JARS v57n1 - Display Gardens: The Millennium Garden, Oban Scotland: A Potted History

Display Gardens: The Millennium Garden, Oban Scotland: A Potted History

The following article by the late Mervyn S. Kessell first appeared in the Scottish Chapter newsletter.

In the beginning...remind me never to put forward ideas especially when I have to see them through to completion!

For those who don't know - I suspect most you - the original idea for creating a rhododendron garden in Oban went back to about 1994, two years before the convention [ARS Annual Convention, 1996]. The idea was to build a garden to show just what could be done in a small area. For a number of reasons it just did not happen - just as well given the amount of work involved trying to keep the convention on the rails.

Not a lot happened until after the Scotland's Garden Show in Ingliston near Edinburgh in 1998 when a consortium of Argyll's Glorious Gardens along with support from Argyll and Bute Council, Argyll and the Isles enterprise and others built Deirdie's Garden. This was a great success and there was interest in recreating it in Oban after the event. Following a costing exercise it was found to be too expensive and the idea was dropped until 1999 when I suggested a much modified plan with the rather clichéd name of the Millennium Garden, for the year, of course!

Finding a venue was not that difficult since we had plans to hold our show at Atlantis Leisure* in Oban that year. What was much more difficult was getting the garden underway. The design was played around with for some time until something like what is currently in place was arrived at. The project was costed and I came to the conclusion that a value of about £15,000 was not unreasonable. However, there was little chance that we could raise that kind of money, and being a bit of a masochist I suggested to the SRS committee that we build it ourselves.

The only way to achieve the impossible was by hard work, some cash and a lot of donations. The hard work came later, but thanks to a very generous offer of £1500 from the Oban Common Good Fund we were on our way. (At the end of the day we only needed £1000). Nevertheless, the shortfall in materials had to be made up from somewhere, and thanks to a number of companies both within and outwith Argyll and Bute I was confident enough to start the project.

What we were trying to achieve: The concept was to:

1. Produce a relatively small rhododendron garden with companion plants, in fact, a garden that the average homeowner could relate to.

2. It had to be designed with minimum maintenance in mind, taking into account that our members were scattered throughout the country and would not be able to have any significant input on a regular basis.

3. It also had to house a good range of species, either ones that would not grow too large or, if they did, we would be prepared to remove them to a good home when they did.

4. We also needed to have some kind of "instant" effect so that the general public would not have to wonder too much what it would look like in three or four years' time.

5. It had to be educational, for example, well labelled and some cultural information available.

6. It had to have some type of security in order to keep out dogs and give visitors an element of seclusion.

The idea was that it should have been completed by May 2000 for the opening of our annual show. This was a forlorn hope. Eventually we got started with a small group of members lead by the Argyll Mafia, David Starck and myself (and John Roy since he is relatively local but now outwith Argyll). We managed to rope in your president from far-flung Fife, Matt from sunny East Kilbride, Ian Sinclair from wherever he was at the time. Philip Rankin abandoned Edinburgh and braved the elements. Maurice Wilkins from Arduaine, despite a sore back like many of the rest of us, did a sterling job with the fence.

However, one person in the form of Alastair Cakebread, who lives in Oban and was not one of our members, probably did more to ensure the success of the project on the ground. Alastair, who works for Fountain Forestry, gave up many weekends to help us. Not only did he work like a Trojan (there are not many Trojans in Argyll) but he managed to persuade so many people to donate materials that we were astonished where everything came from. As a reward for his stalwart help he was made a member by the society.

After many weekends of rain, hail and occasional snow, we had reached a stage when I knew we were going to succeed. The fence was completed and painted, the weeds had been removed and the plants were starting to arrive. There was no sign of Charlie Dimmock or the rest of the ground force team. The Oban and Lorn Horticultural Society popped in to lend support.

To say that we had a planting plan was not totally inaccurate, but it was really more of a wish list. We had generous donations of plants from many sources including Glendoick, Arduaine and many of our members. De Jager Bulbs gave us over a thousand bulbs, which put on a great display in the spring despite the late planting.

Although we did plant to a sort of plan it was always the intention to move plants around as they developed and we received more specimens. Around the beginning of April the mulch arrived and had an immediate effect. The central planter was completed by John Beaton at no cost to the SRS. And things were coming together.

The garden was opened by Ray Michie, MP for Argyll and Bute, on the 28th April 2001. To quote another MP who cannot visit the garden, "This was not the end, nor was it the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning."

The garden still has to be labelled which we shall be doing over the next few months, plants have to be rearranged and new ones added, many during our spring show in May 2002.

The garden will be maintained by the Oban and Lorn Horticultural Society. Atlantis Leisure will be responsible for the general infrastructure and removal of the litter. Our society will ensure that the garden is adequately stocked with interesting plants. If you have anything that you think would look good and is free of pests and diseases, please let us know.

Meanwhile I would like to thank the following without whose help it may never have happened:

Sponsors for the Oban Millennium Garden:

Principal Funding Body: Oban Common Good Fund, Scottish Rhododendron Society, Atlantis Leisure.

Material and Labour: Atam Plant Hire, Alastair Cakebread, Atlantis Leisure, Fountain Forestry, M & K Macleod, Keyline, Jewson, EDM Plant, Enstone Thistle, Craigard Decor Centre, Environmulch, John Beaton, George MacNaughton, Owl Wood, Oban Rotary, Members of the Scottish Rhododendron Society and Members of the Oban and Lorn Horticultural Society.

Plants Supplied By: Arduaine Gardens (NTS), Braevallich Nurseries, Cakebreads Garden Centre, Craignish Nurseries, Glendoick, Highland Heathers, Skipness Plants, West Coast Nurseries, The Tree Shop, De Jager (bulbs), Matt Heasman (SRS), Ian Douglas (SRS) and Hilary Hill.

Editorial Note (editor, SRS newsletter):

It is a poignant thought that this final offering from Mervyn, which arrived only a couple of weeks before his death, showed him typically full of plans for the future. I hope we can maintain the garden as he would have wished.

Note from John Hammond, SRS member and ARS Director of Chapters at Large:

The garden was entirely Mervyn Kessell's idea; he developed the layout, did all the planning, liaised with the Centre management, sought sponsorship in the way of all the materials needed for construction and fencing, arranged for help with construction equipment and labour, sought donations and sponsorship of plants and bulbs, and acted as ringleader for arranging work gangs to prepare the soil and complete the plantings. He successfully sought grant aid to cover the Scottish Chapter's four figure out-of-course costs and arranged the official opening of the garden. Prior to his untimely death he had put the embryo arrangements in-situ for insurance cover, an important and often forgotten item for a public garden, and for the on-going day-to-day maintenance and upkeep of the garden with the help of the Oban & Lorne Horticultural Society who have recently planted a further 24 dwarf rhododendrons in the garden. If you needed a model of what is possible for an individual member to achieve on a piece of unused and barren piece of land in the centre of town with all the problems of it having been used as a building site then this is an excellent example!

*Atlantis Liesure Centre is a large recreation facility that caters for all types of sports and associated events. It was a local community project and the building was funded by donations from local individuals, businesses in Argyll and grant aid. It was completed a few years ago and the facilities are well used and supported.