In the garden

APART from a few shyly flowering primroses, the New Year’s Day flower count was almost identical to the one on Christmas day.

Much to my delight, it was down on previous years with not a daisy, dandelion, bittercress or groundsel petal in sight, and that’s how I like it.

Having an almost full-time gardener in addition to the A-team has made a tremendous difference to the garden, and for the first time in many years, those frustrating weed control tasks have been reduced to something manageable, even enjoy­able. Long may it continue.

There was one notable addition on the first day of 2009: a faint lily-of-the-valley scent outside the front door, traced to the mimosa yellow bells of Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue’. Its hard, pinnate, evergreen foliage can take a bit of punishment, but the delicate flower spikes need protec­tion from salt and wind. Sadly, there was no sign of that stunning, almost black hellebore, botanically known as (prepare yourself for this): Helle­borus orientalis Lam.subsp abcha­sicus ‘Early Purple Group’.

The holiday season is not com­plete without a good thriller or murder mystery, and as a television free household, we decided it was time to call in the crime squad. We were lucky to have a sergeant from the Metropolitan Police and two solicitors to hand who, between the three of them, solved the unexplained death in no time.

It turned out to be murder by mollusc, and put short shrift to the old chestnut that slugs either sleep in winter or live frugally on decaying vegetable matter. They don’t. They are not only awake, but are also throwing lavish dinner parties for their friends and relations, serving the slug equivalent of fresh aspar­agus: succulent hellebore flower stems. I wouldn’t put it past the little blighters to lightly steam them before adding some Sauce Hollandaise.

When, last week, I listed the great gifts the garden provides us with, I forgot to mention all the wonderful firewood – mostly spruce, pine, Japanese larch and sycamore, with the addition of a little eucalyptus and southern beech. The latter is a hard, dense and heavy wood, capable of burning for hours, and giving out a fierce heat.

Cutting down a tree is always a sad event, something we used to put off, and put off again. Now that
we have two wood burning stoves, decisions are made much more swiftly, and always for the benefit of the whole garden, rather than an individual. A row of Japanese larch, planted 25 years ago to provide shelter, has long since outgrown its purpose, and is earmarked for the chop.

One is to be spared because it still serves a purpose as climbing frame for Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’. This great old rambler with long wands of single white flowers is almost as old as the larches and thrives on neglect. If you have a tall, ugly tree in your garden, you could do worse than giving it ‘Kiftsgate’ as an embellishing companion.

This year, sadly, we also burned the substantial stem of a Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), a stately tree with an illustrious history. It started life as a potted Christmas tree, was then planted out in a Lerwick garden, where it soon grew too large for its allotted space. Its owners kindly offered it to us, and James, with the help of an A-team member, managed to lift it with a very large and heavy root ball.

Unfortunately its leader snapped during the ensuing intricate trailer turning manoeuvre, and it took about four years to coax it into growing a replacement by pruning out competing shoots, and training a selected strong one along a bamboo cane. Planted in a sheltered spot high above the oldest part of the garden, it settled in fine, and soon grew into a magnificent specimen – until the spring of 2008, when it suddenly and inexplicably turned its needles brown and died.

Time to call in the crime squad once more – this time it turned out to be murder by tree tie – committed by a person or persons “sort of” unknown. Shockingly and scanda­lously, James and I found ourselves in the dock, but our defence team (see above) came up trumps. They conveniently managed to apportion blame to others, and convinced both judge and jury of our innocence, as we would never just pull out the stake and cut the tie – a pair of laddered tights – off near the trunk where it eventually strangled its helpless victim. If you haven’t done so already, please go out there and check, loosen, or remove the ties on your trees before it is too late.

Plants, sadly, do fall victim to heinous crimes now and again. There have been quite a few thefts, some of rare items, in Shetland over the past few years. The targets, more often than not, are large specimens, which are difficult to transplant successfully. I remember a Labur­num, in full flower at the time, being stolen in town.

Larburnums, even young ones, are notoriously difficult to move once established, but a semi-mature one, lifted during the growing season, is always doomed, which just goes to show how stupid the thief in question was. I’m not sure what the judgement might have been in this particular case. Tree slaughter perhaps?

Plants don’t only fall victim to crimes, they also play an increasingly vital role in solving them. I am indebted to my friend Si, ex-Metropolitan cop since, for this fascinating information. Plants are capable of linking the criminal to the scene of a crime, but can only do so – and this is a vital clue to the competition below – at a specific time of year, and for limited periods only.

This is all I’m going to divulge just now, because I’d like my readers to come up with the answer of how plants can solve crime, and I’m offering a plant token as a reward. Please send your answer to Lea Gardens, Tresta, Shetland, ZE2 9LT, to arrive not later than Friday, 23rd January or call (01595) 810454. Forensic botanists, met cops, soli­citors etc. need not apply. The winner will be notified in this column.

In a household that has part of its ancestral roots firmly planted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, listening to the Vienna New Year’s Concert is a must and, if enough guests are left over from the night before, there’s waltzing, polkaing and galloping in the kitchen (tail coats and ball gowns optional). I used to hate the music of Strauss and Lehar – a Sunday lunch staple in my parents’ home – but now love it and consider it the equivalent of fireworks or a mixed bouquet of vibrant flowers.

One of these concerts is much like another, but this year’s was exceptional, as the conductor was no other than the great Daniel Baren­boim himself. It brought, quite unexpectedly, the best horticultural inspiration I’ve experienced in a long time.

It had be seen as well as heard, and we descended on a television-owning friend that same night for a repeat broadcast. The gilded interior of the Wien Musik Verein had been turned into a florist’s paradise, with a waterfall of brilliant green and a hanging garden to rival those of Babylon. It still puzzles me how those lavish, flowing arrangements were supported, let alone watered.

The colour scheme was out of this world; lime green chrysanthe­mums, red gerberas, orange streli­tzias, apricot roses and yellow and cream lilies against a jungle green of cascading foliage.

The same could not be said for the “bonus material” where the help­less television viewer was removed from the concert hall and subjected to dance sequences; the balletic equivalent of municipal bedding with costumes in harsh blue and white – lobelia and alyssum tights and tutus. Ghastly, but useful all the same, a lesson in sublime colour composition followed by a stern warning.

But the ultimate inspiration came from the Maestro himself. During the traditional finale the Crème de la Crème of Viennese Society (tickets cost a small fortune) are allowed to clap, stamp their feet, and rattle their diamonds to the beat of the Radetzky March.

Not this year. The messy audience participation, rather like a garden where nature is never curtailed, was nipped in the bud by the head gardener. In an act of superb, and hilarious, human dressage, Baren­boim silenced the auditorium with a single gesture of his left hand or a clenching of teeth, then invited them back to amplify the tune at a time of his choosing. Joyful discipline. That’s how all gardens should be conducted from now on.

Rosa Steppanova


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