There was a garden here long before the Woolmill House existed. The 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows two parallel paths leading down from the original cottages. The ground was possibly used as allotments and perhaps useful flowering plants.
When the House was built by the Smiths in the early 20th Century, the garden was re-designed. More paths were laid, quartering the ground which was used to grow vegetables and soft fruit. Ornamental trees were planted including a sycamore variety which seems to have come from Knockando House, a chestnut remains. In later years, when perhaps the need for self-sufficiency receded, the lower beds were laid out as lawns and more space was given to flowers and shrubs.
The garden was enclosed at the upper end by an iron hooped fence with decorative spears, delineating the private areas from the more public shop and office. Old photos show rustic seats and rose arches. The summer house was built for Elsie, a Smith relative who had tuberculosis but died in 1921. This was rebuilt in 2010. The privy appears to have been installed when the Woolmill House was erected. The hen house under the Scot’s pine trees was another indication of self-sufficiency.
Duncan and Winnie Stewart continued to actively maintain the kitchen garden for vegetables, fruit and flowers until the 1980s. The garden declined into an area of mown grass once the Stewarts left, the House was rented out and the connection with the Mill and croft was broken.
The garden became the site of modern infrastructure during the restoration of the Woolmill (2010-12). New telecommunications, water pipes and drainage were installed, the water wheel tail race cleared and the river bank strengthened. All the original plants were lost, the large cypress and many self-sown sycamores removed. Unfortunately the roots of the large, iconic sycamore were damaged and this had to be felled. The old path system was replaced although not the iron-hooped railings. Construction works had altered the levels of the garden which disturbed the natural drainage and made access difficult for disabled people.
In 2013 we were chosen as one of the Beechgrove Garden’s community garden projects. As part of the BBC 2 television programme, we were assigned a garden designer, Kirsty Mclean. The Trust knew that it would be unrealistic to re-create the former kitchen garden. Instead, Kirsty designed an informal space keeping with the site, which could be easily maintained and enjoyed by the public and staff alike. The problem of the levels was overcome by drystone terracing and the drainage improved (almost!). It included a dyers garden, a fruit and vegetable plot and a wild area as well as more formal grass and herbaceous flowers.
The Woolmill is a frost pocket and loses the sun for a couple of months entirely in the winter. Snow can lie for months. By contrast, heat is concentrated in the summer, often rising to temperatures 30°C. Hardy herbaceous plants and some tough shrubs were planted to withstand these conditions.
Nearly all the reconstruction work was undertaken by volunteers, all plants were donated as were much of the materials. We worked frenetically throughout summer of 2013 to make a new garden from scratch; it had to be ready for filming at the beginning of September. The result was amazing – not a recreation of the old garden, but something to be enjoyed by all in the spirit of the Woolmill’s renaissance.
The Garden Now
The garden is kept up by a dedicated group of volunteers. We were lucky that the first winter was very mild so the plants could become established. We have tried to label plants, but some are unknowns.
There is a herb area near the kitchen so these can be used in cooking. The hostas and lavender seem to survive the dry conditions under the horse chestnut tree. The dyers garden includes woad, weld, and dyer’s chamomile and is still being developed. Fuller’s teasles can be seen in various places especially on the other side of the foot bridge. Sedums and other rockery plants were pushed into the crevices of the dry stone walls in individual compost-filled ladies tights! This novel technique has worked pretty well.
We grow as much as we can from seed but we can always find a space for donations of hardy plants. The garden is still being developed – seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s an exciting prospect and we would welcome anybody who can spare some time to join the volunteers.