The Rust Garden for Edinburgh Printmakers

A month ago today I was delighted to come upon a brand-new, fascinating Edinburgh garden in an area I frequent on my way to walk the Union Canal path. For as long as I've lived here this raised bed has been a wild urban space, choked with Buddleja and Sambucus, collecting trash that blew through the alley and decorated only with graffiti. Then one day I walked by and noticed that the ground had been cleared, the shrubs hacked to down to stumps. Shortly after I rounded the corner to this riot of color and form. 

In the last two years I have seen some of the world's most famous gardens: Hidcote, Sissinghurst, Chanticleer, Rousham, Longwood, Great Dixter, Chatsworth...the list goes on and on. But this mystery garden delighted me in ways that some of those heavy-hitters failed to do. 

The carnival colors and crazy mix of tropical-looking plant forms looked so refreshingly novel and un-British to me. I loved the more-is-more effect of packing so many strongly colored plants so closely together. Adding all these hot colors to the grey and brown building behind it could have ended poorly. Instead, the flower and foliage color harmonized with the paint and very effectively married the garden to its building, turning an eyesore into an asset. It took the work of a skilled colorist and planting designer to pull this off so well. The effect was a defiant fist shaking at the grey and cold Edinburgh weather. Just looking at it brought to mind my native hot-climate summer that I'm so missing, and warmed me up a lot. 

The plant selections weren't the only surprises. This turned out to be an interactive garden, with a little step built to help one up to sit on a small wooden bench. 

At first I thought the circular patio area in front of the bench was filled with pea gravel. But as I sat and looked around, I noticed words and phrases spelled in metal letters throughout the garden.

Turns out the "pea gravel" is actually 25,000 rusted steel letters! It was impossible to see or sit in this garden and not play with the letters, writing messages and signing names. 

Every time I've passed the garden in the last month there have been different phrases written with the letters. I love this interactive, poetic aspect to the garden. 

Pan out a bit and you'll get a sense of why coming across this garden was so surprising. You can barely see the bright lupines tucked in that tiny space in post-industrial urban wasteland.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Rust Garden is that the interpretation panels that explained it weren't on display when the garden was first installed, and when I came across it. The seemingly magical appearance of such a bright and beautiful garden sprung fully-formed in the midst of a neglected and "waste" space made the garden even more affecting. It was only later that I learned the garden was the work of Toronto-based artists Matt Donovan and Hallie Siegel (which may explain the more North American feel to the planting design). There's more info on their site, including some good pictures of the alley as I'd always seen it. 

The Rust Garden was commissioned by Edinburgh Printmakers, which is set to revitalize this neglected Castle Mill Works building, which was the headquarters of the North British Rubber Company, Edinburgh's largest industrial operation, from 1856 to the late 1960s. Their best known product was a green wellie boot, and eventually the company became Hunter Boot Ltd. So those iconically British wellie boots known and worn around the world had their start in this building a stone's throw from my house in Edinburgh. Discovering this history has made me even more sad that ever since Hunter moved their production to China and became more of a fashion instead of a utility brand, their boots have become such poor quality that I sent the last pair I ordered back in disgust and (regretfully) switched loyalties to a French company. 

Wellies aside, the Rust Garden is a huge success and one of my favorite gardens of 2016. It's on display as part of the Edinburgh Festival and runs through August 28, so see it while you can. I am not sure what its fate will be as the planting was very much done for immediate effect, with tender annuals that won't survive the winter. I am also pretty sure the weedy shrub stumps were not totally removed, which means those plants have probably already begun to grow back with a vengeance. I can only hope that after the Festival the Rust Garden will be developed into a more permanent garden that can continue to surprise and delight those of us ducking through this Fountainbridge alley.