In the garden

IT HAS occurred to me on occasion to do a horticultural review of the year that’s (almost) past, but when­ever I attempt to write such a thing, I find the research too lengthy and exhausting, and the meagre fruits of my efforts soon turn stale, dull and dusty. And who cares anyway? Who wants to know what the weather was like last January, and what was in flower on Valentine’s Day? What size the cabbages and turnips grew to, and how many kilograms of strawberries we picked and gorged ourselves on?

Some parts of the gardening year are best forgotten as quickly as possible anyway – such as the rain, the rain, and yet more rain that was suffered during late November and early December and rotted the carrots in nether regions of the vegetable patch I’m told. Luckily I was frolicking in Graz and Vienna at the time, where it was dry and cool and crisp, and snow covered the foothills of the Alps.

I’d advise all my readers to do the same in 2009. Vanish for three weeks, and thus cut out most of the pre-Christmas stress. Buy some weird and wonderful presents at continental Christmas markets such as musical boxes with dancing sheep, hats that look like hand-made chocolates, complete with glacé cherry on top, interesting looking videos that con­tain underwear instead of tapes, and socks that play Silent Night when you put them on or take them off.

You’ll return refreshed, renewed and, most importantly re-energised from your travels, and will throw yourself enthusiastically into the festive preparations: turning the compost heap, rotating the crops, rewiring the house, dusting the cats, re-grouting the tiles, polishing the brass, restoring the furniture, clean­ing the silver, and all manner of other things necessary for turning a seedy bachelor’s pad (not my words) into a family home once more.

After all this you’ll be far too exhausted for the stirring and steaming of puddings, the salting of hams and baking of cakes. You’ll break into the Plymouth gin early, and a good time shall be had by all.

Some of my readers (I still find it hard to believe what dirty minds some of you have) got quite the wrong end of the stick when they read about our traditional after dinner bestial rituals in last week’s column.

As a multicultural household – Czech, German and Romanian, with only a minority British shareholding – we celebrate Christmas in tune with the European continent on Christmas Eve, and the bestial element forms part of a charming, ancient custom that is practised in order to secure the future well-being and fertility of all the beasts on the croft, be they hoofed, clawed, feathered or finned.

Every animal must receive a share, however small, of the trad­itional Christmas Eve dinner that consists of Wiener Schnitzel (bread­ed pork), home-made rye bread, and a superlative potato salad, made with two roots, two fruits, two pulses, egg, meat and fish. This probably sounds revolting but actually tastes heavenly. The bestial offerings con­sist of scraps of meat for the canines and felines, flakes of fish for the pond’s piscine popu­lation; a warm­ing stew based on potato skins and apple peelings for the Schweinchen, and scoops of grain for the birds, ponies, and sheep.

After a satisfying meal it’s great to don coats and boots and to go out there, in a torch-lit procession past the silent trees, into the fields and the still, starlit night to distribute the goodies, and to wish the flock of ovines a merry Christmas. After­wards, the candle-lit house awaits (there’s a traditional electricity boycott on 24th December), with wood fires, mulled wine and hazel­nut biscuits, to be enjoyed while the presents are opened.

It’s the useful sort I like most, and this year I did rather well on that front. Apart from the mini tractor, which hasn’t materialised yet, every wish has been fulfilled. I now am the proud owner of yet another plastic chopping board with botanical adorn­ments (my mother in law, for reasons I can’t fathom, thinks they might come in useful in the kitchen), a substantial Michael Wickenden plant token, and The Secret of the Universe. Too much partying has prevented me from all but a few brief, feeble, and so far fruitless attempts at unlocking it, but there’s time yet.

I also received a small and low-tech Philosopher’s stone, which is working a treat, but sadly it is the standard model only, you know what I mean, the usual thing that turns lumps of coal into cold. The one I really wanted, The Female Gar­dener’s Magi-pod, was sold out. Which means waiting another year before I’ll be able to trans-mutate pebbles into kittens and nettles into Nothofagus.

And here, dear reader, we must leave it and hasten into the garden. For this is a gardening column after all.

There is something immensely satisfying to present one’s house guests with an entirely home-grown meal on Christmas Day: Lea Gardens lamb, Charlotte potatoes roasted with bay leaves (there’s a bay tree within reach of the kitchen window), tender Brussels sprouts and roast carrots and parsnips baked with Tresta honey. There’s pleasure in the eating, but equal or even greater pleasure in the preparation, from scratch, that goes into it, and starts just before lunchtime on 25th December with a leisurely walk around the garden and croft.

This year we decided on a traditional division of labour. The women toiled in the field, harvesting some strapping great leeks, a bucket of crunchy carrots and beetroot and a generous picking of sprouts and broccoli, while the men sawed wood for the fires, distilled some whisky from grain we had malted last year, ground the wheat for the sponge that formed the base of the trifle and reconstituted the seagull’s eggs we had gathered along the banks and dried earlier. Well, the bit about the wood is true, and the juicy rasp­berries and fat Tayberries in the trifle were home-grown.

In the bleak midwinter the garden not only yielded all the vegetables we could eat, but had quite a few surprises in store as well. A white May broom attempted to bloom on Christmas day, its green wands ten­tatively sprigged with tiny cream pea flowers. A carpet of striped Lam­ium was dotted with dusky mauve, but best of all, the pink cherry blossom on Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ was expanding its petals. There was even a hint of impend­ing spring from the winter sun that bathed the garden in a golden light, and the resinous terminal leaf buds on the black cottonwoods were swelling. Squeezed ever so gently, they willingly parted with their in­imitable bittersweet balsam scent.

James fetched a pair of sharp secateurs from the potting shed, and we gathered a Christmas bouquet of balsam poplar, juniper, Christmas fern, noble fir, and red dogwood. Our walk took us past the remaining beehive in the shelterbelt, and unable to resist temptation, I lifted its covers. There they were, drowsy, seem­ingly blinking, and cosily bunched together between their thick honeycombs, waiting for the weather to warm up.

There was no white hellebore in flower this year, and it still pains me to have lost one of my most treasured heirlooms, a piece of Helleborus niger that had come to me from the garden of my grandmother in Litsch­kau, western Bohemia, and had flowered without fail every Christ­mas Eve. Until I get a new bit (my mother and aunt have the same plant), we have to make do with our black hellebore, which often comes into flower in November. Alas, not capable of surviving for long once picked, we’ll have to admire it in the garden.

The winter sunshine was too good to waste, and dinner could wait. While the rest of Tresta ate their Christmas pudding, pulled crackers and watched the telly, we all set off for a walk around the voe, into the afternoon sunset, leaving the silent village and the blinking lights behind us. A pair of crested grebes was diving.

We didn’t meet a soul, apart from the legendary King Victor, who is Tresta’s equivalent of good King Wenceslas. He was wearing his crown, and had, just as darkness fell, set out on his round of visits, bring­ing good cheer and glad tidings to every household that welcomed him.

Rosa Steppanova


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