artist who studied botanical illustration where I am studying at RBGE. Her artist's eye is clearly evident in her color choices, plant combinations, and the finely crafted touches, such as the pebble mosaic below, that make the garden a very personal creative statement. 

What I like about this garden is it has formal structure with mature trees, hedging and a strong main axis leading from a fountain, down a rill, and into a koi pond. But around that axis the flow is organic and in parts a little wild, as in the stylized "meadow" planting below with an adjoining shady "woodland." Despite being intensely designed and no doubt highly cultivated, this design mimics a natural glade. 

I really appreciated the crisp edging along the grass pathways, something that prior to studying horticulture in Britain I always thought was a waste of time. But image the image above without that strong edge underpinning the beds and leading the eye further along the path. The edge is the necessary structure in this loose planting arrangement. 

I like that edibles are incorporated into the garden's design, with trained berry cordons lending vertical structure and low-growing vegetables serving as carpet bedding. But it's not all on display--there is also the ever-important production garden tucked behind a high hedge where more vegetables are grown, closer to the potting shed, glasshouse, compost piles, and chicken run. 

Two aspects of the garden stuck out at me, especially upon viewing these photos. First, I would have preferred that the blue tuteurs in the image above were straightened and leveled. Because they provide a great deal of the structure and formality to an otherwise free-flowing space, I think it's important that they stand up at attention. Second, throughout the garden neon green netting was used as a plant support. I have no doubt that the netting will soon be rendered invisible by vigorous plant growth, but for an early spring open day it detracted from the beauty around it. Perhaps jute would have been a better choice for the more high-profile areas of the garden. 

I liked this creative use of Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' with Echeveria sp., above, and black Tulipa 'Paul Scherer' was just one of the great tulips at Shepherd House that had me reconsidering my distaste for the genus. 

I especially like these espaliered apples (Malus sp.) trained as fencing. Originally I'd thought they were stepover apples, but further research reveals stepovers are really just horizontal cordons, trained to only one branch. Some day I hope to get a chance to experiment with ornamental pruning, and the apples at Shepherd House are inspiration. 

Having visited for the May open day two years in a row, I look forward to returning to Shepherd House in mid June to see how the garden transitions out of the tulips and on to something else that will no doubt be just as beautiful.