Growbag Blog

Who needs Chelsea when you can have the Highlands?


So in a week where we might have been heading to the embankment in London for the Chelsea Flower Show, Elaine and I instead found ourselves heading north to Caroline’s new abode in the Highlands. We thought we’d been invited up to sip cocktails in her glasshouse and marvel at the progress she had made in creating her new garden, but the reality was she’d actually just enlisted us as unpaid labour for a long weekend of planting, weeding and watering.

As a new-build on a virgin plot her garden still required some bare bones in the shape of hedges and steps to go in, but Caroline also needed some quick wins to brighten up her terraces and evening drinkies spots (there seemed to be a lot of these ..).

Caroline’s house, there seem to be any number of ‘hospitality’ spots

I was put on pots. Luckily Caroline had already got the tasteful collection of pineapple lilies, watsonias and white agapanthus that I had put together for our summer bulb offer earlier this year, and she’d miraculously made quite a good fist of this. To add some height to her collection I planted up a good deep pot with some sweet peas (Thompson and Morgan’s Top to Bottom), and to provide some bulk I potted on a couple of white argyranthemums (cuttings from cuttings of a plant endlessly in circulation, originally given to me by Louise and referred to simply as ‘The Sissinghurst Daisy’ ). 

Argyranthemum frutescens
Little pots of this classic white marguerite daisy circulate like horticulture currency amongst family and friends each spring

As Caroline had clearly rejected my advice not to site her glasshouse on the sunny south of her house, she obviously needed a solution on how to block out the blazing sun during the summer months, and luckily for her I had one. My little postal box of forwarded plants contained two young Cobea scandens ‘Alba’ plants, which should scramble up to the roof in no time and provide a wonderfully exotic natural barrier to the worst of scorching sunshine (why does she never listen?) 

I was put on pots – luckily I’d commissioned MyHermes to send some perfect choices on ahead of our arrival.

My final pots were three young Nicotiana alata plants which are said to have the strongest scent of all these tall stately late summer tobacco plants and can be moved around to wherever the action is of a warm Highland evening. 

Stately nicotiana add structure and fragrance to the late summer garden scene


Laura is quite right – having sent a trunk of evening gowns and a couple of hatboxes on ahead, we quickly realised on arrival at Caroline’s garden that we should have brought stout boots and rugged trousers instead. Nevertheless, once we’d understood our ‘horticultural slave’ status we thoroughly enjoyed getting stuck into the work.

Given the bitter cold of this last winter, especially in the Highlands, I was surprised and pleased (not to say impressed, but sshhh…..don’t tell Caroline) at how well most of her baby plants had come through. Laura and I have been supplying her with all sorts of seedlings, cuttings and divisions for the past nine months or so, and they had been bunged into a new flower bed in a deeply random fashion.

Caroline had all the right plants (mine) but not necessarily in the right order, until we arrived.

My task was to work through this border, sorting them out before they get too comfortable in inappropriate positions. For instance, Paeonia delavayi lutea with its 8′ (2.5 m) stems of pretty cut leaves, and delightful lemony-yellow flowers, is probably better-sited towards the back of a flower-bed. And rooted shrub rose cuttings have a dangerous habit of suddenly putting down deep roots as soon as they get the taste for growing – they needed to be moved away from their 6″ spacings fairly promptly………………

There’ll need to be plenty more adjustments once all the bits and pieces are bigger and Caroline has made some more areas available for planting, but it was a good start in perfect weather for the job – not wet, not windy, not blazing, not cold: it’s not often I say that about a day in the Highlands. We filled the gaps with lots of cosmos – Caroline had grown these beautifully too, leaving me just the task of pinching out the tops to make them bushier – by George, we’ll make a gardener of her yet!


I know she doesn’t really believe that. But E and L have gaps in their own education. Scorching sun and warm evenings? Laura has not grasped the Highland climate, but the old girls certainly did work up a glow during their weekend here.   

After the usual humiliations about my approach to horticulture (this time regarding my ratio of online plant shopping : actual gardening) they spotted some spades and a wheelbarrow and off they shot!

I quickly diverted them to the rather dull task of planting my yew hedge. My garden needs basic infrastructure that’s both bone-hardy and preferably evergreen given the long dark winters. Yew has pre-Christian provenance that I hope will add gravitas to my reputation as a lightweight gardener.

