DON’T RUSH THIS VALLEY A HEAVENLY HILLSIDE FROM CROWBAR TO
CREATION FROM RISK TO REWARD FROM TROUBLE TO TRIUMPH AN
INHOSPITABLE HILLSIDE TRIUMPH OVER ADVERSITY
No garden site is ideal - everyone has problem areas, but surely nobody would choose to create a
garden on top of a barren windswept hill! Bill and Tessa Knott did just that and have
astonishingly proved everyone wrong with their beautiful garden near Stranraer. 300 ft. above
Luce Bay, Glenwhan has stealthily become one of Scotland's most exciting and visually
energetic gardens. Being so exposed it does of course break all the rules of survival in Scotland.
With the exception of two or three modern icons, most gardens north of the border fall into two
traditional categories - namely walled (mostly east) and woodland (mainly west). This is what
Scotland does best. Glenwhan is neither and all of these, whilst remaining hearteningly Scottish
in its amalgam of moorland, rocky outcrop, water, bog and woodland areas. The planting,
however, is international and clothes the contours of the hillside like antique crewelwork.
Bought in 1971 by the Knotts, unseen and over the telephone if you can believe it, the 103 acre
property boasted only a derelict farmhouse inhabited by cows and pigeons. The only plants were
bracken and gorse, a. rainfall of 40”pa. ensured that extensive bogs discouraged all visitors and
the valley floor more than lived up to its Gaelic name 'Valley of the Rushes'! The only thing to
recommend it as far as they could see was its south facing aspect, the sea on three sides and the
fabulous eye-stretching views over it to the Isle of Man, Ireland and Cumbria.
Undaunted, and with almost unbelievable vision, the Knotts started by fencing off 12 acres
around the rebuilt house and in 1979 Glenwhan Garden was born! The first step was to follow
the advice of the Game Conservancy and plant a 1,000 tree shelter belt of hawthorn, rowan, gean
(wild cherry), birch, Monterey and Australian pines, and a variety of oaks especially Quercus
coccinea. Next came excavation of the water-logged areas to create two charming lochans.
These form the central focus of the garden and are conveniently fed by a stream carrying the
overflow of a nearby reservoir. 100 ornamental willow 'sticks' from Long Ashton Research
Station were planted round the edge. These now shelter visiting willdfowl which, along with
Koi carp and brown trout, do so much to bring the dark peaty waters to life.
Hilliers then advised them to divide the whole property into manageable named areas starting
(rather optimistically) with Choice Valley which was safely planted with 100 hardy
rhododendron hybrids! The Alan Clark Ride for species rhododendrons followed, as did the
John Bond Garden (named for the late curator of the Savill Gardens) and The Arboretum became
home to 10 precious and well-fed red squirrels. The Thinking Rock proved a perfect site for ‘The
Listener’, a stone native-Indian head from the Lost Gallery in Strathdon. Meanwhile a
Florentine Wild Boar arrived in an open pick-up from Walcott Reclamation in Bristol and a
‘Seated Figure’ by Simone Lyon decided to oversee the Arena Garden. The latest arrival, ‘Plant
Unfurling’ – a green marble carving from South Africa – remains forlornly unplaced.
Formerly a Cordon Bleu chef but certainly not a gardener, Tessa now urgently needed
horticultural recipes instead. She began her learning curve by visiting nearby Logan Botanic
Garden with its skillfully exhibited collection of exotic plants and shrubs from the Southern
Hemisphere - all thriving in the balmy Gulf Stream climate as it washes down the west
coast.. These visits combined with trips organized by the International Dendrology Society to
China, Bhutan and the Himalayas not only provided new ‘best friends’ but convinced Tessa to
concentrate on shrubs they had seen growing in their natural habitat. These trips happily co-
incided with the growing realisation that herbaceous plants and sophisticated Sassenach roses
really didn't like them! Another disappointment was her failure to establish any gentians at
home, having admired them en masse at 12,000 ft. in China.
Before anything could be planted Tessa had to remove what seemed like hundreds of tons of
rock. This she did herself with a crowbar and a lot of energy. The poor quality subsoil had to
be well supplemented with farm manure and slow-release fertilizer to try and retain the rainfall
which hitherto had drained 'like snow off a dyke'. Gravel and sand were similarly added where
rock plants needed to be established on dry stony slopes.
