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Garden of the Season – Dunvegan Castle and Gardens

January 11th 2021

As a gardener one of the questions, I am asked most frequently is “What do you do in the wintertime”? There seems to be a misconception among the public that either a) gardeners do not work at all in the wintertime and perhaps hibernate until the spring (a very appealing thought on this day when the temperature has not risen above -4°C) or b) there is so little work to do that we simply wait until the spring and then somehow manage to have the garden tidied and ready for a new season when visitors return. Depending on the questioner I may jokingly reply “very little” but in fact the truth is that winter can be the busiest season for us.

Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye is the ancestral home of the Clan MacLeod and has been continuously occupied by the same family for 800 years. 5 acres of formal gardens surround the castle which have been developed since the early 18th century. The castle and gardens open between 1st April and mid-October annually and in record breaking years have welcomed 160,000 visitors through our gates. During that time, our small team of dedicated gardeners and groundsmen concentrate on maintaining the beds and borders weed free, keeping the grass cut and ensuring that the reputation of the gardens as an oasis in the somewhat barren landscape of this island is maintained. During the winter months we put in the hard graft with beds redesigned, new areas created, and construction projects undertaken.

The main approach to Dunvegan Castle

As soon as the gates close in mid-October, we get straight into cut back and tidy up mode. Cuttings are taken from the half hardy plants which provide the wonderful late colour our visitors so appreciate. These cuttings are placed on heated benches in the polytunnel and will provide the plants for our summer displays next year. The parent plants are dug up and composted and anything tender that needs to be overwintered indoors is lifted and stored in the tunnel. The glasshouse is stripped down, washed and plants repotted, herbaceous perennials are cut back, roses and shrubs are pruned, wall climbers are tidied and tied in, and spring bulbs are planted. We usually aim to have all this work completed by Christmas which means when we return in the new year, we can concentrate on new projects such as creating new areas of interest, increasing the range of plants grown here and further developing the offering of the garden.

Half-hardy cuttings tucked up for the winter on the heated benches in the polytunnel. These will form a stunning display of late Autumn colour in the walled gardens display beds.

However, as was the case with everyone worldwide, 2020 was far from a normal year for us. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced lockdown, the garden only opened for a couple of months this year with the result that financially we are not able to undertake major projects this winter. However, we do not rest on our laurels here (pun intended) and instead have embarked on an ambitious project of digging up, composting and replanting beds and borders in the 2-acre walled garden. This vegetable garden had been built in the 1830s but had fallen derelict after the Second World War before being overhauled by the current Chief Hugh MacLeod to become an entirely ornamental garden. A formal cross-shaped layout is designed around the 18th century sundial at the centre and includes a water lily pond, a glasshouse, a cherry tree avenue, a rose garden, mixed herbaceous and shrub borders, spring bulb and summer bedding display beds, a garden museum, and traditional herb and vegetable beds to illustrate the garden’s original function. Since the overhaul in 2010-12 the beds have not had any major work done to them and some have become overgrown and starved of nutrients. Herbaceous perennials have been lifted, divided, the old centres removed and replanted at correct spacings, trees, shrubs and climbers have been pruned and brought back under control, pernicious weeds such as ground elder have been eradicated from the beds and plant records have been updated for all the beds including plans for each of the beds and botanical labelling. Working with the equivalent of only 4 full-time members of staff this has been a huge undertaking and the results are a credit to the dedicated team we have here.

View across the frozen landscape of the walled garden showing herbaceous perennials cut back, shrubs pruned, the Memorial Gazebo to Chief John MacLeod, and in the far corner the garden museum building.

The last bed standing in the Walled Garden – this is the cool border beside the entrance to the garden and is one of the largest beds we have at over 10m wide by 20m long.

It is intended in the future to roll this out over the entire garden on a four-year rolling programme whereby every area will get the same treatment in turn and in four years’ time we will be back in the walled garden to repeat the process. Of course, this huge project does mean that other areas of the garden such as the mixed herbaceous borders in our formal round garden have not had their usual winter haircut yet, but it has given us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of winter frosts on delicate flowerheads and hopefully we have provided food and habitat sources for wildlife.

The formal Round Garden complete with Ilex crenata parterre in the centre with the castle and Loch Dunvegan just visible in the background.

One of four periphery mixed borders in the Round Garden awaiting its annual winter cut back. These beds will be due for lifting, dividing, and composting in the winter of 2022 as per the new 4-year composting programme.