16th July 2018
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In the garden

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There are times in life when I consider it a blessing that all good things come to an end. Just as sailors are relieved when they spot Terra Firma from the crow’s nest after a long sea voyage, I was glad to see the ground reappear again from underneath its blanket of snow, even though it didn’t look quite the same.

I’m convinced that herds of elephants had visited the garden during the wintry spell under cover of darkness and rolled around in it as if it were a mud bath. Cushions of alpines have lost their springiness, and it took the blades of grass on the lawn the best of a day to return to a vertical position once more.

When all contours and demarca­tions vanish under white it is impossible to ascertain where a path ends and a border begins, with predictable results. A few of the bulbs planted too close to the edge won’t flower this year as their growth has been broken off at ground level, but that is a small price to pay for the joy the snow brought.

A broken or damaged branch here and there is easily dealt with, and in one instant alerted me to problem I hadn’t been aware of. Daphniphyllum macropodum is a large, imposing ever­green with striking, glossy rho­dodendron-like leaves. Its flowers are insignificant but have a pungent scent. As we removed its lower bent and cracked branches we came across a hellebore, hitherto comple­tely hidden by the shrub’s dense skirt.

Several of my evergreens have lost their shape completely. Those elephants again I bet – trying to use them as sofas or armchairs and leaving them in a sprawling mess. Some might spring back eventually, while others have definitely had it. Some could be hard pruned or even cut back to stumps later in the spring, once all danger of frost has passed, and young new growth can’t get damaged by it.

Some are probably of too great an age to render such an operation successful, and only a very few conifers respond to such treatment. There, removal is the only option.

Two column-shaped junipers that grace the entrance to the Sunk Gar­den had already started to fall apart (a combination of old age and pre­vious snow burdens). Held together with “invisible” green string they still resembled moulting poultry at close quarters, and now the time has come to wring their necks. Isn’t it always great when somebody or something else makes those un­pleasant decisions in life for us?

While it is always sad to wave goodbye to an old and much loved inhabitant of the garden, the gaps they leave provide the gardener with fresh opportunities. In some cases, where the individual played an integral part in a planting, it may be best to replace like with like and happy the gardener who has a few rooted cuttings up her sleeve. But more often than not the doctrine that nothing is irreplaceable applies, and I’ve already scanned my Ladies-in-Waiting for form, shape and colour as suitable candidates to fill gaps. As prophesied last week, the flowers of early crocuses and Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’, left unpro­tected, have become croppers. As the melting snow gradually revealed them, all seemed well. There they were in all their glory, yet as the thaw continued their meltdown began the fragile petals started to stick together like wet paper and the flowers started to keel over.

It’s the thawing process that actually does the damage; as the ice in their delicate tissues returns to water it expands and destroys the cells. That’s why we’re always advised to site plants with frost-sensitive flowers where the morning sun can’t reach them, such as against a west-facing wall. This slows down the melting process and prevents, if not all, at least some of the destruction.

All gardeners worth their salt try to push the boundaries of their climate, gamble on the hardiness front and eventually pay the price. Countless tales of woe are to be found in gardening literature – as opposed to gardening manuals – where the authors reminisce mournfully about the winter of ’47, ’56 or whatever the bad year was, that wiped out their borderline hardy pride and joy subjects, at times their entire plant collections.

Global warming has had a huge impact on gardening in this country, as has the influence of the late Christopher Lloyd. When he tore out the ancient shrubs in his famous rose garden at Great Dixter in West Sussex, and replaced them with an exuberance of tropical beauties, the nation’s gardeners first groaned then followed suit. Tropical gardens sprang up all over the country, as did nurseries to meet the demand. It’ll make interesting reading in the coming years how these gardens fared during the recent cold spell, and how many of the specialist nurseries are going to survive. Garden plants for the temperate world have hardiness ratings. A plant with a rating of one will continue to sing hallelujahs, even if the temperature drops to – 45º Cel­sius, while one with a rating of 10 will croak if the thermometer drops below -1º Celsius. These ratings are a rough guide only for the following reasons: a plant with a hardiness rating of nine will be less frost-tender if it has come from a high altitude source, rather from a sea level one and vice-versa.

There are always local climatic variations, even a small place like Shetland. If you live on a cold hilltop or in a frost hollow away from the sea you’re bound to be less success­ful with plants from higher rated zones than the gardener close to the shore. Furthermore, soil and aspect play a role in this. Plants of borderline hardiness are much more likely to survive low temperatures on light well-drained soils than those on waterlogged peat.

Most Shetland gardeners should be able to grow a range of plants, rated eight or even nine on the hardiness scale, but how do we go about ascertaining how hardy the plants we buy are? Both Ornamental Shrubs, Climbers and Bamboos, and Perennial Garden Plants by the late Graham Stuart Thomas give hardi­ness ratings for the plants featured in them. A very few mail order plant catalogues, invariably those from small, specialised growers, also list them, enabling the gardener to make an informed choice.

All this said the vast majority of ornamental plants on offer are perfectly hardy. Wind and salt spray are our real enemies, and hardiness as such is something the Shetland gardener shouldn’t unduly worry about, unless there is the urge to push the boundaries, and that’s where hardiness zones can help turn what seems a reckless gamble into a sound investment. Most of the plants in my New Zealand bed have a rating of eight, some of nine and, even as young specimens, have survived this latest spell of winter unharmed, but not intact.

Lea Garden’s hunting pack of felines keeps the garden rabbit-free all year round, but failed in its duty during this wintry spell. When there’s nothing to eat elsewhere rabbits come off the hill or from the neighbouring crofts in droves to find a well-filled larder. Deep snow hampers the cats’ progress and they don’t like to stray far from home, leaving the outskirts and far-flung corners of the garden unprotected. A white landscape and bright, moonlit nights are wholly unsuitable for stalking their prey and, unless snow is frozen hard, it rarely gives a firm enough purchase for that all-impor­tant, well-timed and well-measured final leap. The victim escapes, leav­ing the predator frustrated.

As a result, my New Zealand bed looks grim. Astelias, celmisias, low-growing hebes and libertias have been gnawed right down to where the snow-line was, while olearias, griselinias and the taller hebes have been defoliated as far up as those pesky little blighters could reach while sitting on the snow. They also decimated our vegetables: anything sticking out of the snow is gone. No calabrese, no sprouts, no Swiss chard left for the humans.

As far as we can make out, only three rabbits were killed during that wintry week, and that’s just not good enough. Somebody suggested set­ting snares, but unless they’re check­ed frequently and regularly, they cause a lot of unnecessary suffering. Some of our cats are getting on a bit – how I wish they had a longer lifespan – and bringing in some new blood might be a good idea. There’s also that rifle, passed on to James when his father died. It sits – probably unused – in a friend’s house. Time to get it back and apply for a gun licence.

But that’s enough grumbling for one week. While all was buried underneath a white blanket, nature continued its progress. Crocuses are showing colour all over the garden, a few irises survived unscathed, pro­tected by a cloche. The snowdrops look better than ever, and the helle­bores are hung with fat, promising buds. I’ve just come across a self-sown seedling. At first glance it looks just like its dusky-pink parent near by, but on closer inspection it reveals a pale green interior overlaid by a bloom of metallic blue.

Rosa Steppanova