An Heirloom Gardener in Scotland

A trip to Scotland turns into an interesting comparison between American and Scottish gardens, climates, and appreciation of food.

  • Scottish yards are usually less than a quarter-acre large, but most still contain flower and vegetable gardens.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • When you think of Scotland, iconic images of kilted Highlanders, bagpipes, and sheep come to mind.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • Most serious Scottish gardeners have some way to grow under glass, with hobby greenhouses being extremely common.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • The small gardens in Scotland often contain fruit brambles or dwarf fruit trees.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • Greenhouses in Scotland are used extensively for starting vegetables and flowers, and for maintaining exotic blooms like orchids.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • The Weidman's route through Scotland took them through small, old towns and past abandoned, medieval abbeys and castles.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman

Green Fingers

A few years back I was fortunate to take the trip of a lifetime to the Scottish Lowlands. I was there officially as sound technician and traveling companion for my wife in her Christian missions concert tour of Scottish churches (she’s an Operatic Lyric Soprano with an angelic voice). Because church parishioners supplied our lodging accommodations, we were blessed with many opportunities to discuss and compare cultures.  Unofficially, I was there as an incurable gardener, eager to see how they garden “across the pond.”

Our tour spanned much of the Scottish Lowlands: from Newton Stewart in the southwest to Dumbarton on Loch Lomond, through Glasgow on to Burntisland in the east. Our route took us through small towns older than our own nation, past abandoned medieval castles and abbeys, and along the Atlantic coastline, more than 900 miles in total.

We were treated to views of great, mound-shaped “Hill-foots” dropping abruptly to incredibly flat plains, and rugged valleys fed by waterfalls springing from rain soaked peaks that only sheep can reach. There were beautifully wild Forest Parks, picturesque stone fences, and did I happen to mention sheep?  Flocks and flocks of sheep are everywhere, which, by the way, have the right-of-way, and they don’t get off the road very fast, either. Scottish wool is among the finest in the world, making their sheep a treasured commodity.

When you think of Scotland, iconic images of kilted Highlanders, bagpipes and sheep come to mind. But what about gardening? Surely Scots have green thumbs, or “green fingers” as our hosts would say? And they do, with some surprising twists.

Scotland's Unique Charm

But to truly understand Scotland’s gardens, you must understand its climate. The British Isles are in a unique position located somewhat north of most American gardens, yet set squarely in the Gulf Stream’s path. This constant source of warm tropical water creates a strong moderating effect on the Scottish climate. While summer temperatures seldom climb much above 85°F, winters rarely get cold enough to produce lasting snow, and ice storms are a completely foreign notion. When I described an ice storm that struck Pennsylvania the previous winter to one of our new friends, he asked, “Ice storm? You mean a heavy frost?” Luckily we had pictures of the storm stored on our laptop, so I could show him what I meant.

This unusual blend of tropical and temperate conditions sets the stage for what I call the “Scottish Paradox.” Palm trees grow quite happily out-of-doors, while tomatoes and grapes must be pampered under glass. Even though this may seem impossible, winters never quite get cold enough to freeze out the palms, but summers never produce enough heat to ripen the grapes and tomatoes in the outside garden.

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