20th November 2017

Sex, frogs and beginner’s bonsai

Rosa Steppanova is aghast at the antics of amorous amphibians, and has some tips on how to turn your potted plants into miniature marvels.

Some of my friends have strange ideas. One, who shall remain nameless, suggested I put some butter on my parsnips by advertising ‘Lea Gardens Porn Weekends’ in the local press and charging a hefty entrance fee.

Shetland is one of those places where males outnumber females, and I believe this applies not only to humans.

Four years ago the first deposits of frog spawn appeared at the margins of my pond, and since the first adults returned two years later the ‘sex and the single frog’ drama unfolds over several days, if not weeks, as soon as hibernation ends; a little earlier than usual this year.

There just don’t seem to be enough girls to go around and piggy-backed three-, or even four-somes are nothing unusual. This year some of the amphibian acrobats excelled themselves; there were several star performances, involving what I call the knotted whirligig. It is exactly what it says on the tin: a tight embrace of between three and five frogs, belly to belly, belly to back, hurtling themselves across the water, webbed hind legs flying. It looks fiendishly difficult and probably takes years of practice to perfect.

For the rest of the year one frog looks much like another, but after mating and spawning, the females are easily distinguished from the ever-sprightly males. They are the ones seen crawling rather than hopping out of the pond, looking squashed and dented, and allow themselves to be stroked and picked up before they regain their strength.

Frogs are good news for gardeners and pond keepers alike. A good crop of tadpoles can munch its way through vast amounts of blanket weed, transforming slimy-green water to crystal clear, while the adults eat a largearray of insects as well as molluscs.

The frogs seem to enjoy it, but everybody else is moaning about the weather and, apart from the odd day between weathers, gardeners have endured endless rain and wind, delaying essential voar work. I was convinced that this spell of cold, damp,grey and blustery began sometime in December 2011 but a friend has since reminded me that it started in June last year.

On a large scale, unless we belong to the lucky band of poly- tunnel owners, waiting is all we can do, but small beds can be covered in polythene or fleece to warm up the soil prior to sowing or planting.

Black polythene sheeting is particularly effective, as it also traps slugs, earwigs, millipedes and other undesirables, which can easily be picked off and despatched.

Cold, wet springs are when a greenhouse, even a small one, becomes a blessing. Rather than making early sowings under cloches outdoors, we have started all but root crops in our cold greenhouse. The first seedlings have been pricked out and are ready to be moved on.

And so the annual game of musical plants begins: from the greenhouse to the cold-frames, from the cold-frames to the cloches, from the cloches to the great outdoors. Sometimes, during a snap of particularly inclement weather, the process is reversed and then, a few days later, starts all over again. I feel quite dizzy just writing about it.

Lea Gardens relies on large number of potted plants, especially flowering shrubs, to provide portable seasonal highlights, to be plunged into borders gaps, or to be grouped where they look best. Pot-grown shrubs, we are told, need re-potting annually, and what a pain that is, especially the task of hunting down containers of the right size and shape.

Luckily there is an alternative – beginner’s bonsai: knock your shrub out of its pot, remove all spiralling roots with a pair of sharp secateurs, prune back top growth by a third, in spring for plants that flower after June, andafter flowering for plants that flower before then. Remove the top layer of compost, add a handful of slow release fertiliser, top up with fresh compost, and hey presto, your shrub is happy for another year – in the same pot.

The first garden shrubs are in full flower. Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle’, much sought after, but rarely available, is weeks ahead of its red or pink cousins and has a less strong tomcat smell than other flowering currants, but star of the show is Rhododendron ‘Praecox’, a dwarf hybrid of slim, upright habit. It looks great with cerise winter heathers on the peat garden, and is one of those shrubs with in-built light; the amethyst luminosity of its saucer-shaped blossom is visible from afar. It is as tough as they come. Gnawed down to stumps by rabbits two years ago, it has not only made up for the loss of wood, but built up enough energy for a first class flowering, which starts in early March and continues for a good month. It suffers from regular identity crises, finding it hard to decide whether to be evergreen or deciduous.

The American erythroniums, known as trout or fawn lilies across the pond, are early this year. They’re sadly still absent from many Shetland gardens, in the mistaken belief that expensive equals difficult to grow. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re also known as dog-tooth violets, and cost a little more than daffodil bulbs or crocus corms because it can take four or five years to produce a decent-sized underground “fang”, capable of producing flowers. The cyclamen-like flowers, often held on dark stems, are delightful and the foliage of most is handsomely banded with cream or maroon.

Trout lilies are a sound investment in many respects. They increase well, flower freely, and don’t dwindle away after a few years, nor do they need regular division to keep them floriferous. I have large clumps ofErythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’, left undisturbed for twenty years, and they are still going from strength to strength. There are no pests or diseases to watch out for and, apart from the lush foliage of the yellow-flowered Erythronium ‘Pagoda’, slugs show no interest in them.

They take to Shetland’s predominant damp and peaty soils like ducks to water, and Erythronium revolutum, a delightful pink-flowered species, seeds itself with great enthusiasm. Wherever I want some more spring-pink, I simply pick a few ripe seed pods in August and sprinkle their contents over the soil. The following spring a forest of green needles appears, followed by the first true leaf a year later. It takes a further two springs before apair of leaves pushes through the soil, and nestled between them – the first, longed-for buds.