In the garden
AS WE’RE nearing the end of another year, I’ll take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends.
It’s good to know that my readers pay attention, but some of you out there are a little too observant and sharp-eyed for comfort.
You’re absolutely right, there was no mention of salad crops or tomatoes in my recent list of Shetland-proof vegetable varieties, and I’ll try make up for this now.
As far as salads go I haven’t got a list of varieties, but on the whole I prefer those cut and come again mixtures to plain old lettuce, as they often come with a dash of rocket or cress. All do well here, and are largely a matter of taste; a French mix containing a good deal of dandelion and chicory might be too bitter for some palates, while the hot and spicy ones are not for the faint-hearted.
For a heading lettuce, ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ is prolific and easy to grow, but has been replaced by’Little Gem’ at Lea Gardens. For winter supplies Chicory ‘Apollo’ is unbeatable. Grow it in fertile ground, and pot up in October for forcing in a dark, warm place.
A local grower recommends ‘Shirley’ as the tomato for a cool greenhouse, but I don’t seem to have the necessary skill to make it work for me. The fruits only start to ripen in late September, and that’s a bit too late for my liking.
A few years ago I grew ‘Sub-Arctic Plenty’ with good results, but the flavour was so insipid, it wasn’t worth the bother. ‘Alaskan Fancy’ is said to actually taste like a tomato, matures a month earlier than ‘Shirley’ and might be worth a try. I’m flirting with ‘Siberian’, another early cultivar, and a dwarf bush tomato, which is reputed to have a strong flavour.
You probably know already that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in print. It did indeed say to “trim back their stem” in a paragraph on trees and shrubs recently, and is, as one of my readers kindly pointed out to me “perhaps not such a good thing to do”. Quite. I’m not sure how this happened, but the bit on trimming was preceded by two paragraphs on herbaceous plants, and referred to them. They were present when I pressed the send button, but then somehow vanished. Who knows, they might be cruising in cyberspace to this very day.
Such things happen, and just now and again I long for the good old days when my copy, typed by hand and delivered by hand to The Shetland Times, underwent the most wonderful transformation during the transcribing process: bushy plants became busy plants, and I can still picture them having careers while bringing up seedlings and doing the household chores.
Ornamental onions wore gloves – not surprising in this climate – and borders were filled with herbaceous pants – what a marvellous sight that must have been. For those of my readers not familiar with botanical terminology, herbaceous pants can best be described as seasonally vanishing knickers.
In the days of electronic transmission such gems have become rarer than hen’s teeth, but one of my smart readers spotted one this summer, and he sent me the following email: “Could you please tell me what pot entillas look like? Are they related to potentillas or are they a new species? We have a lot of pets and are interested in growing pet unias. Can you supply us with some?”
The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that both correspondents are men, and that’s not all. I had a call from a male reader trying to convince me that at least 25 per cent of my readership are of his gender.
This has come as a surprise, and a bit of a shock, as I tend to think of my readers as almost exclusively female. The very thought of this male influx has brought my usually free flow to a stuttering halt. Perhaps from now on I have to cover subjects such as double digging, competitive ploughing, trenching, raising giant leeks and growing exhibition pot-mums, whatever they are, or write lengthy technical pieces about garden machinery: how to purchase, use and maintain strimmers, chainsaws, electric hedge pruners, mini-tractors and their attachments (wouldn’t mind one of the latter myself actually).
An article on machinery could be followed by an in-depth treaty about the appropriate protective clothing to be worn while using it? No. It’s no use. I’ll have to get myself a degree in engineering and textile reinforcing first before I could write on such subjects with any degrees of confidence.
During the late eighties I worked as woodlands supervisor for Shetland Amenity Trust with an all-male team, made up of individuals who’d been long-term unemployed. It was fun for all concerned while there was fencing to be done, trees to be felled and planting pits to be dug. In short, anything that involved the use of “manly” tools – chainsaws were a great favourite – kept everybody working happily.
As soon as I mentioned trowels and flowers, I had a revolution on my hands. When we started work on a garden around Scalloway Castle half my team went AWOL, because they didn’t want to be seen kneeling in the mud, “planting pansies”. One team member took a sicky, because he found it difficult to carry instructions given “by a woman in a ra-ra skirt” in a public place. There were neither pansies nor ra-ra skirts involved, but I got the drift.
Things have changed a lot since then, and I’m sure some of my male readers even feel comfortable about planting pansies and following instructions from a ra-ra woman, without feeling this diminishes their masculinity. For those who haven’t managed to get in touch with their feminist side yet, reading this column is perhaps a good start. The stroking of kittens also works well, as demonstrated recently in Steven Appleby’s Guardian cartoons.
Finally, not having had one for some time, I’m going to allow myself a really good gripe. It concerns a certain type of gardener and garden visitor, somebody with a garden elsewhere that is invariably much bigger and better than anything Shetland has to offer, where the trees grow tall and straight, where everything is miles ahead of what we can offer up here. I had two such visitors this year, one in early summer and one in autumn.
Mr Early Summer was taking copious notes, and told me proudly he was going to write a piece for his local gardening club magazine.
“Goodness me,” he laughed, “you still have daffodils in flower, ours went over month ago!”
I explained politely that Shetland daffodils had also long since gone over, and that the ones in question were a rare high alpine species, which always flowered in June.
You can guess the rest. The product of his visit was one of those pity-the-poor-Shetland-gardener pieces I’d read all too often before: how small and stunted the trees, how sadly late everything flowered – especially the daffodils – and how unfavourably everything compared with the gentleman’s own garden and home county.
Mr Autumn made a beeline for a Sitka alder with curled and shrivelled foliage. Pointing his camera at the tree, he stated: “I do a lot of lecturing, and I suppose I have to mention your garden.”
I asked him not to concentrate on the negative please; perhaps he could take a picture of my pond bed instead?
“I’m not being negative,” he responded. “I’m sure this [pointing at my finished pond bed] could look quite nice when it’s finished.”
He kept clicking away in close-up at the sickly leaves, while one of his companions remarked on the ridiculously small size of my pond compared to theirs.
“How many acres do you have here?” Mr Autumn asked, while tucking away his camera and casting a critical eye over my creation.
When I answered “about nine I think”, he told me he had 27, and was about to buy another 20 from a neighbour. Were I a man, I’m sure he would’ve made enquiries about the size of my penis, in order to inform me that his was twice as large.
Where, I wonder, did Joe Strummer, lead singer of The Clash, get that bullshit detector from, the one he used in his garage? It isn’t quite what I’m looking for, but who knows, there might be a shop somewhere out there specialising in rare gadgets. My choice would be a oneupmanship detector, and I imagine it works like one of those hand-held metal detectors used at airports.
The idea is to run it swiftly and thoroughly over the body of any suspect, in order to extract a juicy garden entrance fee if it bleeps.