In the garden

MODERN photo technology has left us in no doubt of the fact that plants are capable of moving of their own volition.

They move as they grow and expand, pushing new roots down, thrusting new growth into all directions; they move as their tendrils reach out for support, as their flowers unfurl their petals one by one, as they tense their spring-laden catapults to expel ripe seeds.

All this has been captured on film countless times but remains invisible to the naked eye. To us humans, plants never seem to move by their own volition, unless the most patient among us observe one of those more accessible performances, such as the slow closing of the flowers in an osteospermum species after midday.

To the casual observer plants don’t move by themselves; they’re only ever propelled by external forces, such as the wind, or the brushing by of an animal – hedgehogs, moving in the under­growth, often give themselves away like that.

Perhaps this is why the pond, and its abundance of fauna, has become such a magnet to Lea Gardens visitors. Things move in it – nearly all the time.

Most of the frogs have long since dispersed, but there are still a few stragglers, tiny froglets in a wide range of colours from near black to orange and pale gold. They’re easily caught by placing an outstretched hand, palm up, flat on the ground in front of them. They’ll hop onto it, and then on to the next hand placed in front, and so on.

Watching the delight of visiting children, holding tiny frogs in their tiny hands has been one of the great joys of summer.

Frequently the frogs brought up the subjects of frog-related fairytales. Thankfully not a single visitor has managed to kiss a Lea Gardens frog to date. All is well so far; and not a single prince has popped out of the pond’s marginal plantings as far as I know. Wouldn’t it be great if this worked the other way around? You kiss a prince and he turns into a frog. Camilla gives Charles a big smacker on the lips, and there he is, a big, olive green, croaking frog. A great improvement as far as I’m concerned, and everybody lives happily ever after.

The froglets’ larger siblings can now be found in large numbers and in the most far-flung corners of the garden, including the greenhouse and car park. Some have started to “sing”, allaying all my fears regarding the lawnmower and grass cutter, and their frog mincing potential.

There have been just two known casualties, one caused by an inquisitive, playful cat, the other by a large tub of water. How a tiny frog could find its way into a two-foot tall tub remains a mystery; the poor thing was found sunk to the bottom, pale belly up. Since then every plant plunging vessel in the garden has sported a frog ladder in the form of a large protruding stone or a bundle of slanting bamboo canes.

Every self-respecting pond must have some fish, and Koi carp are all the range it seems. If you have a small pond, and want it to be a fully functioning with a wide range of pants, especially oxygenating ones to keep the water pure, give carp of any kind a wide berth. They are like under water pigs; they root and dig, and dislodge everything in their path. If you don’t have a large pond, but feel you must have them, they’re best kept in a “sterile” pond without plants and a pump to keep the water fresh. Goldfish, despised as common by Piscean snobs, are fabulous and come in a wide range of colours: from near white through palest pink, yellow, orange to the richest tomato red. They are fast growing – the larger your pond, the bigger they’ll get. They’re easy to keep, cheap to buy, and breed if conditions suit them. Being highly competitive, they create an element of frisson in a pond of mixed fish; chasing, and on occasion nibbling other, often much larger, fish.

Comet Longtail and Shubunkin are varieties of goldfish. The former have long, flowing tails, often as long as their bodies, and I have yet to try them. Shubunkin come in a wonderful array of colours and markings, and were the first fish in my pond, but are, in my experience not the easiest of fish to keep, being prone to troubles with their swim bladders. Winter losses can be high.

The exceptions to the rule have been the brown Shubunkin, known as the invisible fish at Lea Gardens. Often, all we see in the peaty water of the pond is the ring of the invisible fish, as they rise to feed. Just now and again, when the sun is at the right angle, they show up: deepest velvety chocolate brown or black with flowing gossamer fins and tails – a rare joy.

Orfe are for you if you want fish that shoal freely and are nearly always visible on the water’s surface. They are the aquatic forms of shrubby pot entillas, always in flower, permanently upbeat, and just like their terrestrial equivalents, extremely fast growing.

Silver orfe, the most common form, seems to be impossible to come by and therefore the pond keeper must do with the golden orfe, a slender, silver-bellied salmon orange fish, offered at a very reasonable price.

Blue orfe smolts, masters at catching flies and midges, are rather more costly – look sort of maggoty to begin with – but add variety, and develop their blue, often intricately patterned backs once they’re six months or older.

The great thing about orfe is that they seem to stimulate any other fish in the pond, even the most elusive ones, into becoming more active and visible. They encourage them to shoal on the “following my leader” principle.

I have serious issues with this seemingly harmless nursery rhyme/song, as it continues: “wherever he may go”. Perhaps because I’m German, I find this indescribably sinister. Nobody in their right mind should ever blindly follow a leader, least of all a fish.

The ones in my pond have since heeded my historical/political warnings and are, following on from somewhat alarming beginnings, behaving in a much more analytical and independent manner, forming small breakaway groups while, at times, still attending larger gatherings based on strictly democratic and egalitarian prin­ciples. They seem to be, I’m glad to say, evolving on permanent revolution rather than categorical imperative principles (Leon Trotsky instead of Immanuel Kant).

Rarely to begin with, but more frequently of late, the “ghosts” have been attending such meetings. They are my favourite fish in the pond. I’m not altogether sure why that should be so, but perhaps because taming them is a real challenge. They’re shy, aloof, and secretive, and it’s taken them months to join the daily feeding frenzies.

Ghost carp are a cross between mirror and koi carp, and have striking metallic scales and broad, prominent head plates. They are also capable of growing to an enormous size. The three I have are quite dull and insignificant compared to the ones I saw at the RHS garden at Wisley in Surrey some years ago: huge fish with striking scale patterns in copper and violet.

Having warned my readers against the indefensibly destructive habits of carp in a pond, I must admit that, ghost carp apart, I have, this spring, and against my better judgement, become the owner of two koi. I fell for them because they stood out from the usual polka-dotted, intensively variegated, hectically patterned crowd. “Orangeat” is pure metallic orange, and “Zitronat” is pure metallic yellow. They manage to look sort of important whenever and wherever they turn up, because of their chunky outlines, flat, “armour-plated” heads, and prominent pectoral fins.

My excuse for introducing them is the large size of my pond (14 by 12 metres). Given the rapid increase in its vegetation, I’m pretty sure I can allow myself another two ghosts, as long as they are those delectable copper and violet ones.

Ponds seem to be springing up all over the place, and there’s great demand for outdoor fish in Shetland. Lea Gardens is working towards meeting some of this in the near future. At the moment we’re looking into importing vigorous, healthy fish from a reliable source, but ideally we’d like to sell Shetland grown offspring from the ones residing in the pond already. That might take another year or two. In the meantime, let me recommend Linden Garden Centre at Glencarse, just north of Perth. They keep a good range of outdoor fish at reasonable prices.

All my fish came from there, and my advice is to buy the smallest, and therefore cheapest specimens available. You’ll be able to fatten them up in no time, selling, and selling them at a vast profit in shortly, or steaming the carp for a traditional German New Year’s Eve dinner in December 2010.

Finally, a safety warning: in August 2007, I lost most of my fish to a heron, who left a calling card in the shape of a few of its downy soft, rounded grey feathers. Protecting the margins of your pond is vital (I use fruit cage netting). This is also effective against cats with a penchant for angling.

Rosa Steppanova



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