The ‘marginal garden’

One of the most inspired and determined efforts at creating a garden that relies on a matrix of native vegetation and exotics is the ‘marginal garden’ of Professor Geoffrey Dutton in the Scottish Highlands. At an altitude of 275 m at 57 degrees of latitude, the climate is indeed ‘marginal’ for any kind of cultivation. The term, however, also describes the degree of horticultural intervention made and, as such, is an important pointer towards a philosophy of management that could have much wider implications than simply its application to a very severe environment. Dutton also describes his role as ‘marginal’, in that very limited time has meant that he has become a ‘curator’ of the land (Dutton 1997).

Hardy woody plants form a screen against the worst of the weather and provide a framework for the garden. Native plants predominate, with a limited number of non­natives used, which can be relied upon to survive both the severe climate and the low level of intervention. The overall feel is that of not quite knowing whether one is in a garden or not. Some clipping of shrubs and mowing of paths, however, illustrates intention and design, ‘a path astonishingly transforms confused ground into comprehensible order’ (Dutton 1997:178).

Whilst the introduction of woody non-natives into a minimally maintained woodland – dominated habitat is common, the use of herbaceous species is much less so. Dutton has managed to naturalise several robust species, such as Aconitum spp., Aruncus dioicus and Ranunculus aconitifolius. Early season perennials, such as Doronicum spp., are paired with ferns or Rodgersia spp., which serve to shade out weedy native species later in the season (Dutton 1997).

Such minimalist interventions in the landscape, with the introduction of a very limited ornamental species, which need the minimum of care, is one possible way in which certain public landscapes could be inexpensively enhanced and managed. Situations that might be suitable include extensive areas of neglected urban parkland, where habitats are often dominated by coarse weedy perennials and succession communities where invasive woody exotics (e. g. Acerpseudoplatanus) dominate.