Unlocking the Garden Gates… Dr Neil’s Garden

It’s week five of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, it’s been approximately five weeks since Mother Nature bought spring back to our woodlands, our countryside and our gardens. And, since that time the garden gates of our public gardens have remained locked; shutting out the public, including an estimated 23 million gardeners, from witnessing the joyous and uplifting spectacle of spring.

In this series of articles to date, the garden gates of Stockton Bury, Borde Hill and Knoll Gardens have been quietly ‘unlocked’. A stunning collection of exclusive photographs, taken by the owners, curators or head gardeners themselves, has taken us into their glorious gardens and allowed us all to witness, from afar, the stunning splendour of spring in these special places.

This week we travel the long and winding road to Edinburgh and unlock the garden gates of Dr Neil’s Garden.

Misty morning over Loch Doddingston


Dr Neil’s Garden was created in the late 1960s by husband and wife team, Andrew and Nancy Neil. The couple were both General Practitioners, hence the eponymously named, Dr Neil’s Garden.

Having found the site, a south facing hillside idyll overlooking the picturesque Duddingston Loch, the doctors set about building their garden on the previously uncultivated hillside. After ten years hard work the doctors had completed their garden and set about maintaining it alongside a handful of volunteers from their patient lists.

In 1998, Dr Neil’s Garden Trust was founded to protect the garden’s future.

In 2000, the elderly doctors enlisted the help of Claudia Pottier, who discovered a beautiful garden that despite it’s perfect outlook, was beginning to disappear under mature trees, azaleas and heathers. ‘The bones of the garden were still there…, and it was still magical’, Claudia explained. But there was work to be done. Sadly, both doctors passed away within a year of each other in 2005 and 2006.

The garden is usually open to the public from March to October and is now a well loved ‘secret’ in Edinburgh.

Drs Andrew and Nancy Neil

Location: Dr Neil’s Garden, Old Church Lane, Duddingston Village, Edinburgh, EH15 3PX

Website: http://www.drneilsgarden.co.uk

Size of garden: 2.5 acres

Who looks after the garden?

Claudia Pottier and a ‘wonderful band of seventeen dedicated volunteers’.

Volunteers’ lunch

What is the garden known for?

Claudia says ‘The garden is a sum of its parts. We have beautiful views from all angles with only one house and the tower of the 12th century Duddingston Kirk in view. There are many hidden benches that catch the sun in sheltered spots with views over the loch towards the Pentland Hills.’

‘What is most special about the garden is its tranquility’, Claudia tells me. ‘You wouldn’t know you were in the centre of Edinburgh.’

Dr Neil’s garden is alive with butterflies, mayflies, birds, bats and woodpeckers, due largely to Claudia’s admirable insistence of not allowing the use of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers in the garden. They do, however, have one rather unwanted visitor, the Great Diving Beetle, a large voracious predator of ponds and slow-moving waterways.

Sunset over Loch Doddingston

How would you sum up your garden in spring?

The garden has interest throughout the year, with only ‘a wee lull in about July’, after which the late summer herbaceous border blazes right through the autumn into the ‘bony severity of winter’.

Claudia thinks that the garden is at its most floriferous in spring with cherry blossoms, many different narcissi, grape hyacinths, erythroniums, bergenias, species tulips and different varieties of heather. Claudia also allows self-sown forget-me-nots, honesty and welsh poppies in controlled drifts. ‘And why not?’ she asks.

Bank of narcissi

Erythronium californium

Favourite spring plants in the garden?

I’ve asked each gardener to tell me their favourite spring plant. ‘How can anyone have just one favourite?’ Claudia exclaims before citing Cornus nuttalii (mountain dogwood), the breathtaking, blue-flowered Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ and Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley) with its sweetly scented, bell shaped flowers. The list of Claudia’s favourites continues with the gorgeous, shell pink, bell-shaped flowers of Rhododendron orbiculare, erythroniums, the long-lasting flowers of grevillea and epimediums, including the dainty E. ‘Lilafee’.

Fritillaria imperialis contrasting beautifully with Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’
Epimedium ‘Lilafee’

Specialist plants:

Dr Neil’s garden is home to some super specimen trees including the beautiful handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera with its distinctive, tulip shaped yellow and green flowers, the deciduous conifer, Metasequioa glyptostroboides, Halesia monticola and Sequoia sempervirens.

What’s new in the garden for spring?

Last year a beautiful Prunus ‘Okame’ was planted in the garden in memory of a much loved volunteer, Ruth, who sadly lost her battle with cancer. Ruth had volunteered at Dr Neil’s Garden for five years.

