In the garden

LILY, the supreme illustrator, started her artistic career with tiny and minutely detailed silk embroideries, featuring plants, insects, amphibians and birds in exquisite detail. Her first exhibition at Liberty’s in Lon­don was a resounding success, and all those enchanting silk embroid­eries have long since been sold, not only because of their compelling botanical and zoological detail, but because of their rarity value.

In common with many female artists, Lily had a long break from artistic endeavours while she de­voted her time to bringing up a family of three. Urged by countless friends and devotees to produce more of the same, Lily, who could have made a small fortune by obliging, declined, and eventually re-emerged as a very different artist, exchanging the embroidery needle for a brush, and the postage stamp-sized silks for huge canvasses. This coincided with a major life change, as she left the confines of a small island for the freedom of living in a city.

At the time – I was one of the friends urging her to continue on the embroidery path – I failed to under­stand her reluctance. Now I do.

Much like Lily, I had created a series of tiny and minutely detailed cameo gardens, hemmed in by the Shetland climate. An intimate sunk garden, all planted in pastel shades, tiny raised beds against the house walls; the largest bed I ever planted in those days had the dimensions of three king-sized duvets. Creating more and more shelter to keep out the elements and, taking my cue from Vita Sackville-West, I planted room after self-contained room, each surrounded by dykes or hedges. Alas, compared to her generous outdoor drawing rooms at Sissing­hurst Castle, mine were mere por­ches, closets or broom cupboards.

Unlike Lily, I still practice my art within the confines of a small, and rather climatically challenged island. My artistic liberation came with the garden’s extensions to the north and east of the existing plant­ings. For the first time ever there are no spatial limits: no tiny raised beds, but generous alpine landscapes, no small garden pond, but a lake I can swim in. I find myself yielding a large brush rather than a small embroid­ery needle, and have begun to understand Lily’s reluctance to return to a miniature form of artistic expression.

Each time I leave the shady con­fines of the old garden, and emerge in the breezy, sun-lit new part, I get a thrill. Still, planting a sizeable land­scape is a daunting prospect, and just now and again, I find my­self, especially on windy days – of which there are many – contemplat­ing cutting it all up into sheltered compartments as I used to do.

One of the works in progress in the garden extension is a long mixed, but primarily herbaceous border, inspired by the Long Border at Great Dixter in East Sussex. It’s been a long time since I visited that wonder­ful garden, and planting a tribute to its late owner, a “clashery” after Christo’s taste, a man after my own heart who refused to obey the rules of the “colour wheel”, strikes me as very appropriate.

Unfortunately, unless I follow suit and incorporate large areas of seasonal bedding, I won’t be able to pull this off. To me, elaborate bed­ding schemes are alien and encom­pass a style of gardening I couldn’t possibly warm to. Nor can I be bothered to rip out early plants in order to make space for dahlias and cannas to keep the show going into late autumn.

This planting will still be known as the Lloyd Border, but a compromise is called for. Taking a leaf out of Gertrude Jekyll’s book, I’m planting a lush summer border, incorporating a zingy clash of hot colours in its central section, with gentler colours leading up to it from both ends.

It starts at its northern margin with long mats of mauve and cream variegated ajugas, the cool, chalky pastels of compact geraniums, drifts of clove-scented pinks, and the fine-rayed composite blooms of Erigeron “Pink Jewel”. Small glaucous-lea­ved hostas and dwarf grasses add body.
All merge and blend beauti­fully, and are spiced up by the wide, warm, salmon-toned plates of Achil­lea “Flannel Petticoat”, and the plum-purple foliage of Sedum “Purple Emperor”.
Behind them all runs a long sweep of blush lavender Polemonium x jacobaea, followed by an equally generous sweep of the dark as dark can be Campanula “Sarastro”; its large buds and newly opened flowers are frequently mistaken for baby aubergines by garden visitors. Knautia macedonica “Mars Midget” completes this group with a swathe of vivid, unadulterated crimson.

