In the garden
March, I’m told, used to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb in the good old days, but has since become less obliging, preferring to indulge in leonine behaviour from first to last, rather than succumbing to mildness and meekness at the end, a quality, I’m sure, most gardeners would prefer.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a correlation between late snowfalls, Wagner and the Met. Not the meteorological office, but the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2008, their Tristan and Isolde was met with a white Easter, and last Saturday Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, was accompanied by a flurry of snow that soon turned the garden into winter wonderland, and found me trying to suppress an irresistible urge to break into Jingle Bells.
The urge was strengthened by the arrival of a large box that same day. It always feels a bit like Christmas when a parcel from Beth Chatto Gardens, filled with big, healthy plants, arrives.
The snow did no lasting damage, and was indeed welcomed as a dormancy breaker for late sown seeds. The freezing winds were a different matter. The spring bulbs got blown sideways, the bees stayed in their hive, and the cold really crept into my bones – time to get out the woolly tights, winter socks and thermal vests once more.
Cranking up the nursery again after a two-year hiatus means the process of making more and more, and yet more, continues through April, and cold snaps hold back growth and stretch the propagation window. Propagation rounds can be highly anxiety provoking, especially when a well-known plant cannot be found in the spot it had occupied for years. Achillea ‘Flannel Petticoat’ had vanished without trace, and where I expected to find the new green shoots of Aster ‘Twilight’ I found nothing but a few dead twigs.
Both had been gnawed into oblivion by slugs, and a thorough search underneath nearby stones and debris yielded a pot-full of grey, slimy creatures, rapidly despatched with the help of briny water.
The nursery has four and a half so-called aisles, north to south running bays divided and sheltered by windbreak netting, and accessible by gravel paths. Three hold the plants for sale, the rest are standing areas for things not quite ready, past their best, or spares to be kept at any cost.
The latter tend to bring disappointment to Lea Gardens’ customers and vexation to myself. The sentence: “there should be some next year” is small comfort when followed by “I’m very sorry, but those over there are definitely not for sale”. Folk, especially those involved in crofting, usually understand, and forgive my reluctance to sell certain items when I use the sheep analogy: lambs are for sale, breeding ewes are not.
Standing firm brings its rewards. My “ewes”, kept in three or four litre pots, saved my bacon, or rather mutton, on the achillea and aster front, and each pot yielded about a dozen chunks of plants I thought I’d lost forever. There was enough to pot up generous pieces for sale, while leaving the small scraps for replenishing the garden. Ideally, to remove the sources of disappointed temptation, I’d like to provide a visual barrier between for sale and not for sale items, but in the confined space I have, this is impossible.
While herbaceous subjects are in full sail already, many woody plants are only just starting to break into leaf, which gives scope for late hardwood cuttings. Further south they’re struck in October or November, but unless one has an extremely sheltered site for them, which I don’t, it’s better to wait until late winter or early spring. March, whether lion or lamb, is our traditional month, but this year we’ve been let down by our supplier of black mulch, and are running a little late.
Before we take a single cutting, we prepare the ground with a three-pronged hand cultivator, incorporating large amounts of coarse sand. Then the whole site is covered in thin, black polythene, securely weighted or pegged down around the edges. This not only keeps the weeds at bay, but also warms up the ground, providing the “bottom heat” that speeds up the rooting process.
Willows are the easiest plants to raise from hardwood cuttings as they, with a very few exceptions, already have cells programmed to produce roots in their wood. Other shrubs and trees need to convert their cells first, and cuttings taken from young, vigorous plants root best. Failing that, old specimens can easily be rejuvenated by cutting them hard back in the previous season to stimulate new growth.
An open field, as is the case with us, is not an ideal site, but we get around this by sticking fast-rooting and fast-growing items around the margins, to protect the slow and more vulnerable subjects in the centre of the plot.
It never ceases to amaze me how an expanse of black plastic held in place with seemingly dead sticks is transformed into a little nursery of vigorous, healthy plants as if by magic. Six months later, all are ready to be lifted and potted or transplanted.
We produce as much of our woody nursery stock as possible in this way, as it makes for sturdy plants well acclimatised to the weather. Alas, not all oblige. Most trees can only be propagated from seed, conifers among them. Japanese larch, Sitka spruce, and shore pine set viable seed at Lea Gardens, and sometimes sow themselves around of their own accord.
I sometimes shudder when I think of the ignorant old days, when we imported in bulk from Scottish forestry nurseries, and sold trees straight out of the bag, a very bad practice indeed. We still import some forest transplants from the Scottish mainland, but only if we can get them from a suitable provenance, i.e. from a compatible climate, and always well in advance.
This sea change was brought about by a surplus of pines, larches, and noble firs some years ago. The trees were lined out in a field adjacent to the garden, and only half of what we’d planted made it through the first winter. This was a real eye opener. If we lost 50 per cent of our stock, expertly cared for, what chance was there for the average gardener? These days, our imports are wintered, graded, then grown on for at least one year, sometimes two or three, before they’re let loose on the gardening public.
There’s still time to plant trees, and it pays to choose carefully and intelligently. Go for Shetland grown stock whenever possible, ask where imports have come from, a maritime or a continental climate, and how long they’ve lived in Shetland before you commit to buy.
Forestry nurseries are mainly in the business of supplying trees for timber production, and source their seeds accordingly. Sycamores originating from France and Japanese larches from Hungary will grow into good timber trees, but are no damn use to us up here. What seems like a bargain could turn out to be a complete waste of money and time, and there’s nothing more frustrating than losing young trees you’ve carefully planted and tended, because they’re ill equipped to stand up to our climate.
Driving around the West Side the other day, I noticed more and more houses with conservatories and greenhouses, perfect for growing those plants ill equipped to stand up to our climate, but only a complete fool would use them for growing a French sycamore or a Hungarian larch.
Camellias are a much better bet, and were among the first shrubs to find a home in my south-facing lean-to. I have in the past sung the praises of sugar pink, peony flowered Camellia ‘Debbie’, while paying scant attention to her companion C. ‘Alba Plena’, probably the best double white on the market.
They’re a bit like a royal Victorian couple: she is short and wears a broad crinoline, while he is tall, slim and, at first glance, a little dull. That impression is instantly replaced by wonder, as one raises ones eyes to the greenhouse ceiling. Squashed into a corner by Debbie’s sharp elbows, he carries his large white blooms at the apex, and there’s only one way to enjoy them to the full: by climbing into the raised beds and cutting armfuls for the house.
The above-mentioned Beth Chatto parcel contained a treasure that has joined my camellias for the time being, as I daren’t keep it outside. It is however destined to make its home against a south-facing wall in the garden, once the weather has warmed up.
I first came face to face with the Romneya coulteri, the Californian tree poppy, in the RHS garden at Wisley, half a lifetime ago, and was stopped in my tracks by a well-rounded bush with blue-green cut leaves, covered in large, textured, single white poppies.
Buying it is a calculated risk. As the late Gunnie Moberg managed to keep it for a number of years in her exposed garden in Orkney, it should stand a fair chance in Shetland.