L and E made such a kerfuffle of planting my yew hedge but, to be fair…….
….they did a not bad job!

What a masterclass! Instead of my own tool inventory (yew trees + trowel), they required bamboo sticks, garden twine, spades, watering cans and mycorrhizal fungi. Even my lowly contribution as their ‘gopher’ fell short for under-watering “Come back! Give them half a watering-can each Caroline, this is the most important drink of a plant’s life.”

By this time a drink was a fairly high priority for my own survival. Having my sisters to visit is is marvellous of course, but not for the faint-hearted.

NB I am hoping one day to find just the right spot in my new garden, (sheltered but airy, sunny but stony), for the stunning shrub that is Louise’s plant of the moment. You’ll never dismiss hebes again! Click on the box below to find out which one it is.

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

13 replies on “Who needs Chelsea when you can have the Highlands?”

Love the new house – specially the colour and look forward to seeing the garden progress – fab spot!

Susie, thank you! Caroline here. Yes you’ve no idea how much angst went in to choosing the colour. It’s lime paint so it’s patchy in nature and to be honest I prefer the colour on the glasshouse walls where it’s a bit darker. It goes a lovely rich colour when wet which, luckily, is most of the time in the Highlands! Very best wishes to you XX

You are brave taking on a new place like that and creating a new garden from scratch. I love Scotland – spent many holidays there when I was a student – but it can get wild and wet as I’m sure you know! Its taken me 12 years to get a Paenoia Lutea Ludlowii to grow to just over 1M after starting off like yours and I am in the balmy depths of the Cotentin near one of your sisters! Good luck. Love the doggy.

Ray P

Ray how lovely to hear from you. It’s Caroline here. Elaine is on granny duty in Shepherd’s Bush this weekend but longing to get to France so you’ll no doubt see her soon. My experience of peonies is similar to yours. My intersectional one – Bartzella – came up enthusiastically for years not realising it was also expected to produce flowers. It’s getting the hang of it now but it’s been a bit like raising a teenager. Yes isn’t Elsie (cocker spaniel) gorgeous. She is my daughter’s lockdown puppy but we think she was sent to us from God – everyone adores her. Very best wishes to you Ray XX

I love that sisterly banter. I would love to be that (friendly) fly on the wall. Enjoy your new house Caroline – and the eventual peace once they’ve left 😉

Scott, Caroline here, thank you so much. You’ve so hit the nail on the head, I think you’d enjoy being in thegrowbags’ company (although possibly only for a short while). When we’re together, we often laugh until the tears stream down our cheeks and we can’t speak, and we feel about 12 again. It’s very therapeutic and I’d wish it for everyone. Our very best wishes to you XXX

Hi again Caroline, I wold love to be all you company. it seems you all have no axe to grind with each other (though maybe secateurs) and I love that. It’s when family can be so open and honest – and love each other as you all do, then you set a fine example to us – and the world(!!!!). Keep on keeping on ‘kids’ and long may you continue. My love to you all xxx

Caroline, congratulations on such a good choice of hedge. People always say yew is a slow grower, but not in our experience. It gets away well when planted properly which I’m sure your sisters know all about, and you soon get a good, dense hedge which is a reasonable height, The colour of it will look fabulous with your burnt orange house colour. Enjoy making your new garden in such a beautiful spot, I hope we’ll see its progress!

Thank you so much Jennie. Yes I agree – yew does come with that reputation and I also agree with you that I’m not sure it’s deserved. It’s hard to tell because all trees seem to love the Highland climate. People say Beech is a slow grower but it seems to supersize itself every year with us. Thank you for your comments about my house – it is in a beautiful position isnt it? I hope I can do it justice. Very best wishes and thank you for all your encouragement XXX

Looks totally amazing Caroline.
Can’t wait to see it when I am up north sometime later this year and can pop over hopefully when you are in residence to say hello again…meanwhile wet wet wet and windy Cornwall reminds me of the north…but I can grow hostas and peonies here which was never poss in Bristol!

Frances, Caroline here, I’m so sorry I thought I’d replied – that’s advancing years for you! It would be really lovely to see you. Isn’t it funny that some locations just won’t accommodate some plants. Bristol I think is predominantly clay isn’t it? I assume this is not suited to hostas and peonies but remember I am not the best gardener ever! I’d love to visit you in Cornwall so we must organise mutual visits!

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