18th July 2018
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In the garden

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THE BASE of the lamp on my bedside table is a ceramic owl. A fitting shape for the sleeper, an owl also.

I’ve always preferred the crack of midday to the crack of dawn; my creative juices are rarely in full flow before 3pm, and the other night I had great fun mowing the lawn at midnight.

My helpers, by request, rarely arrive before 10am, and we usually start our working day with a coffee break and chocolate sampling – fortification for the arduous task of an 11am start.

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” is just one example of the high value our society places on the early risers – the larks as opposed to the owls. Praise and admiration is heaped upon the former, while the latter, even if they get as much, or more, done in a day, never attract eulogies; quite the opposite. Ac­cording to the American essayist Anne Fadiman ” an owl herself ” owls are “considered somewhat threadbare in the moral fibre department”.

During my early days in Shetland, while trying to fit into a lark-dominated community, I briefly, and hopelessly, aspired to lark status by staggering up the hill, half asleep, in order triumphantly to hang out my washing every Monday before noon ” washing I’d done the night before.

Taking my cue from fellow owls, I’ve long since given up such attempts at conformity. Instead I now do things when I feel like it, and just now and again derive a modicum of vindication from those cases where the early bird fails to catch the worm.

The owl and lark equation also applies to horticulture, and great virtue, it seems, is attached to getting one’s vegetables into the ground as early in the season as possible.

This spring hardly a day went by without fellow gardeners proudly relating their ultra early crop achievements – in all likelihood carried out between the hours of five and seven in the morning.

At the start of June the worm began to turn, with tales of woe abounding. Carrots, parsnips and parsley, some peas and beans also, sown many weeks hence, had failed to germinate, while potato shores, blackened by night frost, had to start their growing all over again.

Our growing season might be a comparatively short one, but that doesn’t mean the gardener has to rush. Given the abundance of daylight, plants have many extra hours for photosynthesis, which means late starters soon catch up.

Most years we get a long, dry, sunny spell (our little summer) during May, and more often than not, it comes hot on the heels of a cold and wet April. Seeds don’t germinate well in chilly, soggy ground, and the same holds true for very dry soil.

My peaty loam – a growing medium I share with many Shetland gardeners – is virtually impossible to re-hydrate artificially once the top layer is completely desiccated. That layer turns loose and puffy the drier it gets, and seeds, unless firmed in extremely well, won’t be able to establish the close soil contact necessary for germination.

So what are the gardening owls to do when faced with this scenario? Long dry spells are usually followed by rain, and simply sowing some weeks into the drought, while hoping for a deluge soon thereafter, has worked for me on many occasions.

If that’s too uncertain for those of you with a lark streak, take heart, for I have a useful trick up my sleeve. It involves copious amounts of water straight from the hot tap, and a few water carriers – husbands and children do come in handy on such occasions.

First mark out where you want to make your sowing drills, using a trowel as a spacer and a bamboo cane to mark a line, then soak that line with hot water until the peaty dust starts to stick together. Draw a drill with the edge of a drag hoe, sow your seed and cover it, before repeating the hot water treatment. This also speeds up the germination of umbellifers (members of the carrot family), especially parsley.

We sowed early carrots, parsnips, spinach and a vast range of herbs and salads on 29th May. As I write, just before midnight on Tuesday 10th June, all but the parsley are up and growing apace. Sciatica, which prevents me from digging, has me waiting for the arrival of muscular men armed with spades, forks and rotovators to prepare the ground. Rather than leaving the seeds asleep in their packets, that time window can speed up the growing process.

Moisture breaks the seed coating, and water, tepid this time, can again be put to good use, in a process called pre-germination. This task can be carried out, owl style, in the dead of night, and pea and bean seeds respond particularly well to it.

Use shallow, lidded food con­tainers, and make sure the seeds are covered with water at all times. Sow as soon as the coat starts to split and the tip of the first radical begins to emerge. This will usually take between five and seven days.

Make sure the ground is ready by then, and never allow pre-germinated seed to dry out.

Potatoes can be laid out to chit at the end of January for first earlies, but if they’re kept overlong in the prescribed cool, light place, the tubers will start to shrivel; being root-less they can’t replace the moisture they lose. Water, once again, is the answer.

My seed potatoes, placed in shallow plastic trays with a finger’s width of water in the bottom, remained plump and started producing roots about a month ago. One concern was the roots becoming one large tangled mat. I needn’t have worried, as they were easily separated, and the first green was showing above ground four days after planting.

There’s one important consider­ation, especially when sowing and planting late. Plants in fertile soil will not only catch up with, but overtake those in poor ground. This year we’ve used seaweed for carrots and beetroot, fish meal for leeks, and copious amounts of horse manure for the cabbage tribe, true to the old saying: where there’s muck there’s brassicas (this version plagiarised from my friend A).

After a few vigorous rake’n’roll sessions, all was in the ground by 11th June, and if you’re not there yet, be a true owl, and keep your calm. As long as you get everything sown and/or planted before the next full moon, you can be sure of a rich harvest.

It’s but a kitten’s leap from the moon to the stars. While I get great satisfaction from my freshly-tended vegetable field, it is the flowers that bring the real excitement. During the rush of the past few weeks many have come and gone almost unnoticed, but there are two stars in early June that could never suffer such a fate.

It must be two decades or more since I grew my first blue poppy, but every time those crumpled silk petals emerge from their calyx I’m arrested in my step.

Meconopsis x sheldonii, a hybrid between M. betonicifolia and M. grandis, is the best performer with me, and once a clump has fattened up for a couple of years, it produces numerous stems hung with large, deep blue lamp shades. Soundly perennial, and easily raised from seed, it revels in well-drained humus-rich, acid soil. A thick mulch of garden compost each spring is repaid a thousand fold.

The Chilean fire bush, Embothrium coccineum, likes the same conditions, but unlike those Asiatic beauties, prefers a Spartan diet. Its brilliant red flowers always turn heads, and it is arguably the most flamboyant tree we can grow at this latitude.

Sadly, plants capable of flowering in Shetland aren’t easy to come by, as those available from commercial sources invariably originate from the hot, Mediter­ranean climate of central Chile, and will only perform sporadically, if at all, following an exceptionally warm summer the year before.

The good news for the Shetland gardener is that this small tree has a wide north-south distribution in the wild, and plants, raised from seed collected in Tierra del Fuego, regularly flower and set seed at Lea Gardens. Seedlings, treated in the usual way – pricked out and potted on regularly – showed no gratitude and soon curled up their toes.

Using the owl approach, and leaving them to languish for a year or three in their seed trays before potting them up individually runs contrary to all advice I’ve received on the subject, but seems to be the secret of success.

Rosa Steppanova