In the garden

DURING August things are meant to slow down, but this year the opposite has been the case.

We managed to take the boat out once or twice, and caught a few mack­erel to go with the dill, cucum­ber and new tatties, but apart from that it’s been in the garden non-stop.

Having never used a rolling vibrator before, I decided to hire one for the weekend. As it turned out, it was far too heavy and unwieldy for my liking and I have come to the sad conclusion that vibrators are not for me. Packing down and levelling quarry dust over a mortar path is a man’s job, a strong man’s job at that.

After a brief spell in the doldrums of taking stock, seeking new hori­zons, and reconciling past achieve­ments, I’m glad to see Lea Gardens setting full sail into the future once more.

One of our aims is to create wheelchair access to the new parts of the garden – a long-term project as it turned out. The mortar we originally spread and packed down was far too coarse for a smooth ride, and the paving slabs we envisaged and tested were quite unsuitable for the undulating contours we had created.

After all these setbacks the draw­ing board stage dragged on rather, until we finally hit on the perfect solution this summer. Between eight of us, armed with shovels and rakes, assisted by a digger, a dumper truck, and that roller/vibrator thing, we man­aged to spread 16 tonnes of quarry dust in just two days of hard labour, turning the rough, ankle-break­ing paths in the garden’s eastern extension into silky-smooth, rock-hard roads.

Good infrastructure can transform a garden and energy creates new energy – almost miraculously.

Two large alpine landscapes form a prominent part of the extension, one for acid lovers, and one for lime lovers.

The latter posed a major problem until recently. Our local rock, when and if used for construction, leaches large amounts of acid into the soil, thus quite defeating the purpose as far as lime lovers are concerned, and no amount of artificial liming can permanently rectify this.

Enter my gardening friend Florence, who gave us permission to take as much stone as we needed from a tumble-down building in South Whiteness, one of Shetland’s limestone areas.

The material in question is sedi­mentary limestone, hugely compres­sed and thus extremely heavy. The building is rather difficult to access and bringing the quantities we need on site will take weeks if not months, involving concerted manpower, a sturdy wheelbarrow and a small trailer.

As far as I can see from the first two loads that have arrived so far, it’s worth all the effort, as the indivi­dual rocks, some beautifully weath­er­ed, show highly prominent strata, while a few display spectacular and intricate folding, much like the curled finials of Doric columns, created billion of years ago.

While energy creates energy, some­times a little extra enthusiasm is needed to tackle those jobs that always remain at the back of the queue.

Garden visitors rarely venture onto the Temple Terrace these days. Both stairways leading to it, one ascending from the main path to the house, the other descending from the West Borders of the Back Yard clearly spell privacy and forbidden territory, not only because they lead to our summer dining room and barbecue area but also because, over the years, they have become as over­grown as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

The Temple Terrace had become the garden’s equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs, only tackled for a major overhaul every three or four years. To make matters worse, its paved areas act as obser­vation wards for new arrivals. A large, motley crew of plants that takes up a lot of space and makes the place look untidy.

The reasons I keep them there are manifold. The space, sunny and sheltered, is ideal for acclimatisation. Situated but a stone’s throw from my study and bedroom, I can keep a close eye on them, but perhaps most importantly, because of their secluded location, nobody is tempted into “buying” them.

This year, there have been numerous unauthorised purchases concerning my new plant arrivals placed just inside the garden gates. Despite clear sign posting – garden this way, plant sales that way – a number of enthusiastic visitors have, in my absence, taken it upon them­selves to buy plants that are not for sale.

All, I must say, have been honest and generous, leaving the presumed purchase price, or more, in the donations box. Most, fortunately, also left contact details, thus giving me the opportunity to retrieve some, but by no means all, of my lost property.

These purchases pose a bit of a dilemma. I don’t like the idea of closed gates or padlocks on the days I’m not here, nor do I relish the prospect of forbidding “Not for Sale” signs. The only solution, as far as I can see, is another secluded area, either hidden deep inside the garden or far from the beaten track.

Plants from Michael Wickenden’s nursery near Gatehouse of Fleet feature among the newcomers most years – as long as I remember to send off an order on time. His Cally Garden catalogue is packed with a range of delectable plants, some not often found on mail order lists. Every one sounds seductive and exciting, and many of the plants on offer have been raised from seed collected in the wild and are new to cultivation. Whittling down my annual and rather long shortlist to an affordable level is always an agonising process.

Michael is a plantsman with a superb eye for what makes a good garden plant; he is also a man of strong principles. None of the plants he sells and grows are protected by plant breeders’ rights, which means everybody can propagate and sell them without paying a levy to the breeder.

If you’re looking for the latest garden centre hyped cultivars, his wares are not for you, but if you’re searching for some sterling border perennials, scarce old varieties, or a few weird, wonderful and unusual things, his catalogue is hard to beat.

The star of my 2008 order is without the shadow of a doubt Kniphofia thomsonii, one of the so-called red hot pokers, but without the coarseness and harsh colouring of Kniphofia ‘Atlanta’, the cultivar most commonly found in Shetland gardens. Here is Michael’s descrip­tion of my star: “A very different looking species with curved tubular soft orange flowers spaced an inch or so apart on a spike like an Aloe, summer and autumn, hardy, 4’ 6.” Plunged into a bed, pot and all, it opened its first flowers two weeks ago and looks ravishing against a dark juniper growing higher up in one of the Temple Terrace beds. I’d love to plant it there permanently but that’s quite out of the question; the terrace beds turn into soggy mires every winter. Apart from ‘Atlanta’, which will grow just about anywhere, Kniphofias need good drainage and as much sun as Shetland has to offer.

To enhance our nocturnal al-fresco dining, we planted the ter­raced beds using, almost exclusively, plants with white or very pale flowers so they would show up during dusk. At the time there was nothing but bare hillside and shelter was a primary concern.

Two shrubs fitted both bills: Sambucus nigra forma laciniata, the fern-leaved elder, and Spiraea nipponica ‘Snowmound’. The latter is invariably described as a small shrub and was therefore planted far too close to a flight of stone steps.

From late May into mid June they are a dream pair with the large greenish white umbels of the elder reaching down to, and mingling with, the arching branches of the spiraea, set along their entire lengths with pairs of small white floral rosettes. When it’s wet and windy, they dish out torture in the form of cold, unsolicited showers or, even worse, whip-lashings to anybody who dares to squeeze past them. Pruning them hard every other year only serves to stimulate new, vigorous growth. This year I hacked the spiraea back to stumps and severely crown-lifted the elder, and felt awful afterwards, as this will prevent their delightful mingling for at least a couple of years.

In the long run I’ll probably have to sacrifice them on the altar of reasonably unhampered access, and with the garden firing on all four cylinders and expanding in all directions it shouldn’t be too hard to find them a space where they can expand as much as they like.

Rosa Steppanova


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