In the garden

AS SUMMER turns to autumn the garden is at its most productive. Salads and vegetables are plentiful – almost too plentiful at times. We’ve started freezing large quantities of peas and broccoli.

The former is the old reliable variety “Kelvedon Wonder”, a fast-maturing cultivar that started cropping with great abundance in early August from a mid June sowing. Regular picking not only prompts the swelling of only just formed seeds but also stops the individual pods from fully maturing. To my mind there are few tastes more nauseating than that of a pea that is hell bent on becoming “marrow-fat”.

The broccoli, cultivar unknown, is producing huge heads but has too little staying power for my liking. No sooner are the curds fully developed than their stems start to elongate and the skin that covers them turns tough and stringy. Peeling is the only answer.

Broad bean “The Sutton” is a dwarf variety, and a plant that should’ve been sown under glass in April or even May, in order to provide a reasonable yield. The short, stocky plants have set generously but only the oldest beans, low down on the bushes, are going to make it to the de-podding stage. The others are best cooked, or frozen, pod and all. One of the tastiest parts of a broad bean plant is the top shoots, complete with flower buds. It seems a crime to eat them rather than let them turn into beans, but as late in the season as this, the chances of more beans setting, let alone maturing, are slim.

There’s still a good amount of blossom on the peas, and – applying double standards here – I wouldn’t mind a few more pounds of young and sweet petit pois. It all depends on the weather and on the abundance or otherwise of pollinating insects.

The beehives at the bottom of the garden were reduced to just one this year. One had died out over the winter, and one, for reasons unbeknown to us, has been taken elsewhere. It remains to be seen if the abundance of young tree and shrub seedlings continues with the lesser abundance of honey bees.

The most common self-sown seedlings are – not necessarily in this order – whitebeams, rowans, buddlejas, hebes, ribes of all sorts, and olearias. Just now and again the garden’s potentillas leave an offspring or two, but so far, apart from very slight colour deviation, nothing exciting has cropped up.

Here I must slot in an extract from a reader’s letter I received about a week ago: “Are the shrubby pot entillas you mention in your column related to potentillas or are they a new species? We have a lot of pet cats and were wondering about growing pet unias. Would you know where we can get some?”

This made me feel rather nostalgic. In the good old days before electronically transmitted texts, printing errors were far more common, and far more hilarious from what I remember. Ornamental onions wore gloves, and there were borders filled with herbaceous pants – seasonally vanishing knickers to you and me. Pot entillas and pet unias are rather dull by comparison. But allow me to share with you further observations regarding those self-sown seedlings. There’s a large heap of peat and wood ash just outside the garden’s original eastern boundary. It’s been there for years, and it’s on this heap I always find an abundance of fruticose seedlings, far more than in any other part of the garden. Perhaps it’s not just the pollinating insect. Given this narrow geographical range, I can’t help wondering if a more alkaline soil has something to do with germination and/or survival. The jury is out.

As I can’t bear to throw out any plant, all seedlings are potted up, more often than not languishing in their small pots until they give themselves away – through their first flowering, spectacular autumnal foliage tints or, more rarely through an unusual shape or form.

Only the really unusual are kept for future observation or breeding. The rest, once they’ve reached a decent size, enter the rough and tumble of the nursery, and from there move on to make a living in gardens all over Shetland. Treasures don’t often become apparent during the first generation, so it may be worth your while to give your hoe a rest and watch out for those delectable woody seedlings.

I dealt extensively with self-seeding perennials a week ago. Some, like overbearing visitors, are far from welcome in the long term, and their seeding efforts must be curtailed at all cost in places of the garden where their vigorous progeny threaten to smother smaller, weaker plants.

Some do it by seed, others by corm. Good old Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora, better known as Montbretia in Shetland, was bred by a French nursery in the late 19th century and must have caused a sensation when it was first launched. It is an exceptionally good garden plant. The late Graham Stuart Thomas gives it full marks for both flowers and foliage, and I fully agree with his judgement.

If only it were rare, precious and difficult to increase. How we would treasure it, and what high prices we’d pay for it. Alas, increasingly abundantly by means of its corms, it’s as common as muck, and therefore despised by many gardeners. When I first came to Shetland over 30 years ago, it had pride of place in virtually every garden. These days it is more frequently found outside than inside Shetland gardens, having been thrown over the fence, or dumped somewhere in the countryside.

It can make a bit of a nuisance of itself in the smallest garden, but where there’s plenty of space, it should be planted in generous drifts. Thus used it really can shine and will get rid of every weed within its vicinity.

Despite a recent revival of and increased demand for plants with hot colours, the plant breeders don’t seem to show any interest in this wonderful genus. Perhaps they’re too busy producing hundreds more hostas, day lilies, or heucheras to join the thousands we already have. There are a good few red and deep orange crocosmias around already, and also a very good clear yellow variety, Crocosmia “Citronella”, which all do well in Shetland.

I’ve been less successful with the more unusually coloured or very large flowered cultivars such as “Emily McKenzie”, “Star of the East”, which has the largest flowers of them all, “Nimbus” and “Queen of Spain”. Crocosmias with peach or pinkish tones are relatively rare, but I’ve had C. “Severn Sunrise” in a south-facing border for a number of years, and it is behaving well, but needs dividing every two or three years to keep it flowering freely. So far, none has ever seeded with me, but given the good summer and the earlier onset of flowering this year, I live in hope. Perhaps moving my most treasured plants a little closer to that ash heap might help to provide me with the desired offspring?

Rosa Steppanova


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