Friday, August 31, 2012

A Week in Inverewe Gardens

One of the exotics growing in Inverewe Gardens

When you think of plant life in Scotland’s Western Highlands, you might visualize thistle blossoms, heather covered hillsides, or Caledonian pine forests. Unless you’ve spent time in that part of the world, you likely won’t expect to see palm trees, but palms do grow there in locales such as Plockton and Ullapool.

You’ll also find palms trees at Inverewe Gardens, near Poolewe, along with a variety of tropical and other exotic plants Osgood Mackenzie imported from locations around the world for inclusion in the garden he created 150 years ago. In spite of Inverewe’s latitude of 57.8 (for reference, Moscow’s is 55.75), the relatively warm air borne by the North Atlantic Drift makes the survival of such plant life possible. And to help shelter his plant specimens from the wind, Mackenzie established a grove of pines and had a wall erected.

After Mackenzie’s death, his daughter Mairi Sawyer continued work on the garden. In 1952 she gifted Inverewe Estate, which includes the gardens, to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

Two years ago I had the opportunity to spend a week living in Inverewe House while serving as a NTS Thistle Camp volunteer. I wrote about that experience in a July guest blog for the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA. (Scroll down for link.)

Inverewe House
Our major task as volunteers was invasive species eradication. More specifically, we did “rhody bashing,” removal of the non-native Rhododendron ponticum that had spread into the wild. We used mattocks and handsaws to remove rhododendrons that had invaded nearby woodlands and then we burned the resulting debris in bonfires.

During my stay at Inverewe House, I came upon two huge volumes of a limited edition book dated, as I recall, 1917. The volumes were filled with art plates illustrating numerous varieties of rhododendron. While turning the pages, I wondered what Osgood Mackenzie would think of the runaway rhododendrons and our efforts to try to control them. Would he approve of our work? Would he regret his decision to include this plant species in his garden?

In my own garden, I am prone to plant non-natives, as well as natives such as beautyberry. Just today I purchased a Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), native to Myanmar, from a local garden center, not stopping to think at the time about whether this plant has the potential to become invasive here in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Already my garden includes nandina heavenly bamboo, which I planted more than twenty years ago soon after I bought this house. According to the University of Florida’s website, the State of Florida has placed nandina on their invasive species list. My garden also includes nandina volunteers, but only three or four. Although I don’t find nandina on my own state’s list, I am reminded that we gardeners need to balance our love for plants with foreign origins with the well-being of our native species.

Not all our time at Inverewe Gardens was spent battling invasive species. In the middle of the week we had a day off from volunteer activities and I spent the morning of that day wandering around the property, photographing flowers and other plants. Eventually the last of my camera batteries fizzled out. Not to be deterred, I switched to my iPhone and continued to take pictures. I’m sorry to report that I did not note the names of the various plants I observed, but I can tell you that among my favorites were the tall spiky red cannas and a gorgeous lace-cap hydrangea.

One can’t help but envy the residents of Poolewe. How fortunate they are to live near Inverewe Gardens. With its more than fifty acres and its numerous plant species, both the familiar and the exotic, this is a place a gardening enthusiast could stroll through every day of the year and never be bored. 

Loch view from the dining room

For more information about Inverewe Gardens visit the National Trust for Scotland website:

To learn more about Thistle Camp at Inverewe Gardens read my blog post on the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA website:

Loch Ewe, a natural beauty

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

For the Love of Moss

My romance with moss began last year. Just weeks after the horrifying earthquake overwhelmed parts of Japan, my daughter and I visited serene TenryĆ«-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district where, along with throngs of Japanese visitors, we viewed Sakura in bloom. At TenryĆ«-ji’s open-air gift shop I came across a book about Zen gardens. Later, back home in the Lowcountry, I allowed my eyes to linger on each photograph in the book, Samadhi on Zen Gardens, and that is how I became aware of Tofuku-ji’s checkerboard of moss and stone.

Tofuku-ji's famous moss garden
Gazing at the photograph, I thought perhaps I’d found a solution for my front lawn with its bald places. I sought to borrow the idea from Buddhist monks and transform the shady expanse beneath my live oak with something similar. I started by pulling a patch of chartreuse-colored moss off the front steps where it grew freely as a volunteer. I moved the tiny patch to a bald area and watered it when I remembered. During times when it received sufficient water, the patch grew, but it never adhered to the soil. Often it didn’t get enough water – from me or from the sky.

This isn't where I want the moss to grow!
Next I purchased a carton of moss milkshake from a company I found on-line. The sellers are not to be blamed for my lack of success with their product because neither the clouds nor I the provided enough sustained moisture to bring to life the intentionally dehydrated mosses the seller sent.  And let’s face it, the climate here is vastly different from where those specific moss varieties thrive.

In the county library I located Schenk’s excellent book Moss Gardening and after reading his words realized that perhaps I should just encourage what grows here naturally. I began noticing places where moss grew, hidden or in plain sight.  When I carried carafes of rainwater from the barrel, where I’d captured it, to gardenias and hydrangeas I’d recently planted, I made sure to allow water to drip on the volunteer moss. And the moss is even now expanding – not as rapidly as I would like, but increasing its territory nonetheless.

Moss Gardening has a chapter entitled “In the Gardens of Japan.” It begins “Mosses invited themselves to the gardens of Japan and thereby invented moss gardening.”

Late last year I returned to Japan for another visit with my family. When my daughter asked which place I most wanted to visit, I said, “Tofuku-ji, to see the moss checkerboard.” We traveled there by train and, before locating the checkerboard, were dazzled by the brilliant red leaves of Tokufu-ji’s valley of maple trees.

A moss garden at Tofuku-ji's Abbot's Hall
The Abbot’s Hall, or Hojo, at Tokufu-ji is home to four gardens, including the particular one I longed to see. The Hojo brochure, provided with paid admission, is printed in kanji for the most part, but includes a paragraph in English.  According to the brochure, the Hojo gardens were designed by landscape sculptor Shigemori Mirei in 1939. In one garden, moss covered mounds represent five sacred mountains. The coveted diminishing checkerboard lies in the Northern Garden and there the moss stood taller than I had imagined. Feeling content, I didn’t want to leave.

Before last year, I was mostly oblivious to moss, but since then, I’ve noticed it not only in temple gardens and along wild streams in Japan, but on hillsides in Scotland, and growing unfettered between sidewalk and street near the corner of East Bay and Chapel in Charleston.

The volunteer moss continues to spread
I realize I probably won’t ever have my own moss and stone checkerboard, at least, not in my current locale, but I haven’t given up the idea of cultivating more moss.  For now, I’m encouraging moss growth one drop of rainwater at a time.

Reading List

  • Moss Gardening – George Schenk (Timber Press, Portland, 1997)
  • Gathering Moss – Robin Wall Klimmerer (Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2003)
  • Samadhi on Zen Gardens: Dynamism and Tranquility – Mizuno Katsuhiko and Tom Wright (Suiko Books, Kyoto, 2010)

Tofuku-ji’s Website