In the garden

WHEN it comes to waterside planting and bog gardens, damp borders even, there is usually a large gap from the moment the last spring flowers go over until the summer ones take charge.

This year, with a rather compacted season, plants that don’t usually start to show colour before the very end of July are in full flow now, making me wonder what there’ll be to look at later on.

Columbines, geums, polemon­iums, and other assorted small-fry could of course be used to bridge the spring to summer gap, but being plentiful in all the garden’s shady places already, I leave them where they are to prevent over-kill.

These vigorous growers and enthusiastic self seeders would probably take up far too much space anyway. It’s far better to allow the wet plantings to catch their breath and to build up into a stunning summer performance. I rather like these all-green gaps, sadly lacking this year. They lend a planting an air of suspense, keeping the gardener in a state of joyful anticipation until those first buds finally open.

Candelabra primulas always put on a stupendous show at the first hint of summer. I used painstakingly to herd mine into tonal groups in the mistaken belief that the riot of colour would cancel itself out, as it usually does in free-for-all bedding schemes.

The candelabras are different. There’s no harshness in the mix as they span the rainbow spectrum from soft orange to deep purple. And they all look great together, espe­cially if their tiers of blossom are reflected in a stretch of water.

In order to keep the full range going, a little discerning selection is still called for, as the soft or washy colours tend to dominate. This is easily done by attaching a tie-on label to the stems of those with the most vivid colouring, then collecting and sowing the seed as soon as it is ripe.

The foliage of these primulas isn’t much to write home about, and teaming them with a few impressive grasses and large-leaved hostas helps to detract from their drab leaves.

One of these impressive grasses is Carex boothiana, a beefy sedge that grows to about two feet and pro­duces spikes of fat brown “catkins” on sturdy, slightly arching stems.

On a slightly smaller scale, New Zealand golden mountain sedge (I have no valid name for this plant) creates dense stands of golden-green leaves, with the brown flowers hidden amongst them.

Both are easily grown in moisture-retentive soil, benefit from a short back and sides after the winter, and can be divided in late spring once the soil has warmed up a little. This goes for most grasses; they resent disturbance while the soil is cold, and have a tendency to fade away over the winter if lifted and split in the autumn.

I have two very good ground-cover plants for the bog garden or pond edge. Myositis scorpioides ‘Mermaid’ is a selected form of the water forget-me-not that is never out of flower from July until the first frosts. It is shallow-rooted, and from one small plant you can establish half an acre – if you have a mind to do so – by detaching tiny rooted sections and planting them where you want them.

Lysimachia nummularia
, the creeping Jenny of gardens, is just as easy going, rooting as it goes. It makes a lush green carpet, spangled with brilliant yellow, contrasting the forget-me-nots during July and August. Planted in really damp soil it stays evergreen for most of the winter, which is an added bonus.

Both plants look best when grown in wide sweeps, and also make great cover between trees and shrubs, helping to keep the weeds at bay.

Chrysanthemum leucanthemum
, the ox-eye daisy of the classic flower meadow, is a Jack-of-all-trades but revels in really damp ground, growing into huge clumps and flowering with great abundance for months. It has a knack of placing itself into any convenient gap, and is easily pulled up before it starts to shed millions of seeds.

In the unlikely event of your garden lacking a convenient bit of water-logged soil you can help matters along. Mark out the space you want, then remove two spade depths of soil from it. Line the thus created hollow with strong polythene or a piece of pond liner. Replace the soil, water well, and hey presto – the world is your soggy oyster.

The garden seems quite out of sync this year, with late spring and early summer merging into one. Lilies and roses are out, bringing about colour combinations hitherto unseen at this latitude. Rosa alba ‘Maxima’ started flowering in late June, for the first time ever accom­panied by the pink waterfall of Weigela florida. In a normal year the two miss each other by a hair’s breadth.

Rosa ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’, always fashionably late, has forfeited her dramatic entrance in favour of being in on the act and is swelling her enormous buds into crimson blooms the size of side plates. She has the most powerful scent of all roses. I wish I’d planted mine against a house wall, where the perfume can waft in through an open window.

My slowing down predictions in last week’s column turned out to be wishful thinking. The little rain we’ve had was greedily lapped up within minutes by my thirsty Ladies-in-Waiting as soon as it fell, while managing to bring enough moisture to the vegetable rig to bring forth a new green film of weeds. Life is not fair. So there was more Dutch hoe­ing, endless daily rounds of water­ing, tangles of hose pipe snaking through the borders. Alongside, a stream of visitors, strawberries wait­ing to be picked, and as if that wasn’t enough already: haymaking.

Haymaking should be rurally idyllic and highly pleasurable, but was no such thing. With James plant-hunting in Finland, there were frantic phone calls to the Arctic circle in an attempt to track down the whereabouts of rakes, pitch forks, coarse salt, and most importantly, old herring nets to stop the wind from blowing away the newly-made coles. I can’t remember when I last felt so exhausted, after one of the busiest weeks in the garden ever.

Still, despite the hectic schedule, which included fattening a calf for my husband’s return, I found time to redesign the potting shed – normally a winter job. But this is an emer­gency. It has to be enlarged at all costs to make enough space for a grand piano. No self-respecting potting shed should be without one.

Here and now, dear reader, we have to make a brief incursion into the realm of psychoanalysis and Melanie Klein’s destructive envy theory, sometimes known as the sour grapes syndrome.

Many years ago, a friend of mine worked briefly behind the bar of a pub in Germany. She never got the hang of pulling a pint, and was sacked after a couple of weeks. When next we met, she proclaimed that serving behind a bar was beneath her dignity, as it was a job a trained monkey could do.

Unless one is saintly and perfect, belittling and ridiculing the achieve­ments of others, especially those
we don’t like, is part of human nature.

Last Friday I made up for the lack of summer gap verdure in my entire garden, by turning bright green
with envy at my friend Carol’s barbeque. The late arrival was none other than a ravenously hungry Neil Georgeson.

The coals were re-lit, and after he had his fill of ribs and sausages, he treated the guests to a piano recital during the early hours of Saturday.

Carol’s garden was too cold and windy by then so the sublime per­form­ance took place in her garage, against an aqua blue backdrop neatly hung with spanners, screwdrivers, and other such tools. Several guests fainted with delight and had to be carried into the house, where they were revived with toast and tea.

The performance of a piano genius from Aith is a hard act to follow, and as I’m returning the fav­our, I’ve decided against destructive envy. It is such a very tiresome thing, and bad for one’s complexion I’m told.
Forget about the grand piano and the potting shed, I’ve decided to pull out all the stops on the constructive envy front. It’ll have to be a large concert hall (the pond is being bulldozed as you read), and the Berlin Philharmonics. There’s a major problem though: after Neil’s superb performance I’m afraid my discerning guests would find the style of Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s principle conductor, far too bland and predictable. I have entered into negotiations with Daniel Bahren­boim’s agent . . .

Rosa Steppanova


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.