In the garden

EVER since August, strange noises have been coming from the direction of South America. They’re audible from quite a distance and sound like murmured conversations, or a low-key running commentary, punctuated now and again by a high-pitched exclamation or a satisfied grunt.

All but the most blasé of our garden visitors are intrigued by them, and make a beeline for South America, situated high above the old garden, and reached through an opening in the Back Yard dyke. There they find our new cultivators, two in number, lively, porky as well as porcine, and brightly coloured.

They are two young sows, Tam­worth and Saddleback crosses, and Murat, my Muslim gardener, who was a bit sceptical at first, declared them “bonny”. Remember Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction and his aversion to eating swine unless it came from “one hell of a charming pig”? He would have relented as soon as he set eyes on them, for they have charm by the bucket load.

Bacon and Rasher arrived on a livestock trailer courtesy of Dorota Rychlick and Richard Rowland, who’d bred them on Vaila, and were presented to me as surprise gifts from my husband. An hour later, once we’d noticed that their red hair glowed in the sunset, that they could straighten and wag their curled tails, and that their ginger eyelashes were proportionally twice the length of those on Barbie dolls, Bacon and Rasher became Bubble and Squeak.

Flo, our border collie, was as enchanted and fascinated as the humans at Lea Gardens. It took her precisely 30 seconds to throw her oldest, and most dearly held ambition – to become a cat – to the four winds. She decided to be a Schweinehund (pig dog) instead, and practiced incessantly, snapping at their trotters, trying to round them up, and wearing a sheep’s gaet into the grass around the perimeter of South America.

The Schweinchen set to work immediately, ploughing, harrowing, cultivating, ingesting, digesting and egesting deep-rooted perennial weeds, before vanishing the follow­ing day. Flo had taken it upon herself to introduce them to the sheep. Thankfully this happened on a still day, when the expletives used during the ensuing rounding up weren’t car­­ried on the wind, and our repu­tation remains intact. The piglets became Bacon and Rasher once more.

We’d been warned that they were good at running away, which is an understatement. They are master escapists and could give Houdini a run for his money. There have been several escapes since, always accom­panied by re-naming, and followed by the purchase of several rolls of pig netting, at £80 a go – due to the high price of steel we’re told.

Still, they do an admirable job, and are unbelievably hard and fast workers. South America has long since turned from green to brown, and it’s taken them less than a week to get our new cabbage patch ready. They’re now booked to cultivate elsewhere, and we are toying with the idea of starting a rent-a-pig business for green-minded crofters and gardeners: no fossil fuels, no environmental damage, no costly machinery, no expensive repairs and no time-consuming maintenance.

The Schweinchen were preceded in South America by our trusted lawn mower Abernethy III, who turn­ed decades old, matted vegeta­tion into a close, green sward, ready for ploughing all by himself. Ideally Bubble and Squeak should be succeeded by a flock of hens, to pick out any seeds that inevitably remain in the soil. While we’re working on this – it takes time to build polecat proof chicken accommodation – the idea is to bring Bubble and Squeak back to take care of any new growth as it germinates during mild spells. I’d prefer them to remain cultivators and live long happy lives. No bacon or rashers, and no offending Murat’s olfactory senses with the aroma of roast pork.

I like this animal power approach – no more digging – no more sore backs. I even prefer it to the labour-saving old carpet and black poly­thene method, which often stretches my patience. In the case of South America it would’ve taken those rugs and plastic sheets at least a year to kill off all visible vegetation, while leaving the pig nuts, docks, celandine and creeping sorrel intact.

After an eight week pig effort, the place is ready. We can lay field drains over the winter and start on the infrastructure, measuring out beds and borders and constructing paths. Next spring, all going well, our South American collection, heeled in or potted up last autumn, will be able to move to its permanent home at long last, a very exciting prospect.

It’s the only place in the garden secured against rabbits with wind­break netting buried under ground. Elsewhere we have to rely on our feline employees to keep those pesky little rodents from gnawing the carrots and beetroot, and ring-barking our trees during snowy spells.

Sadly, cats have an all too short lifespan, and their hunting powers wane as they grow old. Phasing in younger replacements can be prob­lematic, as ageing felines get set in their ways and don’t take kindly to boisterous, disrespectful kittens. The kittens themselves can be a problem as, unless they are of good hunting stock and have enjoyed ex­cel­lent parenting, their skills can be basic, and their efforts misguided.

Several of ours, before they developed a taste for rabbit meat, tried their paw at fishing – with considerable success, bringing home still twitching small-fry, chunks of sea trout and, on one occasion, a pair of salt piltocks, tied together by their tails – no doubt stolen from a neigh­bour’s washing line. Pond fish can be irresistible to some cats I’m told, and there have been a few attempts by one of our prime toms, to hook a passing carp, but that is no major worry. The wind that blew relentlessly for three days last August made the garden cold and unpleasant, keeping me in the house to catch up with the towers of unanswered mail that inevitably accumulate during spring and summer. When I returned to the garden, the pond was empty. Instead of leaping fish, I found a floating heron feather. Frank hadn’t eaten them all, but the few that remained had turned shy and aloof. We netted the margins of the pond against further raids.

The same happened after this year’s October hurricane – not a single fish to be seen, and Murat had spotted Frank, standing motionless on the southern pond edge. The whole shoal, even the elusive ghosts and invisibles had grown tame and trusting over the summer. They came for food, they even came when I called them and they would’ve ven­tured to the very margins in places where the net had sunk – easy, and expensive prey for a sharp-eyed hegri. We tried, unsuccessfully, to flush any possible survivors out of the undergrowth with an old oar. There was a lone golden orf, cruising on the surface now and again, and that was that. I could’ve spared myself a lot of fretting if I’d remembered that fish move to the bottom during low pressure and can remain there for an eternity.

This time the hegri had left with an empty stomach, as all piscine pond inhabitants have since been accounted for. All the same, this prompted us to improve our fish protection methods. Herons are a major problem for pond owners all over Shetland, and I know of one case, where they not only devoured every single fish, but also pecked holes in the rubber liner, causing the water to drain away.

Decoys, unless they’re moved frequently, don’t work. Herons are intelligent birds, fooled for a brief time only by a plastic lookalike. However, the fact that they, like cats, can only fish from the shore, works in the gardener’s favour.

Fruit cage netting, secured on shore, was left floating over the margins, but nets get clogged up with algae and water weed, which causes them to sink and defeats their purpose. Apart from frequent lifting, cleaning and drying – the latter kills the algae – I didn’t know how to remedy this.

Enter A, the remaining member of my A-team, who always comes up with the most simple and brilliant ideas: “Your garden is littered with objets trouves, all this maritime detritus, why not use those boys and ring floats for their intended purpose?”

A fisherman used to live in our house, and left behind some useful things, among them several lengths of rope, fitted at regular intervals with cork floats cut in half, and securely and very skilfully attached with thin, strong twine. Tied to the net they keep it afloat and provide a continuous barrier that prevents the fish from reaching the pond margins. A few buoys, anchored with stones, stop the net from floating to the shore. What genius, and why didn’t I think of that?

Working, with rolled up sleeves, in cold pond water during November might strike my readers as a most unpleasant task, but it was in fact highly enjoyable and satisfying. Not only are the fish – fingers crossed – safe from greedy Frank, but the pond also looks all the better for it.

The colourful buoys and floating corks have liberated it from its state of bland, posh-glossy- magazine per­fection, and married it to the garden’s eccentricity and unconventionality.

Rosa Steppanova


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