20th September 2018
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In the garden

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The first witch hazel has been out since early January. The vernacular name for these plants dates back to the times when the twigs of Hamamelis virginiana, one of four American species, were used in the art of water divining by the early European settlers. I believe that’s also how the German name Zauber­nuss (magic nut) came about for a shrub that can be found in most gardens.

Witch hazels are star performers in the winter garden, and have large, rounded leaves, rather like those of the European hazel, Corylus avel­lana, but are not related to that plant. Instead of edible nuts, they produce hard, greenish-grey, barrel-shaped seedpods.

There are two oriental species, Hamamelis japonica – its origins are self-explanatory – and the Chinese H. Mollis, and they are, arguably, the important ones when it comes to bringing a touch of magic to our gardens during winter and into early spring.

They, their cultivars and hybrids, grow into large broad shrubs or small trees (by Shetland standards) in time, and thrive in acid, well-drained soil, something most Shet­land gardeners can offer. They can stand a lot more exposure than I was led to believe at first, but perform best and longest in flower, in a modicum of shelter from sea winds.

Lea Gardens’ precocious witch hazel is Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’, a sulphur yellow selection that shows up over a great distance and must be planted, to best effect, against a dark, evergreen background – a stand of, or even one lodgepole pine should suffice.

I know of no other plant that can lighten up a garden as vividly as this little gem at this still bleak time of year. Clusters of small rounded buds become prominent as soon as the leaves are shed in autumn, and as the old year changes to new, the bare, grey branches of this witch hazel are smothered in thousands of tiny, stellar, spidery yellow flowers.

The petals are composed of little ribbons, narrow, fragile looking and in dire need of ironing before they stretch to their full length. Crumpled, bent and folded, they are equipped to escape even the fiercest freezing winds unscathed, and would, I dare say, survive the ironing attempts of a tidy-minded gardener.

Closer inspection of these strange flowers is a must, as the deep red sepals contrast wickedly with the wan, translucent ribbons of the petals and fat cream anthers that rise from the centres of the flowers. A hand lens is perfect for what a friend of mine refers to as “hortiporn”. I’m hopelessly addicted to it and grateful it is still a perfectly legal indulgence. Linnaeus, Darwin and Mendel, to mention but a few, also indulged frequently, I’m told.

In Shetland gardens to date, witch hazels, sadly, are still as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth, and I believe I know the reason for this. Those tiny, wicked flowers, even when they wreath the branches in their thousands, probably don’t excite those gardeners who prefer their blooms to be the size of dinner plates. Furthermore, witch hazels come at a premium, because culti­vars don’t come true from seed, all are grafted, something that has to be done by human hand, and is therefore justifiably expensive.

Please don’t let the price put you off. These shrubs are long-lived and among the least demanding I know. They provide a rich green foil over the summer months, and their autumn colours are stunning. Some also have a bewitching scent.

Their scent, sweet and strong, can be highly elusive, there one day and gone the next. I don’t know how many times I’ve led visitors up to my witch hazels, urging them to hold up their noses to those crumpled ribbons. Rather than the expected smile or exclamation of delight: nothing. Then, a day or two later, the elusive scent is there again as if by magic. Perhaps that’s just in the nature of a witch hazel, and makes it, to my mind, all the more desirable.

The best, by far, for non- elusive scent is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, one of the hybrids between the Japanese and Chinese species. The flowers are large, a bright, brassy yellow and they waft their inimitable scent from the day the first buds open to the day the final petal drops. Plant it somewhere near your front door so you can venture out in your slippers for a good dose first thing in the morning.

I have a dear gardening friend who’s not at all keen on yellow. For her I could recommend a whole host of orange and red flowered witch hazels, but shall restrict myself to just one. By far the best in my book is H x intermedia ‘Diane’. Its madly crumpled ribbons are a deep, warm cinnabar red, and its autumn tints are second to none.

My own specimen is moving into adulthood, and has become a headache. Planted against the east-facing wall of the house, it has long since outgrown its allotted spot and has made the adjoining path all but impassable.

Last year I decided the path, bordered by a precipitous bank on the other side, had to be moved. Having since learned that witch hazels, as long as they’re not ancient, respond well to hard pruning, I might attempt curtailing her growth, and moving her, rather than calling in major earth moving equipment.

Let’s move from the sublime – witch hazels not diggers – to the necessary. According to a friend of mine, giving global warming and the present financial disasters, there will be a serious global food shortage in about 10 years time or less.

Tatties have been the islands’ staple food for generations, and when we moved those large succulents into the pond house three weeks ago, we came across three large black tubs, filled with garden compost and dried up potato haulms.

We’d forgotten to harvest our Sharpe’s Express tatties. We also forgot to plant them in the first place, and eventually came across a plastic bag filled with shrivelled tubers in July. Most were past redemption, but that left half a dozen, two per tub.

My much missed gardening friend and neighbour, the late Joan Nicolson, told me that she sometimes enjoyed new potatoes at Christmas by placing a few freshly lifted tubers in a sealed (to keep the slugs at bay) metal biscuit tin that she buried in the garden.

I was reminded of this as we lifted new potatoes a couple of weeks ago. Their skins had set quite firm but they were delicious all the same, and an unexpected January treat. Given the poor tuber quality and late planting, the yield wasn’t spectacular, but left us, apart from a couple of boilings, with enough seed potatoes to make an early start this year.

Setting potatoes out to chit or sprout gives them a bit of a head start but I’d be cautious about very early planting, even if the weather is tempting. Tattie shaws are highly susceptible to frost damage and have to start from scratch if they’re caught by late spring frosts.

If you like your earlies very early, the protection of a cloche covered in bubble wrap should keep them safe, or you could try growing them under cold glass or in a poly tunnel. This is also a good way of keeping potato blight at bay.

Where space is at a premium, growing potatoes in large tubs is the answer. They can be stood on wide paths, gravelled or paved areas, and even look decorative during their flowering period. We’ve used this method with very good results, especially on highly blight prone varieties such as the delicious Pink Fir Apple.

My friend Magnie, sick and tired of peeling these long, knobbly tubers, gave me a boxful, and after five years of careful selection, we now have an almost knobble-free race. Tub culture suits them to perfection, but when we started we made the mistake of placing too many tubers (potato barrel style) into one container and ended up with hundreds of micro tatties – the largest were the size of marbles.

We now plant two, at the very most three, seed tatties per 25 litre pot in pure garden compost, with the addition of a couple of handfuls of seaweed granules, and get superb yields. Initially we cover them with a hand width of compost, then top them up as necessary as tiny tubers appear near the surface.

Container-grown potatoes tend to be spotlessly clean: no scab, no blight, no slug holes. They don’t need feeding, but regular watering is essential to prevent splitting or hollow centres. Using containers is also a good way of preventing potato eelworm from gaining a foothold in your garden, especially recommen­ded if your seed has come from a non-certificated source.

Rosa Steppanova