The Gardens In-between


Sic transit gloria mundi  – Northern summers are short and as August begins there is a whiff of autumn on the horizon. The days are already growing perceptibly shorter, but the glory of the machair flowers still lights up my in-between garden. Between my house, the sea, and Croft Garden Cottage lie over 18 acres of the most perfect wild garden.

The summer home of breeding lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank, snipe, elusive corncrakes, skylarks and pipits; the haunt of hen harriers, peregrine falcons, merlins and buzzards and a resting place for migrating geese and waders. There are butterflies, bumblebees, beetles, assorted bugs, other things with wings, carapaces, shells, some with slimy trails and those which buzz or hum. There are fungi in profusion, hopping frogs and cheeky rabbits; over 80 species of flowers, grasses, rushes and sedges, not counting the mosses and lichens. Rare or common, with or without names, they are all important in nature’s garden. I am not even an apprentice in this garden, I am the custodian and apart from inviting the cows to do a little grass cutting and manuring in the winter, I am required to do nothing but sit and admire.

As the summer progresses, the colours ebb and flow from white to gold, blue to yellow and pink to purple, the mosaic changes with the intensity of the light from morning to evening, day by day, month by month and sometimes moment by moment. It is ruffled by the fingers of the wind, speckled with crystals by the mist, saturated by the rain reflecting the ever-changing moods of a Hebridean summer.

Yet the picture is incomplete, gardens are multi-dimensional and not just a visual landscape. A backing track of humming insects, vibrating butterfly wings, the sush of the waves and the whisper of the wind accompanies the skylarks, drumming snipe, clamouring oystercatchers and the mournful the pee-wit pee-wit of the lapwings. An infusion of honey from lady’s bedstraw and clover mixes with the tang of salty sea air and with a tickle of grasses on bare feet releases the essence of summer.

This is a perfect garden and its transient nature is the quintessential expression of sic transit gloria mundi. For a garden it is and without some gentle intervention the biodiversity would decline as the natural succession of vegetation replace the flowers with a mixture of rushy pasture and tussock grass.


This was the situation on a piece of ground behind the house, between the solar panels and the shed. The first part of the restoration of this area was described in the Birthday Project post. Over the past two years we have been landscaping the area around the greenhouse and trying to turn it into a garden.

It would be pure hubris and folly to try to re-create or compete with the natural grassland which surrounds the house, so the intention was to compose a variation on the theme. Two years later, the landscaping has been completed and planting has begun in the small garden between the shed and the solar panels.

The beds have been edged with driftwood and beach cobbles and interspersed with broad gravel paths. Each bed is slightly different in its composition, some are lightly enriched with a little garden compost and given a bark mulch, others are almost pure sand with a gravel and pebble mulch. The soil is very well drained which encourages the plants to put down deep roots and as the minimal nutrition produces hardly, slow growing, compact forms, they should be able to withstand the gusty winds in this very exposed site.

Predictably there is no planting scheme or grand design, just a hazy vision and a vague concept. This is the evolutionary school of garden design – all trial and error. I have used plants which have performed well in the cottage garden – kniphofia, tulbaghia, astrantia, aquilegia, galtonia, nepeta, verbascum and scabious, added some herbs – chives, hyssop, thyme, sage and lovage, and some more experimental species such as dwarf iris, thalictrum, penstemon, dactylorhiza orchids, dicentras and pulsatillas.

The garden looks rather formal but as it matures it will assume a more relaxed  Hebridean form.  Seedlings (other than weeds) are already starting to appear in the gravel paths and some plants are becoming very assertive in their demands for space. I am inclined to let the garden settle and allow natural selection edit the original planting before I reach for my trowel. Although I have already decided that the lovage must go and that I need to remove some of the Viola tricolour, which is developing thuggish tendencies.

This garden was created to echo the perfect natural garden which surrounds the house and act as a bridge between the natural landscape and the unnatural intervention of the house and it’s associated structures. Perhaps there is always an element of vanity and ego in seeking to create a garden, but if the bees like it, that is good enough for me.

36 thoughts on “The Gardens In-between

  1. Your natural garden sounds idyllic and your new one looks pretty good too. It looks as if you have worked pretty hard on it. I look forward to seeing it develop, though some of the plants look quite mature already.

