21st August 2018
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In the garden

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The pond is in full recovery now. There’s still blanket weed, but not enough to justify sinking in a bale of organic barley straw, generously donated by Ewan Balfour. It’s stored in the hay loft for next spring.

Blanket weed is one of two algae that colonise ponds, especially new ponds without much surface cover. The algae need light and high nutri­ent levels to proliferate. Shading parts of your pond helps to reduce it, as does lowering of nutrient levels. Many aquatic plants come complete with a little sachet of slow release fertilisers. Give it to your house­plants, and never use anything rich to fill the sub­mergible baskets. Use plain garden soil, or even better sand or grit which contains virtually no nutrients. Don’t worry about the plants; they’ll get all the food from the water.

Never ever feed your marginal plants with either artificial fertilisers or organic manures. Both can lead to nitrogen run-off during wet weather, which will not only enrich the water, but is actually detrimental to aquatic life.

Fish, it must be said, turn even the most nutrient poor water into the opposite in no time, especially in a small pond. There’s really nothing you can do about this, apart from now and again scooping the mud and their decaying droppings from the pond bottom.

In my pond about a quarter of the surface is now covered in vegetation, and the marginals are starting to move in from the edges. Both water lilies have expanded massively since last year, and are in full, glorious flower, with new buds expanding every day. I bought a white and a yellow one, and still have their colour labels to prove it, yet both are pink, as pink as they come. They’re not at all what I had in mind and give the place a sort of Barbara Cartland quality.

The vegetation includes several floating islands of something that looks like an incredibly delicate and incredibly green grass. I’ve no idea where it came from but the fish love it. They sunbathe under­neath it, and allow me to tickle their bellies. It also makes a great nursery.

The fact that fish can not only survive but breed means your pond water is of good quality, and there is a plentiful supply of oxygen and food. Some of our goldfish have now bred for a second season. All are black or brown, and very difficult to spot in the peaty water, but of late last year’s crop have been joined by some diminutive fish, about a centimetre long.

I’ve no idea how many eggs are laid, but it must be hundreds, and there is no way of telling just how many of these “invisible” fish are actually swimming about. Given that big fish eat small fish it borders on the miraculous that any have survived at all.

There’s really no need to feed pond fish, but keeping them well fed might give the small fry a better chance. That’s a good excuse any­way for creating a daily feeding frenzy, and seeing them leap out of the water is very enjoyable. Feeding also tames them. Given time and perseverance, even the most timid among them will sooner or later join in. Mine now come to the surface as soon as they “hear” my footsteps.

The plantings around the pond are also coming into their own now. Candelabra primulas with their ascending tiers of flowers in a delectable range of colours are some of the easiest of Asiatic primulas to grow, and all they ask for is a soil that never dries out and division of the clumps every three or four years to stop them from becoming too congested.

Siberian irises are also very easy to grow, and associate well with the primulas and other moisture lovers such as hostas, especially those with large, plain leaves. Iris sibirica, the species, is an elegant plant, with elegant flowers to match. It reaches three feet in a damp season and is covered in deep blue flowers with silver markings.

There are countless cultivars, and here are some of the best. ‘Silver Lining’, described last week; ‘Dance Ballerina Dance’ is a relatively new introduction with rather large flowers. The wavy edged falls are rounded and of a greyish lilac, while the ruffled standards a pale lavender shade – very striking.

‘Butter and Sugar’ would be more aptly named cream (for the stand­ards) and lemon (for the falls) as that describes its flower colour rather better. It is perhaps the most charm­ing of them all, and best planted in a generous group. ‘Gull’s Wing’ is new to me and the best white I’ve come across to date. Large and pure white, the flowers are enhanced as well as given an edge by a flash of greenish yellow from the almost hidden signals. ‘Hubbard’ is a violet purple with prominent green and silver signals.

No June garden is complete with­out a few irises, and if your soil isn’t damp enough to grow the Siberian ones well enough, try Iris farreri, an Asiatic beauty of modest stature and blooms of a pale, luminous yellow that open from long, pointed buds.

So far I haven’t had much luck with the delectable Pacific hybrids. Slugs are very fond of them, and I have lost many during the pricking out process.

Eventually I managed to bring a pot of three seedlings, raised from Scottish Rock Garden seed through several winters. Not daring to separ­ate them, the whole lot was planted out and now provides me with pastel yellow and two different shades of blue; exquisite flowers, veined like butterfly’s wings from one plant as it were.

Iris ‘Holden Clough’ is an extra­ordinary creature. I use the term deliberately as the brown and golden flowers, intricately veined and pat­tern­ed seems more suited to jungle creatures or tropical insects than hardy border plants. Give it plenty of space as it can grow very large in time.

Finally my desert island iris Iris setose has been in the garden for almost 30 years and is still going strong. It puts on a tremendous display of Wedgewood blue flowers each June. The large, drooping falls are enhanced by white-rayed signals, and topped by bolt-upright, narrow standards. It is easy to grow in any soil or position and enchants in spring, when the new, violet-tinted sword shaped foliage emerges from the soil.

Before we move on from the iris theme, perhaps I should explain some of the terms used. Falls are actually the plant’s sepals, or calyx segments, while the standards are the actual petals. The word signal refers to the base of the sepal, which is often a different colour or shows prominent veining in a contrasting shade.

What a wonderful midsummer we’ve had this year – truly magical. As the longest day is all too often marred by clouds, wind and rain, the late sunshine was wonderful, but not Shetland-wide I’m told. Compensa­tion came the following day, with blue skies and blazing sunshine everywhere. What a treat, I’m sure we’ll all be raving about it for years, and I must briefly rave about the splendid dinner my friends James and Magnie arranged. The food was simply divine and perfect for the season. Nothing beats a bit of succulent salmon, new potatoes and something I can never get enough of: fresh asparagus with sauce hollandaise.

The dinner turned into an all-night party and we danced on the lawn until six in the morning. I’m really coming around to the idea of lawns. Dancing on gravel, or even in a wild flower meadow, just wouldn’t be quite the same. Lawns are long-suffering, but Magnie’s lupin border looked a little worse for wear at the end of the night – the wine was flow­ing rather freely and some guests danced rather enthusiastically.

His garden in Culswick houses a wonderful collection of plants, huge phor­miums about to burst into bloom, rhododendrons sporting new silvery foliage, and a bank smothered in magnificent cotoneasters and juni­pers. He also owns the best specimen of Paonia delavayi I’ve ever seen. It is compact and short-jointed, flowers freely in a dark maroon, the foliage is superb, and each leaf is held by a striking red petiole. I hope it’s going to set some viable seed.

And now it’s high time to catch up with his magnificence, his large­ness, his expansiveness, Mr Gentle­man, Society Lady, the love of his life, her cruel, jealous spouse High Maintenance Husband, and their love – or could this by now be a hate – triangle? It’s almost a year since Mr G. received an invitation to join SL and HMH in their pied à terre in the Scottish borders. I had my doubts right from the start as the card had not been written in SL’s elegant, flowing hand, but showed the unmistakable spidery scrawls typical of HMH and his mean and nasty character.

I tried to warn Mr G, but he, filled with longing for his beloved and joyful anticipation of an imminent reunion, would not listen. He packed his suitcase and booked a flight to Edinburgh for the next day. We said a tearful goodbye, early in the morn­ing at Sumburgh Airport, and that was the last time I saw him.

Rosa Steppanova