An Heirloom Gardener in Scotland

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

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.

All that warm tropical water from the Gulf Stream provides for another Scottish tradition: rain. There’s an old Scottish joke that goes “Do ye think it’ll rain today?” The (implicit) punchline is that it rains every day without fail. While we were blessed with beautiful sunshine nearly every day, we also experienced rain every single day, producing more rainbows than we could count. As you can imagine, keeping the grass cut can be a challenge. Indeed, many front gardens are graveled or paved with slates. One garden consisted entirely of container plantings on pea gravel.

Small-Space Gardening

There is a third factor that shapes Scottish gardens, which has nothing to do with weather. Room of any sort is at a premium. I was reminded time and again, how spoiled for space we are as Americans.

Most of the yards we saw (Scots call them gardens: walks, lawns and all) were less than a quarter acre; yet most still sported flower and vegetable gardens, often including fruit brambles or dwarf fruit trees. Even though space is limited, most serious Scottish gardeners have some way to grow under glass. Hobby greenhouses are extremely common, as are conservatories, solariums and sunrooms.

We even saw an apartment complex in Dumbarton with attached greenhouses, including the second floor flats! Not only are they necessary for tender, heat-loving crops, but they are also used extensively for starting transplants of other vegetables and flowers, and maintaining exotics like orchids. Incidentally, orchids can be purchased in department stores in Scotland for the equivalent of 2-4 dollars apiece!

Considering the space limitations, ornamentals and flowers abound in the Bonnie Land of Scots, even in mid October. Hardy gladioli, roses, sedum, Impatiens, massive hydrangeas, even rampantly blooming fuchsias greeted us everywhere we went. In fact, the fuchsias grow so well that they can become a weed in some areas. We also discovered volunteer moss and fern “gardens,” exotics like Monkey Puzzle trees and palms, and a Biblical theme garden featuring fig trees, olive trees, and other specimens with Scriptural roots and references. I was also offered the chance to plan and design a Biblical Garden of my own. Perhaps, God willing, one day it will be a reality. There or here, I don’t yet know.

Scottish Veg

People tend to notice the things that interest them the most, and I admit it, I’m a vegetable gardener first and foremost. While grapes, tomatoes and peppers need to stay indoors, the Lowland climate is ideal for other, cooler crops. Leafy greens, onions, Cole crops and root crops like beetroot, parsnips and rutabagas grow quite happily in the fields and gardens; as well as cucumbers and summer squash (English Marrow, anyone?).

Although summer squash may be a familiar part of the garden landscape, winter squash are a rarity. During our visit to Dumbarton, the local paper Lennox Herald ran a photo of two hometown volunteers holding a locally grown pumpkin to be used in a “guess the weight” contest, with a caption that read “Wow … What a Size!” We estimated this “giant vegetable” to be about two feet in diameter and weigh maybe 50 pounds.

Needless to say, our hosts thought we were telling tales when we tried to explain that American contest entries often weigh in at over half a ton. They simply could not envision such a monster squash. By coincidence, the next morning their local TV news station aired a story of an American charity boat race held in hollowed-out pumpkin “coracles” (round Scottish one-man boats). “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed it!” was their shocked response. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that we had an even harder time describing pumpkin pie to our new friends.

Speaking of food, we were eager (and blessed) to sample some delicious Scottish home cookery. Some of the more memorable dishes include steak-and-ale pie, beef olives, Camembert-stuffed chicken breasts wrapped in bacon; and yes, even haggis and black pudding passed the taste test. My wife’s favorite breakfast was eggs and bacon with fried tomato wedges and mushroom caps, while I fell in love with bacon sandwiches. In case you hadn’t noticed, meat is a large part of the Scottish board.

Vegetable (or veg as they’re called) soups and dishes also hold prominent places on the table. In fact, soups are often a point of pride among Scot women, not surprising in the cool damp weather of fall and winter. They include creamed carrot, (hothouse) tomato with cream, and mushroom, among many others. The veg dishes featured the local produce and reflected the climate. “Tatties and neeps” (roasted potatoes and Swede turnips), mashed rutabagas, and roasted carrots and parsnips shared board with green beans, English peas and green salads. Salads usually consist of a blend of baby lettuces, endive, radicchio and tomato wedges, occasionally with coleslaw on the side. Surprisingly to us, they’re normally served dry, without dressing, which we found to be a refreshing change of pace.

Food is apparently much more personal and important in the Scottish mindset.  Most grocery stores are grower co-ops. Several times I noticed posters promoting awareness of “food miles” to the public consciousness. A comparison of ingredient lists of Scottish foods to their American counterparts was also very enlightening. While an American product may have a list that spans several paragraphs and requires a degree in chemistry to understand, a Scottish list is surprisingly simple, perhaps three lines of easily recognized food ingredients.

Dining out is almost unheard of. In fact, on the morning of our arrival I planned to have a traditional Scottish breakfast when we left the airport, so we asked for a recommendation at the rental-car counter. The only available establishment “serving” breakfast was a BP gas station. My “traditional” Scottish breakfast turned out to be a French cruller and “American” coffee, specifically offered for American tourists! As “tourists” we expected to need to eat out practically every night, for the sake of convenience. In reality, we visited restaurants a grand total of four times in our two-week tour. Our hosts provided for us completely as part of their generous hospitality.

An interesting sidenote is that no Scot seemed to know what an heirloom vegetable or antique fruit was, or why Americans would be so worried about preserving them. This is not to say that Scotland doesn’t have heirloom varieties, though they’re apparently not in as much danger of being lost or altered as they are in America. Perhaps this is a reflection of a culture (theirs) that takes the presence of such things for granted. Or maybe it’s a reflection of a culture (ours) that nearly lost its “garden variety” heritage to the “big business” mentality?

Scottish Specialties

These recipes come directly from our dear friend, Jane Pitcher, who lives in Newton Stewart, a small town in southwestern Scotland. Written in her Scottish voice, I’ve added a few notations in parentheses for clarification.

Easy Scottish Cheese Scones Recipe
Scottish Tomato Soup Recipe

Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.

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