In these early days Tessa used an instinctive but random selection of plants where 'cultural needs
took precedence over design'. Happily combining native and exotic, she always had, however,
the idea of year-round interest constantly in the front of her mind. An expert and enthusiastic
guide, Tessa obviously lives and breathes her garden, constantly reassessing, altering and
renewing – always striving to achieve a good balance of evergreen and deciduous, bark and leaf,
early and late.
Trees, of course, define the garden, standing out against the sky on the rock outcrops and
providing definition to the softer areas with an immense variety of foliage and texture.
Eucalyptus and pine – Montesuma……, tall graceful eucryphia with their autumn flowers,
Davidia involucrata which has finally flowered, Hoheria ‘Glory of Almwich’……..
Early, for almost everywhere in Scotland, means the ethereal ground mist of massed snow drops
which give way to wall-to-wall bluebells – always a show stopping sight. Amelanchier
Canadensis (often wrongly despised as a ‘public park’ tree) and Japanese flowering cherries
shake their frothy blooms in welcome to nature’s Easter Parade. Flowering shrubs gladden the
heart with their fresh colours - daphnes, camellias (look out for C.‘Bushfields Yellow),
magnolias (particularly the large-leaved M. hyperleuca, Ceanothus ‘Concha’, Pieris, Cytisus
‘Porlock’, not to mention the species rhododendrons especially the lovely pink Rhododendron.
praecox and R. barbatum with its stunning red trusses and maroon bark. Beneath them the
ground is alight with spring-flowering heathers, huge quantities of Asiatic primulas, pink wood
anenomes, trilliums, erythroniums, dodeocatheon.
Summer sees the garden in full State regalia! Everyone is there –crowds of azaleas, Tessa’s
VIPs such as Myrtus ‘Lechleriana’, Wiegelia ‘Middenndorfiana’, Olearias ‘Cheesmanii’,
Scilliensis and ‘Comber’s Blue, Kalmia ‘Clementine Churchill’, Leptospermum ‘Red Damask
Crinodendron hookerianum with its bright red lanterns, Buddleja colvilei with its deep pink
flower clusters, tender abutilons, the Chilean firebush Embothrium coccineum and a recently
discovered anonymous weeping variety.
Festoons of rock roses, Lithodora ‘Heavenly Blue’ and Cytisus ‘Kewensis’ and its cousin
Spartium junceum display to their best on the sunny slopes whilst Clematis tangutica ‘Bill
Mackenzie’ completely smothers an old crab tree. Gunnera manicata provides height and scale
to the boggy areas where all the marginal plants such as iris are given free rein.
Although Tessa concentrates on shrubs and trees, she does particularly like celmesias – a much
underused grey spiky leaved plant with big white daisy flowers….and the kniphophias
particulary Kniphofia ‘Bees lemon’ useful plants which she points out comes in many different
sizes and colours.
Tessa’s favourites for Autumn are the hydrangeas – the oakleaved quercifolias, the felty villosas,
the paniculata ‘Grandiflora’s and the tree–like sargentiana – all of which are cut back to the old
wood in winter. Desfontainia spinosa with its glossy ‘holly’ leaves and red tubular flowers also
stays long in flower, as does thehalf-hardy corms of Dierama pulcherrima (Angel’s fishing
rods) with their feminine arching stems.
Glenwhan is a particularly well-stocked garden at any time, but in winter it really comes top of
the form! Bare branches against the sky emphasize the scale and greater proportion of shrubs
and trees that remain clothed and reward the visitor with an unending variety of foliage. The
holly-like osmanthus, the long thin leaves of Rhododendron ‘Makinoi’ and the rosy tipped ones
of Pittosporum ‘Elizabeth’ and Pseudowinteri colorata, the deliciously crushable leaves of
Drimys aromatica, the white flowered Myrtus luma apiculata and Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ –
the list goes on. Particularly impressive too are the spectacular fern Dicksonia antartica and
Pinus Montesumae (like a giant’s toilet brush!) Good reliable workers always give value – all
the azaleas for instance with their fiery red foliage, the common Berberis thunbergii and
Mahonias with their spiky leaves, the scarlet stemmed dogwood, the oranged stemmed salix and
all the bright cream splashed hollies.
