JARS v45n3 - Coille Dharaich: A Seaside Garden

Coille Dharaich: A Seaside Garden
Hilary and Alan Hill
Kilmelford, Scotland

Kilmelford is a small village on the west coast of Scotland, about 25 km south of Oban - the town where the 1996 ARS Annual Convention will be held. It is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the sea being studded with the islands of the Inner Hebrides. Long fingers of sea stretch inland between rugged heather-clad hills. Coille Dharaich (Gaelic for "Oak Wood") is situated beside one of these indentations of the sea on the north shore of Loch Melfort. Coille Dharaich is the home of Doctors Alan and Hilary Hill.

Scotland map

In 1969 we bought a small piece of rough pasture and over the years have gradually turned it into a garden which makes as much use as possible of local rock and stone. The land slopes gently upwards to a steep wooded cliff which shelters the garden from north winds, but even hedges give little shelter from east, south and west winds. Geologically the garden lies on a raised beach which means that many years ago it was under the sea. This is reflected in the soil which has a thin surface layer, pH 5.6, washed down from the cliff. This topsoil has become mixed with sand, gravel and stones of all sizes.

Rock Outcrop Featured
From 1969-1979 we visited the house only during holidays, but since 1979, when we retired from the National Health Service, it has been our permanent home. We started the garden by building walls, paths and a terrace, using stones collected from the sea shore, and planted hedges and a group of dwarf conifers. In 1975 Hilary discovered a large 'stone' which she could not move. The 'stone' eventually turned out to be part of a stratum of rock, geologically a sedimentary formation called Craignish phyllite, lying on the ancient seabed. There is a similar outcrop of rock on the shore ½ km away. The layer of rock in the garden was originally buried 20-130 cm (8-51 in) below the surface of the ground, and six years were spent clearing away the overlying soil, sand and gravel. The cleared rock measures 10 x 8 m (33 x 26 ft) and with the associated pool and bog forms the central feature of the garden. Soil removed while exposing the rock was used to form a bank and terraced scree on the west side of the garden. Troughs were made and planted in 1987 and 1988. In 1990 a new scree was added at the front of the house; the stones for this came from a nearby beach and like all the screes it is topped by granite chips 7-10 mm (.3 x .4 in).

Scree slope at Coille Dharaich
Scree slope at Coille Dharaich
Photo by Hilary Hill

Peat Lovers on West Side

Plants on the west side of the bank are mostly peat lovers which also need a good depth of soil, some shade and ample moisture. Here lilies, petiolarid primulas and autumn flowering gentians flourish and appreciate the shelter of Pieris 'Forest Flame' ( P. formosa var. forrestii x japonica ), a splendid shrub which provides year-long color from leaves and profuse panicles of pink budded white flowers. Caultheria cuneata , Ledum palustre minus , Kalmia polifolia , Arctostaphylos , Vaccinium vitisidaea var. minus and x phyllothamnus erectus thrive in this area as do asiatic primulas and dodecatheons. Curiously Kalmia microphylla and most of the dwarf rhododendrons are happiest on the adjacent windswept south-facing bank where we grow a variety of species and hybrids, many coming from Peter Cox's Glendoick nursery. From Peter we learned to choose plants with unusual and attractive leaves as well as gorgeous flowers so as to provide year-long interest. Outstanding is the rhododendron 'Curlew' which regularly flowers in spring and autumn, its creamy yellow blooms blending well with Rhododendron impeditum , 'Intrifast, R. fastigiatum and R. lepidostylum . Carpets of R. radicans and azalea R. nakaharai 'Mariko' look good with dwarf alliums, the black spiky foliage of Ophiopogon pianiscapus 'Nigrescens' and the greenish spires of Zigadanus elegans .

Scree slope and rock stratum
Scree slope and rock stratum
Photo by Hilary Hill

Alpines to Bog Plants
These dwarf rhododendrons and a shapely dwarf blue conifer, Abies procera glauca prostrata , form a miniature windbreak for the scree terraces on the east side of the bank. These screes are home for all kinds of alpines including spring flowering gentians, geraniums, dwarf bulbs, saxifrages, creeping penstemons and a mat of Bolax glebaria nana from the Falkland islands - an extraordinary plant which is as hard as nails to the touch! Lime-lovers are planted near the retaining mortared walls.

The cleared rock provides a habitat for several native wild plants whose roots spread widely in the layers of sand that separate the strata. Some well-drained pockets in the rock have been filled with gravel and gritty soil, and a variety of alpines thrive in this sparse compost. Yet other areas of the rock are poorly drained, and loam in these crannies merges with the bog garden at the edge of the pool and are planted with candelabra primulas, iris, hostas and calthas. The floor of the pool is formed by natural rock strata, thus providing different depths to suit a variety of water plants. On the east side of the garden are larger plants and small shrubs which include a number of daphnes.

Hypertufa troughs at the Hill's house
Hypertufa troughs in front of the Hill's house
Photo by Hilary Hill

Trough and Greenhouse Protection
The view from the house over sea loch and hills is spectacular so planting in front of the house has been minimal. But the terrace is edged with homemade hypertufa troughs in which choicer alpines are growing. The soil filling troughs can be tailored to the requirements of individual plants and predators can be kept at bay more easily than in open beds.

The greenhouse is kept frost-free by an electric heater, and its fan is kept running throughout the year to keep the air moving even when no heat is required; the plants here such as helichrysums and lewisias would die if planted in the open because our rainfall is so heavy. There is also a heated (15°C) propagation bench. Outside the greenhouse two raised beds are set in the foundations of a cottage, inhabited up to 100 years ago.

There are two big problems rain and wind. The rainfall over the past 10 years has averaged 1837 mm (72.3 in), ranging from 1626 to 2123 mm (64-84 in). Gales are frequent and gusts as high as 117 km/hour (73 mph) have been recorded. Thus raised beds with excellent drainage and windbreaks for the troughs, all newly planted trees and even some alpines are essential. During winter the temperature frequently falls below 0°C (the lowest recorded has been -12°C), but little snow falls and any lying snow usually melts in a few hours.

Dr. Hilary F. H. Hill has at different times during her life practiced medicine, worked as an administrator in the Family Planning Association, and worked full time as a housewife, during which time she created a typical English garden from a cornfield. Dr. Alan C. S. Hill served in the army in WWII as a medical officers for a Scottish regiment and was awarded a Military Cross. He was the first director of a Rheumatism Research Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. He enjoys sailing, gardening and photography. The Hill's garden will be visited during the 1996 ARS Annual Convention.