15th November 2018
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In the garden

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CONTRARY to popular belief, things don’t slow down in the autumn. If anything, they begin to really hot up now.

There’s always plenty of dull nursery work to be done, especially endless rounds of potting up and potting on.

For those who don’t know the difference, potting up is the first stage. Rooted cuttings in light and airy cutting mix are allowed to dry out a little before they’re shaken from their seed tray, gently disentangled from their neighbours, then given a small pot all to themselves. In other words, they’re potted up. The drying out bit is important, as wet roots in a wet growing medium are hard to separate without causing some damage to them.

In accordance with their vigour some young shrubs will need a larger pot four or six weeks down the line, while slow developers will be happy in their original nine centimetre space for almost a year before they’re moved up a stage, a process known as potting on.

Knowing what size pot to use for which shrub comes with experience. Under-potting (using too small a pot) for fast-growing items such as hebes, escallonias and olearias can be as disastrous as over-potting for delicate and slow growing subjects. The former get hopelessly pot-bound in no time while the latter aren’t able to use up the nutrients provided in a large amount of compost – often with fatal consequences.

The cooler the weather, the slower a plant’s metabolism. That’s why the delicate and slow never feature on the Lea Gardens autumnal potting lists. Add a dose of winter wet to that and you have a recipe for disaster. Plants just rot away quietly. Postponing much of the potting until early spring not only saves lives, it also saves a lot of space, as a liner (rooted cutting) in a 9cm pot takes up a lot less room than one in a three litre container.

Even with this selective and prudent approach there’s never enough space under the cloches and in the cold frames to accommodate all that could do with a drier habitat over the winter months, and drastic decisions have to be made.

Whom to leave out in the cold and wet is a game I don’t much care for, but one that has to be played every autumn. Quite often this involves grading and splitting batches of young plants. The ones with the best root systems are left to fend for themselves, while those that have barely begun to push through their compost are given protection against excess wet.

There are always exceptions to the rule, and in the past I’ve seen myself potting up primrose seedlings well into October with good results. The same also holds true of many open ground divisions, provided the chunks separated from the clump come with a good root ball, held together by damp soil. It’s such a benign way of propagation, and I’m convinced the plants barely notice the transition of free range to pot confinement.

This reminds me of Stephen Garrett, who runs the Railway Nursery in Fife. He compares keeping plants in pots to humans being kept in prison, and has named all his polytunnels after penal institutions. One of his students told me the other day she was taken aback when given the following instructions: “Would you please go to Barlinnie and pot up some potentillas.”

He’s right of course. Apart from those few exceptions necessary to prove the rule, a free range plant is a different creature from one kept in a container. It never ceases to amaze me how rapid, once released from its restraints, a plant’s growth can be; and after 30 years in this business I still find it hard at times to allow for the necessary space.

There was a time when all nursery stock was grown in open ground, and only available during the dormant season – from late October to late March. Large shrubs and all evergreens were shipped with their root balls tied up in sacking, and they certainly had the edge on pot-grown stuff, establishing rapidly and giving a bit of instant impact.

We’re going back to the good old days at Lea Gardens and have some fine, field-grown conifers waiting for the next downpour so we can lift them with as much of their root system protected as possible; during dry weather the soil just falls away, leaving all roots bare.

As I said, all rather mundane stuff, but there’s been a fair bit of excitement on the hard landscaping front. Providing limited wheelchair access by way of broad, compacted quarry dust paths has transformed the garden’s eastern extension and given the whole place a calm spacious feel. To retain this feeling will call for great discipline on the part of the gardener, who has a leaning towards path-smothering planting styles.

Both landscapes are just about ready, and as soon as all the stones are in place, and three tonnes of lime-rich sand have arrived from Andy Jarmson, detailed construction and planting can begin.

Sometimes it takes me a few weeks to actually find the courage to tackle a large, important planting, and having something small to practise on first is perfect for getting rid of one’s creative inhibitions.

The playground in this case is the Pond House: a “lamby hoose” in its previous life, now fitted with a polycarbonate roof, it houses tomatoes and courgettes. It is dry-stone built with sizeable, almost cavernous spaces between the stones in places, a dream when it comes to wall planting, and the ideal habitat for all those lovers of hot and dry conditions.

The south-facing gable end is already embellished with a selection of sempervivums (house leeks) and a fine specimen of Fascicularia bicolor, while native ferns have taken possession of some west-facing crevices.

The problems were the broad, bare gables where planting troughs were confined to the lower ends, a highly unsatisfactory arrangement. Imagine the Pond House looking like one of those middle-aged men with an almost bald head, the “almost” part consisting of a sparse little wreath of hair at ear lobe level. But there are few construction problems a drop of stiff, glue-enriched cement can’t fix.

Cement is highly underrated, and usually classed as a man’s toy, but with a few notable exceptions men rarely use it for artistic purposes.

It can be made into all sorts of objects (I think of Ivan Coghill’s cement sofa down the Cott Road). It can be carved with a knife once set but still firm, and one of the best examples of this craft can be found in the embellished cement paths made by the late Nikki de St Phalle in her Tarot Garden in southern Tuscany.

I’ve already put a few bags of cement on my list for Christmas, along with some sand (the ideal mix for playing in the garden is one part cement to three parts sand – go easy on the water: you don’t want it too sloppy).

I’d also like a HIAB, one of those flat-back trucks with a small crane attached – ideal toys for moving heavy objects such as the Pillars of Hercules, at the flick of a switch. These are the concrete lampposts from the days when the Lerwick nights were lit by gas, and have been sitting in a pile, atop a crumbling palette, for nearly a decade. Earmarked for flanking the path up to the pony stables, draped in clematis-clad ropes. Can you imagine? Just like an English country garden. What was I thinking? The next thing will be a wishing well – or plastic swans for the pond.

The pillars will stand by themselves, in a conversational huddle and ideally, I’d have liked the Philosopher’s Stone at their feet but it’s too late for that. It weighs about 500 kilos, was dredged up from the bottom of the sea, looks like a coffee table carved by Anselm Kiefer, and was moved by pure manpower to a flat piece of ground near the Pond House.

Both gables are now fitted with generous planting spaces for sedums, dwarf campanulas, sea pinks and campions to spill and drape themselves over the bare stone, and those little nooks, crannies and crevices in my new coffee table have been filled with a gritty growing mix, perfect for the rarest treasures.