    • The flora of Ardivachar Headland is stunning, but totally unprotected by any nature conservation designation. Anywhere outside the islands it would probably be a nature reserve, so I make my responsibilities as the custoduan very seriously even though I do little more than manage the grazing and cutting. However, if I can make others more aware of the beauty and importance of our machair flora, it is a small step in ensuring its future. It is such a fragile ecosystem that it could be lost in a generation.
      My small in-between garden is very experimental and it will be interesting to see which plants survive the winter and thrive in these very exposed conditions.

      • Do you need to get it protected the same way we do with trees? Or is the main problem that it needs someone to manage it if you weren’t there. Do people walk on it and if so is that a problem at certain times of the year?

        • Hi Annette, the problem is ensuring that the grassland continues to be sympathetically managed into the future. There is currently very little to stop me ploughing the land, growing potatoes, re-seeding with rye grass, over or under-grazing; never-mind applying for planning permission for anything from a caravan park to a battery farm. Conservation designation is not fulproof but it helps. I hope to be acting as the custodian for many years to come and hope that the next owner will be as careful with our heritage.

  2. Saila

    What a lovely coastal garden you have created! It looks already great even if it is only a couple of years old.
    It is super interesting to see what natural flowers you have in the machair, we have very many of the same species in our meadows here on SW Finland’s islands.

    • Thank you, I am surprised at how quickly it is developing. It will take a few years to settle and I’m sure the rate of growth will stabilise.
      I am sure that there are many similarities in the flora of the islands of north western Europe. In a European context our plants are not particularly rare, but as these lovely coastal meadows are becoming a rare habitat and it would be a tragedy to seem them diminish.

  3. Hazel

    I love it, and feel very grateful to have seen in with my own eyes this June. It’s an amazing achievement as it is; the driftwood and beach ‘cobbles’ (many are more like large rocks ;)) must have taken some lugging from the beach before creatively being rearranged in the space. It’s a masterpiece! I’m looking forward to seeing it mature and develop, even if it is only via your blog. Enjoy the rest of the summer. X

    • For our special visitors we not only ensure that the flora is in perfect condition we also arrange some sunshine.

  4. Your garden looks wonderful , wish I had the problem of truculent viola tric! 😄

    • The V. triv is so rampant that it is now threatening to engulf the Lovage. Give it a little nitrogen and it is like a body builder on extra-strong steroids. In its natural habitat it is a peite and dainty plant, which is how it grows when it self-seeds in the gravel. The secret to get it to grow is a very poor, well drained alkaline soil , i.e. sand. I’m a great advocate of broad gravel paths, initially it makes the garden look too formal, but it is a great seedbed for plants which often struggle in the borders. On the downside the weeds like it too!

  5. I love that you used beach wood in the landscaping. This is going to be magnificent.

    • I’m pleased with the way the new garden is shaping-up and it will be interesting to see how it develops. I’m an inveterate beachcomber and can never resist a piece of driftwood, whatever the size!

  6. It looks wonderful and fits into the landscape beautifully! What a fabulous view you have too, beyond the fence. I love the drfitwood as edging.

    • Thank you Cathy. The view is spectacular and panoramic and almost impossible to capture in a photograph. On the rear garden area is fenced (too keep the cattle out) the rest is completely open, so I can sit by my widow and look out beyond the meadow to the very edge of the world.

  7. Margaret Temple

    Looking good now. I remember it in the early stages, nearly a year ago now. Hope you are all well and have had a bountiful harvest in your gardens.

    • This year we were determined to finish landscaping the “garden” at the back of the house and start planting. We have achieved this and although I now have a physique like wonderwoman, I think this will be my last major project. Last year I had serious concerns about whether any plants would survive in these hardsh conditions, but this year I’m more optimistic.

  8. That looks fascinating Chris. I love the use of the driftwood. I will be very interested to hear what grows and what disappears, that being the perennial question up here.

    • I’m a great believer in using local natural materials, so all my gardens are full of driftwood, shells and beach cobbles although I prefer not to label them as “seaside gardens”. I’m still discovering which plants will tolerate our soil and exposed conditions and still experimenting. Some plants will struggle for a year or two before deciding whether to live or die, and the casualty rate is high. Perhaps one day I’ll make a list of what grows here, not sure whether I’ll ever find the time, but it would be an interesting exercise!