Volunteers working away in Dr Neil’s Garden
Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Randall’s White’
The entrance to the garden
The darkest hellebore
Towards the centre of the garden

With special thanks to Claudia Pottier for her time and her own beautiful photographs of Dr Neil’s Garden.

I will be unlocking the garden gates of another garden shortly.

Unlocking the Garden Gates… Knoll Gardens

We are all too painfully aware that we’re in the midst of unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has us ‘locked down’ at home, with no contact with family and friends who don’t live with us in our own homes.

Many of us have the joy of a garden (some large, some small, and most somewhere in-between); and some might have a balcony or a window-box. But for others, no garden of their own might have meant frequent forays to any number of gardens previously opened to the public.

Over the past two weeks I have ‘unlocked’ the garden gates of Stockton Bury Gardens and Borde Hill Gardens, where the curators/owners/head gardeners have sent me exclusive pictures of their beautiful ‘locked’ gardens right now, in spring.

This week, once again, I unlock the gates of a personal favourite local garden; Knoll Gardens.

Knoll Gardens first opened to the public in the 1970s, when it was known as Wimborne Botanic Garden. In 1994, the garden became the charge of Neil Lucas and John & Janet Flude. Under Neil’s particularly green-fingers, Knoll Gardens quickly became internationally recognised for its stunning collection of ornamental grasses. The essence of Knoll Gardens is the naturalistic planting of the grasses, woven in a pattern seemingly handed to Neil by Mother Nature herself. A regular visitor to the garden, I cherish the totally immersive experience of wandering around this incredible space. Thriving plant communities demonstrating first-hand the importance of ‘right plant, right place’.

Knoll Gardens

Location: Knoll Gardens, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne BH21 7ND

Website: https://www.knollgardens.co.uk

Size of garden:

About 4 acres.

Who looks after the garden:

Luke Al’Thor and a small team of volunteers.

What is the garden known for?

Knoll Gardens has an undisputed, international reputation for its stunning collection of ornamental grasses, which are planted in a manner which mimics nature. The garden itself is a striking, living catalogue for the award-winning nursery.

How would you sum up your garden in spring?

Knoll Gardens might be best known for its wonderful, modern collection of grasses and flowering perennials, especially in late summer and autumn when displayed amidst a kaleidoscope of stunningly coloured trees and shrubs. There is, however, a lot of interest at this time of year. Spring bulbs especially and some of the glorious spring flowering, woody plants such as Magnolia ‘Jane’ bring so much to the gardens. Neil tells me “Magnolia ‘Jane’ is a lovely selection which produces dark pink-purple, tulip shaped flowers that are delicately, lemon scented. Like so many of its kind its flowers come before the leaves on bare stems, which only adds to the wow factor of the display.”

Magnolia ‘Jane’
Spring garden

Favourite spring plants in the garden?

Neil tries to have something in flower every day of the year. Partly because it’s great to see flowers every day and partly to supply food for early-season pollinators; the garden is already seeing many bees, more than a few of which are nesting in cracks or crevices or indeed in the bee hotel!

Different, but still fabulous is Acacia pravissima, which whilst not really hardy needs siting away from cold winds and frosts, but in a sheltered spot rewards with a most enthusiastic display a bright yellow, pom-pom flowers.

Acacia pravissima

A favourite of Neil’s is Melianthus major, which in a mild winter retains its stems and leaves pretty much intact. Neil says “This then allows it to produce quite stunning flowers that I never fail to tire of. Like many flowers, possibly, it is at its most seductive when just on the point of opening; the promise of good things to come!”

Neil’s favourite, Melianthus major

Specialist Plants:

Neil says “Being Knoll there are a good few grasses! There are several experimental ‘meadows’ composed of sometimes native sedges, such as Carex remota which provide an informal, loose meadow feel, and at this time of year are alive with spring bulbs such as Anemone nemorosa and the purple checkerboard flower of Fritillaria meleagris. In the very difficult conditions of the gravel garden in full sun Ipheions have been in flower for some weeks and seem set to continue to do so.”

Fritillaria meleagris
Incredible Ipheons in the gravel garden

What’s new in the garden for spring?

The significant new project is the new ‘dry’ meadow complete with rain gardens. While still empty soil at the moment, the many grasses and perennials intended for here are lined up waiting for their chance to get planted.

Primula ‘Minicombe’, a native selection found in Devon
The shady meadow

The beautiful shady meadow

Fritillaria meleagris in the shady meadow
Leucojum aestivum

Spring garden

With special thanks to Neil Lucas for his time and for allowing me to use these exclusive photographs.

I will be unlocking the garden gates of another garden next week.

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