In the garden

MY NEIGHBOUR Jimmy recalls digging tatties out of the snow one October many years ago, and there was one occasion in the early 1990s when I was convinced that our weather forecasting cat had got it all wrong.

Minkus, a magnificent brown tabby tomcat, and his tabby sister Frances, were born on my lap on 25th May 1980. She was a home bird all her life, while he spent his youth around the croft, honing his rabbit hunting skills for a couple or years, then vanished every spring as soon as the weather warmed up a little, usually in late March or early April.

He reappeared like clockwork two or three days before the first snowfall of winter, usually in Dec­em­ber. He never entered the house on foot, but had to be carried inside, draped around James’s shoulders like a large, ticked and striped fur collar, hissing and spitting at all and sundry.

His arrival during a spell of Indian summer in October convinced us that he was growing old, and had lost his forecasting powers. Less than a week later the wind turned to the north and we woke to a sprinkling of snow the next morning. He kept up his forecasting for several more years until his death on 20th September 1997.

There’s quite a difference bet­ween a dusting of the white stuff and a fully-fledged whiteout like the one we experienced last Saturday. I’d never seen the garden all white while its deciduous trees and shrubs were still in full leaf.

It was an extraordinary and some­what disconcerting spectacle. Deci­du­ous plants, usually devoid of foliage by the onset of winter, aren’t designed to carry heavy burdens of wet snow on their leaves and rapidly change shape as a result.

The blizzard severely tested the flexibility of every branch and twig in the garden. One of the oldest trees here, a 25-year old Japanese larch, had been allowed to grow a hori­zontal branch to form a green-curtained lintel at the entrance to The Round Garden. Reaching, well above head height, across to a New Zealand tea tree, it had created a natural arbour, something usually only achieved through careful train­ing or pruning. The snow managed to bend the branch so severely that its feathery tips touched the ground. Relieved of its burden, it has sprung back near enough to its original position Much the same happened to another natural arbour, composed of the blush white flowered Fuchsia magellanica var. moliniae in a narrow north-facing bed, and Rosa ‘Albertine’ trained against a south-facing wall on the other side of the path through The Kitchen Garden. Only a reptile could have managed to pass underneath the two, and after the snow thawed, the fuchsia was still leaning and drooping, leaving a “duck or grouse” situation.

The wiser and less laid-back gardeners among my readers prob­ably rushed out there with brooms, shaking and brushing the snow off their trees and shrubs to prevent any damage. Perhaps I should have done likewise, but I was too enthralled by the extraordinary changes the whole garden was undergoing. I also rather like to observe what nature is cap­able of without intervening, unless a catastrophe looms (more on that subject later).

There’s nothing much a gardener can do in such situations, except trim back the stems of those that have gone down completely, and are leaning heavily on the plants around them.

Hardy herbaceous perennials can cope with a bit of untimely snow and a rapid dip in temperature without coming to any harm, and so can the garden’s late flowers. Nerines, gen­tians, potentillas, hydrangeas, croco­s­mias and asters all looked as fresh as daisies the day after the event. Some, especially exotics such as Tropaeoleum speciosum, the Chilean flame flower, looked incongruous and surreal covered in snow.

There used to be a time when this flamboyant climber ripened plenty of seed – trios of showy blue berries, held by pale green ruffs. These days the birds steal them as soon as they change colour. I don’t mind them taking some, but not all of the har­vest. A clear case for intervention: those still green shall be protected with a piece of windbreak netting or an old lace curtain.

Germinating the berries is a little complicated but worth all the trouble: first remove as much of the fruit flesh as you can, then soak the seed in a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water. This mimics the stomach acid of a bird, and helps to leach out all germination-inhibiting chemicals.

Leave the seeds to soak for a few days, then dry and sow them in half-pots in acid, peaty compost, covering the surface with a layer of coarse sand or grit. Leave the sowings in a sheltered place outdoors. Germina­tion should start the following spring.

During autumn the kitchen at Lea Gardens is littered with freshly harvested seed, hung in brown paper bags above the Rayburn, sitting in dishes soaking in acidic solution, or drying off in sieves prior to sowing. Some are more precious than others, while a small minority are extremely rare and well nigh impossible to replace.

In July Murat Kara, my new gardener, brought me a small, dried out fruit from a rare dwarf pome­granate he’d found in the wild on the island of Kushadasi, off the west coast of Turkey. Processing the seed was fiddly and time-consuming, and when the day earmarked for sowing had at long last arrived, the seed, left in a sieve to dry, was nowhere to be found.

One of our house-guests had emptied the contents of the sieve down the sink. My punishment for such crimes might seem somewhat random, but unless the perpetrator is exceptionally charming, witty, help­ful, or highly ornamental, such deeds are punished with instant eviction. Since that incident every seed container carries a “noli me tangere” label, and the guest in question departed earlier than planned.

Winter also came earlier than planned and without prior warning, bringing a rather worrying aspect for my cactus and succulent collection, still out of doors. All its members are classed as tender, but are capable of withstanding a snap of frost as long as they are kept bone-dry. What they can’t stand is a combination of wet and cold.

In 2007 they spent their first winter in the new pond house. In spring all seemed well, but only those housed on staging or placed on the stone sills below the roof had survived. The others, wintering on the earthen floor, looked plump and fresh, but collapsed or toppled over as soon as touched. Their roots, sitting in damp compost for several months, had quietly rotted away. Good drainage is of prime import­ance in every aspect of a Shetland garden.

The untimely snow did little lasting damage, but the prolonged stair rods downpour that preceded it, put every drain in the place to the test.

Last year we’d noticed a lot of surface water running north to south in the garden extension, and thought the problem had been remedied by removing the repeatedly blocked inflow grill from the large pipe that carries water from the hill drains to the pond. Sadly that was not the case, and as the paths flooded and the pond overflowed, immediate action was called for.

I always feel for people who have to work in all weathers, especially those not yet acclimatised to Shet­land. Asking my team of gardeners to unblock drains, dig ditches, and lay field drains during blizzard conditions was a tall order, and I felt rather guilty all day, snug in the warm house, preparing for a dinner party that night.

The sterling work of James, Murat and Flo, our border collie who loves digging, prevented the new paths from being washed away, stopped the torrent from flushing the pond fish into the sea, and saved our collection of New Zealand plants from drowning.

All three, at the time of writing, are still alive, if a little worse for wear. Flo, not able to strip off her “outers”, and covered in gutter from head to tail, had to be subjected to a most humiliating procedure: her first indoor shower.

A severe pruning which reduced my red-trumpeted, ceiling high Phygelius capensis (Cape figwort) to sorry stumps, created enough space on the upper shelving of the greenhouse to provide a frost-proof home for the above mentioned tender collection.

Two tall multi-stemmed speci­mens of the South African succulent Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ with stunning aubergine-black “leaf” rosettes were planted out in a well-drained border for the summer, and are now heeled into the greenhouse border, where a dreadful fate awaits them. Come spring, they are destined to be chop­ped into short sections, then stuck into course sand for stimulating root production.

After all, as Abraham Lincoln and Bob Dylan said (the latter, to my mind, said it rather better), one can please some of the people some of the time and, provided all goes accord­ing to plan with the propaga­tion of the aeoniums, those Lea Gardens visitors desperate for a bit of this stunning plant should be able to take home a spanking new, well-rooted rosette in the summer of 2009.

Rosa Steppanova


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