  9. That is lovely and seriously impressive in such an exposed spot. Does the fence act as a windbreak or to keep deer out? I’m looking at its height.. It must be a delightful place to wander.

    • The fence is there to keep the cattle out (although there is a stock fence just beyond) and to provide some wind protection. Fortunately we do not have a deer problem as I’d hate to have to put up a deer fence for both aesthetic and economic reasons! I didn’t want this fence to be too high (it’s about 3ft) as I wanted to keep the view.
      I consider myself more than fortunate to be the guardian of this beautiful site, but it is there for others to enjoy too.

  10. [J+D] You’ve done well, both of you! Such an exposed spot. You’ll be feeling it this weekend!

    • A little blustery this wekend, but the sun is shining now so I’ll do a tour of the estate and assess the imapact of the strong winds and monsoon rains.

  11. Hello Christine,
    A really lovely post – the new garden looks great – sympathetically designed and constructed, and I love the machair – really special. Have you thought of having a National Meadows event there in future? Does the Save our Meadows initiative extend into Scotland? It would surely fall into a meadow category, given the aims of National Meadows Day – and I’m sure that raised appreciation of such habitats is part of the battle in preserving them – as you say they are so ‘fragile’, that although they can miraculously outperform the best gardens, with pretty minimal intervention, nevertheless they are man managed, and make a wrong decision or 2 and generations of slow ecosystem generation could be undone,
    best wishes

    • Hi Julian, it’s all looking rather different this morning after a weekend of strong winds and torrential rain – grren rather than golden. I think it is still early enough for a late flush of flowers, if not I’ll enjoy the changing colours of the grasses.
      I have just checked with Plantlife about Save our Meadows, it does extend to Scotland but there is no mention of the Highlands and Islands. We’re probably not a priority as we have an abundance of lovely natural grassland even if Brexit has put a big question mark over its future. I think a Machair Flower event next year is worth think about, even though our “Grow Wild” – (wildflowers in an urban landscape) event was annhilated by rain! Thank you for the inspiration.

      • Thanks Christine, Shame about the rain – always the problems with a single day event held in the wild wests of Britain…but I think a machair flower event would be great – and probably appeal to all your summer tourists?? Sorry to hear about the heavy rains afflicting you – we’re still battling to get bits of hay off in tiny dry weather windows ….another heralded heat wave, will no doubt only apply to the SEast,

        • Hi Julian, a summer event will appear on the agenda of the of the next meeting of Curracag (Outer Hebrides Natural History Society) of which Himself is currently the Chair, not that I have any influence of course! Fortunately our silage is not cut until September so hopefully the weather may have settled a little. Not envious of a heat wave but sime sunshine would be good.

  12. That is beautiful – a lot of work, but clearly worthwhile. Found myself thinking of Derek Jarman’s garden when looking at your shots of yours; creative but harmonising so well with its environment. Lovely!

    • Thank you Kate. Gardening is hard work, but doubtless good for the soul and rewarding when the plan works.

  13. My younger sister has just had a week of R&R on South Uist (and finally managed a visit to St Kilda after her third attempt!) and was enthusing again about the machair which you descibe so evocatively in your usual inimitable style. And what a surprise to read the second part of your post – you referred in a recent comment to taking two years to complete a project, but what a transformation this is! There is no real comparison with our more speedily completed projects as this is a one-off. The driftwood and beach cobbles are such a unique feature and it is intriguing to read about the different conditions you are creating in each bed – I look forward to watching its progress alongside you so do continue to tell us how it’s doing.

    • Thank you Cathy. Getting to St Kilda requires patience (and deep pockets!) as the weather conditions have to be perfect.
      Completing projects is always a long term objective, I could blame the weather but I think I’m guilty of having too many distractions. However, there is no great rush, it’ll be finished when it’s finished.

  14. A gorgeous part of the world, love the photo series.

  15. This is so beautiful – your writing as much as your garden. It reminds me of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness garden, but of course equally of its place with different materials and planting. Beautiful – in vision and accomplishment.

    • Thank you. I was inspired when we visited Derek Jarman’s garden many years ago and in the use of beach pebbles and driftwood there are many similarities.

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