22nd July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

In the garden

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Is snow good for the garden? You bet it is. It’s also very good for the gardener. A snow-covered garden not only gladdens the heart, but is also instantly turned into a horti­cultural leisure centre, in the true sense of the word. (I’ve never understood why leisure centres are called thus, as to my mind the exact opposite of leisure goes on in them.) Apart from feeding the birds, there’s nothing to do in the garden. Not a single chore – what joy, what plea­sure. The gardener is free to stroll at leisure and admire the transformation from muddy plot to pristine, glisten­ing whiteness.

From snow it is but a kitten’s leap to Christmas and Christmas trees. In Shetland this term has two meanings. Apart from its traditional application, it is often used in reference to ever­green conifers of a symmetrical habit and conical form. Firs and spruces are contenders, and in the local context perhaps the most important species is Picea sitchensis, the Sitka spruce.

This Alaskan native is a fast growing tree, ideal for the creation of shelter – where space allows – and is virtually immune to wind and salt spray. Unfortunately it is a martyr to the Sitka aphid, a little sap-sucking insect that causes discolour­ation and eventual shedding of needles. This pest appears in great numbers, reaches plague proportions some years and can turn a tree from green splendour to grey eyesore in no time.

Apparently, the little blighters aren’t much of a problem in Alaska, which has a much more continental climate, with colder winters that kill them off. Perhaps this cold snap is going to give the Shetland Sitka spruces a bit of a respite?

It has long been known that frost is the gardener’s friend and that pests are less of a problem in the seasons following a hard frost. Our garden birds probably contribute to this by including items in their diet they would give a wide berth to in times of plenty.

The other day, much to my amaze­ment, I watched a blackbird pull a cabbage-white butterfly larva from a small recess in a garden bench. It knocked it about for a bit, then, with a definite expression of disgust on its face, abandoned it. It obviously wasn’t quite hungry enough yet.

When the ground is covered in a thick, uninterrupted layer of snow, birds have a hard time, and the garden’s bird population has prob­ably trebled since the start of this wintry spell. They know where to find food and shelter. There’s been an influx of chaffinches, the odd robin puts in an appearance and two woodcocks are hanging around the outflow of the pond, where a trickle of water has melted the snow.

Every twig and branch of every tree in the garden is occupied by a tailed and feathered creature and our resident blackbirds are vastly out­numbered by visiting starlings and sparrows. All are greatly plumped up, trying to trap as much air in their feathers as possible in order to keep warm. This makes them look strang­ely important, with some of the larger blackbirds swollen almost to the size of pigeons.

We scatter mixed birdseed on the ground at several sites throughout the garden, and the large, circular table in the Round Garden is always lavishly laid with an assortment of offerings. In the past, the compost heap provided rich pickings for hungry birds, but since the arrival of Bubble and Squeak, our pigs, who guzzle up everything, apart from pineapple tops, this source has all but dried up.

It has proved difficult to keep the food supply going during the snow. Grain is soon covered up, and when scattered on fresh or soft snow, much of it sinks without trace. Whole or roughly torn slices of wholemeal bread are a more successful option but give rise to much bickering and, more often than not, lead to complete abdication in the table manners department.

I am inordinately fond of black­birds, and feel there is some kind of bond between us, probably rooted in my childhood and based on my first experience of parenting. I was six years old when I found a naked, scrawny thing with a yellow gaping beak underneath an apple tree in my parents’ garden.

After extensive pleading, howling and wailing, my father allowed me to keep it on condition that I was to be its sole carer, and took full res­pon­sibility for it. The little blackbird was reared on chopped up earth­worms initially, then bluebottle larvae, purchased with my pocket money from an angler’s supply store.

As Amsel (a female) grew plump and sprouted feathers, the whole family succumbed to her charms. Her first, clumsy flying attempts took place in our kitchen, and my mother, a very house-proud woman, mopped up bird droppings in good humour.

There was a pleading, howling and wailing repeat on my part when it came to releasing the bird back into the wild, and this time my father did not relent. Amsel was freed from her heavy, makeshift wooden cage in a vineyard a mile from home.

She took to the air without as much as a backward glance, and I was unconsolable.

On our way home we stopped at the village shop where my father bought me a generous supply of woodruff-flavoured sherbet to appease his conscience. When we arrived home, there was Amsel, sitting on the doorstep, and for many more months, she was there, on the doorstep, waiting for me every day as I returned from school. She van­ished the following spring, returned in the autumn, stayed through winter, but then her visits grew less and less frequent, until they ceased altogether.

Gardeners talking to their plants is now accepted practice, but talking, let alone having words with black­birds, is probably a sign of serious derangement, and I only do so when I believe myself to be unobserved. Admonishing them on a whole range of matters is a necessity, and done in their own best interest.

I tick them off for not eating the sunflower seeds I provide, advise them to abandon their squabbles, and to put aside their established pecking orders in order to make full use of their feeding slot between sunset and nightfall, when the starlings have retreated. I also urge them to make haste as dusk is the time when the cats enter the garden for their post-prandial stroll.

I don’t believe I’ll ever get used to the weird and wonderful relation­ship that has long been established between the garden’s cats and black­birds. As ground-feeding birds, they’re easy prey to felines, yet the cats just ignore them. The older birds are used to this. They have thrown caution to the wind and continue to scrape and scratch in the beds and borders, while now and again throwing a wary glance in the direction of a sunbathing or groom­ing cat a yard or two away. Some hop nonchalantly onto a low nearby branch when a cat passes, while the youngsters, still subject to genetic programming, fly screeching into the trees.

All changes as the snow arrives and my cats, for reasons unbeknown to me, abandon all reason and dignity. They roll on the ground, leap, twist and turn, pounce on imaginary objects, attempt to catch their tails and, at times, charge at breakneck speed into gatherings of feeding birds, scattering them to the four winds.

There’s probably some scientific explanation for this, but I’m not in the least bit interested. To me this is just an expression of wellbeing and “Lebensfreude” (the joy of being alive). Snow also uplifts and ener­gises human beings, and makes them go just a little bit crazy, as demonstrated by the inhabitants of our country’s capital recently. They behaved much like my cats, and expressed their joy with sledging, throwing snowballs at policemen, and “making angels”.

When I set out on my weekly offering, I’d planned to write a serious and informative piece on frost and frost damage, with an emphasis on early flowers and their less than frost-proof petals (my early crocuses and the falls and standards of the exquisitely beautiful Iris histrioides ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ have probably become croppers). I was going to mention the insulating effects of snow on semi-tender broad-leaved evergreens, the bene­ficial properties of snow on cold-germinating seeds. I had intended to address the problem of inevitable rabbit damage inflicted on trees and shrubs when all ground flora becomes inaccessible, and last, but by no means least, climate zones and hardiness ratings in the Shetland context. Alas, my personal snow madness and joy got the better of me and led me into a totally different, unexpected, and highly enjoyable direction. I hope that my readers, at least those similarly affected, will forgive me.

Rosa Steppanova