A COUPLE of days before summer’s official beginning, summer rapidly turned to winter, and has, more or less, remained there since.
All growth seems to have come to a standstill, and a week ago I rushed around fitting cloches over my courgettes, just about to set their first fruits, and placing covers on all the cold-frames to protect the young plants inside them from receiving too drastic a setback.
Well-established plants can usually cope with such dramatic changes in the weather without coming to much harm, but the vegetables among them tend to do what we don’t want them to do. In an attempt to complete their growing cycle before the onset of winter, they start bolting.
Slow, rather than quick maturing crops have a tendency towards running to seed, when there’s a drastic drop in temperatures during the growing season, and leeks are particularly prone to it, as are some varieties of beetroot, and sometimes carrots. The latter tend to do it late in the season, and usually no more than a handful of roots are affected.
Apart from providing shelter belts or hedging to keep out the wind, and warming the soil with fleece or polythene, gardeners can’t do much to influence the climate, but they can choose vegetable cultivars that are better able to perform in the wet and cold.
The term “early” simply means the plants in question grow and mature faster, and that’s the kind we want for Shetland gardens. I’ve just planted some Sharpe’s Express tubers I found in my outside larder. Placed in the glass-roofed pond house in large tubs filled with garden compost, I’m looking forward to a bumper early potato harvest in October.
Marshalls bring out a summer catalogue of fast maturing crops that, according to them, can be harvested in October from a July sowing. In a Shetland garden, I wouldn’t count on that, unless the plants are raised under cloches or fleece. I use these seeds all the same, and have had excellent results in the past by popping them into a plastic container as soon as they arrive, and keeping them in the fridge until the ground is ready for them the following spring.
They offer a wide range of delicious things: baby Chinese cabbage and pak-choi, a very tasty oriental stir-fry mix, several kinds of rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, an Italian salad blend with red chicory, basil, and red-ribbed dandelion; all at quite reasonable prices.
Also on offer are super-fast carrots, beetroot and turnips, all more or less bolt proof. I highly recommend a visit to their website: www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Pulses are a different matter. As we primarily eat their seeds and seedpods, this is a desirable state of affairs, and the sooner peas and beans come into flower, the better the yield, as they often stop cropping, regardless of how strong the plants are, as soon as the weather turns cold and wet in the autumn.
Bolting is also desirable when the gardener wants a particular crop to set seed. I’m trying this, for the very first time, with Apium graveolens rapaceum “Prince”. This vegetable is better known as celeriac and is, to my mind, one of the most delectable we can grow in this climate. Alas, the Prince aside, all commercially available cultivars I’ve come across, bolt as soon as our typical Shetland summer weather starts.
Not being familiar with its pedigree, I might be wasting my time. These days, many vegetable seeds arise from crossing two varieties, which means the Prince’s offspring may turn out to be a pack of bolting mongrels, but who knows? Nothing ventured, nothing gained . . .
Over the years I’ve ventured much, and ventured it repeatedly on a very different species. I’ve sterilised compost, snatched seed pods from the teeth of force eight gales, and spent hours surrounded by whistling kettles, brown dust, and steaming seed pans, all in an attempt to raise Dactylorhiza majalis ssp. purpurella, the native purple marsh orchid from seed.
Grown in the garden, without competition from a meadow (its Tresta habitat) it can grow to three times its height with inflorescences to match. Everybody who sees it wants to buy it, but there are none for sale. Not a single microscopically small grain of that brown dust has ever germinated for me. Yet they seed themselves liberally in the garden and the nursery, and in all kinds of conditions, from bone-dry pans of alpines to the soggy peat in semi-submerged pots of Asiatic primulas.
There’s even a “portable” orchid in my garden, where a seed has lodged and germinated between a small rectangular cork float and the vertical ledge of a wall underneath it. There’s a mere scraping of gravel, and some plant debris between the two, yet the young orchid, its roots latched firmly onto the float, has survived into its third year.
Taking my cue from that, I made up three shallow pans of compost two summers ago, one filled with washed beach gravel and a sprinkling of leaf mould, one with a gritty alpine mix, and one of impoverished spent potting compost, with a small orchid already growing in it, and placed them near a patch of orchids. When the seeds were ripe, I couldn’t resist tapping them gently to release them, and watched them wafting down onto the surface of the pans.
Two years later, all manner of things have germinated in those pans, but not a single orchid. Across, and further up the path from where the pans are sitting, orchid seedlings have sprung up like the proverbial mustard and cress in large containers of semi-mature hebes, olearias and escallonias. Impossible to extract from amongst the matted roots of their hosts, I’m toying with the idea of sacrificing them in order to give the orchids a chance; I can always raise more shrubs from cuttings.
The late Christo Lloyd got almost, but not quite, excited, when he came across my first ever patch of orchids in full flower, and assured me it wouldn’t take me long to build up saleable stock from it. The method he recommended was division, either after the plants had died down in the autumn, or as soon as the first shoots emerged in spring.
I decided to go for the spring option, lifted my clump, carefully shook apart some of the fat white storage roots, and potted up half a dozen. The rest, replanted in the same spot without delay, remained sulky and bedraggled for over a decade before returning to form. None of the transplants survived. It goes without saying that I never tried the autumnal approach.
Luckily, other precious plants are less difficult to please. It took me several years to pluck up enough courage to divide the rarest plant in my garden – in early spring before the winter crowns start to elongate. Bulbinella rossii, one of the so-called megaherbs, comes from the islands (Campbell, Auckland and Enderby) between Antarctica and New Zealand, and the small colony at Lea Gardens is, as far as I can make out, the only one in the northern hemisphere. It is also the only plant in my garden that actually revels in a rough climate, and I was rather concerned for it during that long dry and, given our microclimate, hot spell during May. I needn’t have worried.
This plant grows in the Invercargill Botanic Garden, and has been described by the writer Derek Fell in the RHS magazine The Garden as: “Stunted and unthrifty, a mere shadow of its wild self.”
For years I convinced myself that mine were exactly as they should be: vigorous, healthy, growing to type, and flowering freely and beautifully: an act of formidable and long sustained self-deception.
Four years ago I split my original clump that grows in a shady raised bed in peaty loam, and established a second colony in a boggy hollow of the same soil, shaded by a Japanese larch hedge. The leek-like individuals increased rapidly, and started flowering in the second year following the upheaval, showing larger, broader leaves, and slightly larger, but still thin, and somewhat misshapen flowers. With hindsight I suspect they were probably much the same, if not actually inferior to those at Invercargill.
All changed this spring, when my Bulbinella rossii returned to the wild, so to speak, presenting me with superb glossy foliage, and a show of magnificent flowers that rival those I’ve seen on photographs taken on Campbell Island.
The self-deception served its purpose; it gave the ugly duckling time to turn into a swan. Any other plant, under performing like Ross’s lily, would have long since found its way to the compost heap.