Then things start to heat up with Lilium “Scarlet Pixie”, a sturdy two-footer with huge flowers in a rich orangey red, fronted by the in­comparable Primula viallii with red buds that explode into lavender stars. Next to them squats a large dome of Geranium “Patricia”, one of Allan Bremner’s creations, in vicious black-eyed magenta. Over it arch the horizontal ears of fiery red Crocosmia “Lucifer”, mingling with the slender purple spikes of Linaria purpurea.

Patricia’s next-door neighbour is a stand of brilliant apricot-orange Trollius “Golden Queen”. Its upright habit and skywards chalices, with their protruding tufts of petioloid stamens, contrast well with the round, flat flowers and horizontal habit of the geranium.

The front of border planting continues with the low-growing Polemonium “Lambrook Mauve”, smothered in tiny flowers, followed by deep purple goblets on the upright leafy spikes of Campanula glom­erata, which I’ve interplanted with the orange form of the Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica var. aurantiaca.

Then comes a patch of brightest yellow courtesy of Sedum reflexum, followed by a group of Tradescantia “Concord Grape” with three-petalled violet flowers nestling amongst spi­d­ery foliage, and clashing superbly with the red-fringed yellow “sun­flowers” of Gaillardia “Bremen”.

The next middle of the border section contains more of the linarias, as well as the perfectly rounded, large centred orange yellow daisies of Anthemis “Sancti-Johanni”.

Precisely at this point the plant­ing runs into difficulties. I would have liked more tall, yellow-flower­ing plants, but apart from ligularias, which already feature prominently around the margins of the nearby pond, I only found Senecio canna­bifolium. Not only is it a truly stately perennial but it would also fit the bill; sadly it’s a real thug that couldn’t possibly be let loose in a border.

The reds are an additional prob­lem. Apart from lilies, of which I planted several more clumps in various shades, and a Gladiolus nanus with vermilion flowers, all other candidates are rather similar in shape and habit, namely herbaceous potentillas and geum cultivars, both rounded plants with round flowers and rather pedestrian foliage.

I’ve used good old geranium red Geum “Mrs Bradshaw” and Poten­tilla “William Rollison” with big double red flowers flecked with yolk yellow in two separate groups. They make a real splash but I’ve nothing, apart from the few mentioned above to plant between them as contrast in form and shape, while continuing the hot colour scheme. I’m toying with astilbes, but as none of the plants I have are labelled, I’ll have to wait until they’re fully out before I can decide if they fit my pallet.

This section of the border will probably have to be altered, perhaps completely replanted at some stage, which is no problem with herbaceous perennials, as most can be cut back, lifted and shifted at almost any time of year.

After this hiccup, matters improve with lead red Weigela “Bristol Ruby”, the strong lavender blue of Veronicastrum virginicum, a stately back of the border plant with ele­gantly arching flower spikes, and one of my all-time favourites, Anthemis “Sauce Hollandaise”. It produces large crops of handsome daisy flowers that open a luminous pale yellow, then slowly change to a rich cream, all the way through late summer. In front of it grows the double red Geum “Blazing Sunset”, mingling with clear yellow pouches in airy sprays held on long, wiry stems. These belong to a delightful slipper flower, a Calceolaria species new to cultivation; only recently introduced from South America. It hasn’t been positively identified yet, and all I have at present is a collection number.

From there we move to the back of the border and onto the shocking pink tassels of Sanguisorba obtusa, the Japanese burnet, a vigorous grower with handsome blue-green pinnate foliage.

Lilium “Lollypop”, an Asiatic hybrid, has been languish­ing in several pots, dotted about the garden for years, because I could never fit its cerise-tipped cream tulip flowers into any existing colour scheme. Now it, the flock of sangui­sorbas and A. “Sauce Hollandaise” form a ménage-à-trois made in heaven.

That’s the story so far, as the rest of the border isn’t ready for planting yet.

I’ve decided once and for all against regressing to wind-proof compartments. This means I’ll have to get used to the idea of staking the taller or weak-stemmed plants. It’s a job I don’t much care for, but the alternative is far worse: I couldn’t possibly live without a race of majestic and stately plants, and a silly border composed of nothing but windproof dome and bun-shaped things would be too dull for words.

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.