17th August 2018
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In the garden

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Pity the poor English gardeners. Their lilacs and columbines were setting seed on 1st June, and their laburnums, rhododendrons and enkianthus – if drought, alkalinity and heat don’t prevent them from growing the latter two – were distant memories.

Down there, the show is either over already, or has reached its zenith – far, far too soon. What is there to get excited about from now on I ask?

While things have been earlier than usual in Shetland, we still have lots to look forward to. Oriental poppies, irises, aquilegias, and all the other treasures of June are just getting into their stride.

A fortnight ago, James and I were lucky enough to catch the deciduous azaleas at Glendoick Gardens. Breathtaking is the only word to describe them, both visually and olfactory. They embrace the whole warm range of the chromatic spectrum: cream and pale peach, pumpkin yellow, deep orange and fiery red. Their heady scent carries on the air, and bees and bumblebees, their legs weighed down with large sacks of pollen, hovered drunkenly above the blooms.

Sadly there wasn’t time to see the whole garden which, incidentally, is open to the public all year round, and tickets can be purchased at the nearby garden centre, just off the A90. We were rushing south to Desborough, near Corby, to attend the wedding of Alison Innes, who lived in Shetland during the 1980s and still has many friends up here.

We hurtled through Rutland, once England’s smallest county, and probably the closest the green and pleasant land gets to big ranch Texas. Mega-quilts of technicolor rape and green wheat as far as the eye can see; all boundary hedgerows long since grubbed out. Sensitively cut verges though, bends and junctions only. I’d like to think that this happened for environmental benefits, but given a countryside spiked with UK Independence Party posters, it was probably a public spending cut exercise. Still, the SIC could do worse than follow suit.

At the entrance to Oakham, on the shores of Rutland Water, Britain’s largest man-made lake, a Britain in Bloom winner sign caught my eye, and I was just about to slam on the brakes for a detour, when the nearby roundabout provided a taster. Equidistant triangles, planted with triangular plants, planted equidistantly in ever decreasing triangles – white, then red, then blue, jingoistic gardening by numbers. Should Lea Gardens ever win such an award, please promise to cart me off to a loony bin.

A few miles further south, a most unexpected and wonderful sight: one of those huge rectangles of wheat disrupted by, not just patches but galaxies of red field poppies. What joy. I’m sure the wretched farmhand has since been dismissed for sloppy sowing, and/or insufficient weed control, and the farmer in question has probably been suspended from the Rutland Farmers’ Association.

Alison was beautiful and radiant in a 1950s style dress of cream satin, patterned with olive green roses, a matching hat and veil, and glimpses of one of those gone with the wind multi-layered rustling petticoats. Simon, the groom, and now ex-Metropolitan chief inspector, looked very handsome, but men, sadly, are so very restricted by dress code. They can either wear a suit or a suit. One of the gentlest and kindest men I know, I was shocked to hear, in the best man’s speech, that the one thing he misses about the police service is kicking in peoples’ doors at six in the morning. We partied the night away, then headed south to Surrey the next morning, after a leisurely breakfast with brand new Mr and Mrs Moy and fellow guests.

Over the past 30 years I have developed a very soft spot for Surrey, where Maureen, my mother-in-law, still lives. Hedgerows flank every road, with some of the trees meeting overhead to form leafy, green tunnels, wonderfully cooling in the sweltering heat. A tree I’d never before seen in its full splendour was the red-flowered horse chestnut – towers of green studded with warm red “candles” – a magnificent sight.

I’ve known the Farnham, God­alming, Guildford part of this county for over 30 years, but there are always new delights to discover. This time the revelation was The Mill at Elstead, a restaurant with a large garden, and a mill race and pond, as the name suggests. The food is heavenly, and after lunch you can stretch out on the grass, at the pond’s edge with a coffee or a glass of wine. Weeping willows bathe their branches, blue iridescent dragon flies dart above the water, and the swans take stale bread (supplied on request by the kitchen) from your hand. I can’t think of a more blissful way to while away an afternoon.

Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society’s jewel in the crown, is not far away, but when it comes to buying plants, I feel irresistibly drawn to Morris & Stevens, just off the Compton roundabout. This is probably one of the most untidy nurseries in the country, it even beats the bittercress and willow herb at Lea Gardens, but the range of plants on offer is stupendous. Unimaginable treasures can be found at very reasonable prices. The nursery specialises in herbaceous perennials, is run by a couple of hard-working and dedicated enthusiasts and I can’t think for the life of me how they manage to not only produce, but look after thousands of beautifully grown plants with just two pairs of hands.

I came away with a car boot full, among them Papaver orientalis ‘Royal Chocolate’, a sumptuous brownish red, and Polygonatum humilis, a dwarf solomon’s seal. They’re new to me, and, fingers crossed, if they settle in, and lend themselves to propagation, they may become worthy additions to Shetland gardens.

One can’t possibly drive all the way to England without a brief visit to the capital. James’s younger sister Alice’s house in west Ealing has a most charming garden with bright blue ceanothus, something I’d love, but have so far failed to grow, walls clad in clematis, roses, and a most impressive wisteria (see ceanothus) which provides the roof for an al fresco dining room. No garden is complete without cats, and this one is inhabited by the siblings Porgy and Bess, who scale the high walls and present their owner with gifts from her neighbours’ plots – sticks of ever increasing length and girth.

Roses. They really can grow roses down there. In June all of England is one big rose garden: climbers clothe the facades of houses, ramblers fling their limbs into the tallest trees, floribundas smothered in blooms, and old, pink, fully double and quartered shrub roses with a heady scent to match their opulence, trained through climbing hydrangeas. The latter I’ll try and emulate here, as it’s such a successful arrangement. The white lace of the hydrangea complements the pink heaviness of the rose, and neither needs a trellis. I can never resist Southall; drink­ing in its vibrant colours and spicy scents, is like a visit to the Indian sub continent, and dinner at Gifto’s Lahore Karahi, 164 The Broadway, where everything is cooked in tandoors (traditional clay ovens) is a must. In the good old days you could take your own booze. Hand­some, smiling waiters opened your bottle of wine before discreetly wrapping it in a large white napkin for a £1.00 corking charge. Gifto’s is strictly teetotal these days, and perhaps all the better for it.

Rosa Steppanova