If you can tear yourself away from the plant sale area at the entrance, the panorama of the whole
garden spreads around you - the visual impact is immediate. But wander on and you quickly
discover that this is not a garden to hurry! The path winds away up the hill, dipping and curving
through a succession of choice shrubs and plantings. You feel absolutely compelled to follow
where it leads.
Always moving forward, Tessa has recently opened up another 17 acres of moorland at the top
of the garden where the Millennium Peace Pinnacle, a tower of 5 slate globes created by Joe
Smith from nearby Crocketford, punctuates the divide between nature and nurture. Bill
particularly loves the strimmed walks that idle through a native area of gorse and bracken, now
gently managed to give space to over 120 species of wild flowers, ferns and mosses.
Glenwhan is a perfect example of how, given food, shelter and each other’s company, plants
quickly establish their own micro-climate in the most unlikely situations. So much so that Tessa
feels that the time has come - as it does to all gardeners - to take stock of the whole picture and
'let some plants go'. She noticed, for instance, on a trip to Lake Como that the trees in the garden
at Villa Torrento completely obscured all views of that beautiful lake and immediately resolved
to start some judicious cutting back of her own. Thugs like bamboo and persicaria are now on
Death Row, making room for other more collectable and precious plants. A whole new era is
opening up for this superb garden, wrestled by hard labour and love from uncompromising
moorland. Who would recognize the Valley of the Rushes now!
TESSA’S TOP TIPS
1. Use a wood chipper to recycle processed, but matured, trimmings as mulch on beds and
2. Do your homework on eventual size to avoid blocking the view of any borrowed
3. Source your plants as locally as possible and always ‘colder to warmer’.
4. Shelter from prevailing wind is all-important.
5. Make curved edges to flower beds to avoid bitty outlines that will be hard to mow
6. Site any taller planting on the opposite side of the path to your water to avoid blocking
7. Trial and error have convinced Tessa to reluctantly use REGLONE as the an effective
way to control water weeds.
TESSA’S PLANTING TIPS
1. Always divide celmesias and double primulas as they are difficult to grow from seed.
2. Don’t forget to cut dogwoods and willows right down, every other year, to the stool in
February to retain their bright stems.
3. Keep your hydrangea cuttings (particularly deciduous) and plant firmly in open ground.
4. Feed plants with slow release fertilizer such as ENMAG – where required.
5. Trillium and erythronium bulbs establish far quicker if bought ‘in the green.’
1. Castle Kennedy and Lochinch Gardens, Stranraer, DG9 8RT. Oi776 702 024.
2. Logan Botanic Garden, Port Logan, Stranraer,DG8 8LY 01776 860 231
3. Logan House Gardens, Port Logan, Stranraer, DG9 9ND 01776 860 239
1. Elizabeth McGregor at Ellenbank Nursery, Ellenbank, Kirkcudbright, DG6 4UU. 01557
2. Cally Gardens and Nursery, Gatehouse of Fleet, Castle Douglas, DG7 2DJ
01557 815 029 www.callygardens.co.uk
3. Robin and Mary Nicholson, Galloway Garden Plants, Claymoddie, Whithorn, D & G.
01988 500 422
TESSA ALSO RECOMMENDS
1. Mount Congreve Nurseries, Mount Congreve, Waterford, Ireland. +353 51 384826
2. Christies Nurseries,at Fochabers on the east coast
Julie, I have altered the plant names into italics where specifically named as this is normal
practice for latin plant names
Particulary the tender mexican pine
Pinus Montezumae …
Hundred ornamental willow ‘cuttings’ rather than ‘sticks’ looks more professional
Sentence beginning Tessa’s favorites for autumn…. am a little unsure about the wording of the
paniculatas and quericifolias … I would say rather…. the oakleafed Hydrangea quercifolia, and
the felty H. Villosa etc but up to you
The celmesias sentence there are several varieties, the large leafed one is Celmesia spectabilis at
The paragraph that begins Early, did you mean early Spring?
The para starting Hiilliers then advised them, should it read The K notts ?
In a way I think maybe you should only mention the very local nurseries and leave out Christies
and Mount Congreve. Mount Congreve is wholesale and I don’t really want my visitors to think
I buy in, but mainly propogate our own plants that they see growing in the garden!
These are only suggestions its your piece, but have altered any obvious spelling plant names in
the text as you have so little time.