In the garden

And suddenly it’s voar. Spring started a little before the vernal equinox this year – at least for the humans at Lea Gardens.

We had our first al-fresco drinks of the year (orange juice with fizzy water) on the 17th, as we sat, bare-armed on a bench, enjoying the warmth of the sun. Having spent so many months wrapped up against the cold, wind and rain, being able to strip off a few protective layers was perfect bliss, and there was a sound I hadn’t heard for ages.

Judging by the humming and droning, I’m sure the whole beehive was on the wing that day. The early daffodils only attracted a few nectar and pollen collectors, while the hellebores were inundated, as were the first willow catkins, but favourite bee flower of the day, without any doubt, was the crocus. We pot a lot for spring sales, row after row sit in the nursery, and their strong honey scent on a sunny day is a treat. Every open flower had its own visiting bee, and every bee wore a pair of yellow pollen pantaloons.

The surface of the pond was like polished, blue-green glass, fish were shoaling and rising for food, and large clusters of frogspawn had appeared around the shallow margins. The fish had grown timid and nervous over the past weeks, due to frequent morning visits from a pair of mallards, but the sunshine managed to lure even the most secretive and elusive carp out of their hiding places.

The next sentence in this spring eulogy should probably be: the garden was filled with birdsong. It wasn’t. It was filled with bird bickering. There’s been a population explosion among the blackbirds, which is great as far as I’m con­cerned, if it wasn’t for their very poor interpersonal skills. They settle their differences – soap opera style – with shouting and slanging matches then, as every spring, do their upmost to destroy my carefully applied mulches, and all the mosses, in their search for fat worms – sometimes I’m amazed they leave any to aerate the soil.

That’s the (only just) acceptable part. I’m not sure why we have to have those low flight displays – somewhere between knee and nose level, or the frequent kamikaze land­ings in the undergrowth. I failed to mention them to the safety inspector from the SIC, nor did I tell him about the blood sports.

Cock fights, of both the aerial and terrestrial type, take place several times daily. There’s also pig wrestl­ing, on a less frequent basis, invol­ving at least four strong men and one or – at the very most – two pigs.

I can’t say I find these testos­terone-based displays attractive, but what is very attractive indeed is the harmonious agreement between the gardens’ blackbirds and cats. It’s still a little anxiety provoking to see a bird scratching and scraping a few inches from a feline sunbathing or absorbed in its daily ablutions.

I’ve often stated that my cats aren’t interested in birds, but now I have to eat my words. A recent feathered visitor caused considerable excitement. I’m not sure how cats communicate, but the appearance of a cock pheasant in the garden was hot news on the feline grapevine. First one lone stalker tried his luck, and then fetched two colleagues as reinforcements. All, I’m glad to report, returned home empty-pawed.

Time to move from fauna to flora. Suddenly there are colours, colours not seen in the garden for some considerable time. The whites of the snowdrops, the green-tipped cream of the spring snowflake, and the yolk yellow of the earliest crocuses has made way for the blues, laven­ders, lilacs and purples of March. They’re quite hard to get away from in a garden brim-full with crocus and chionodoxa.

The glory of the snow only lives up to its name when the snow comes late, and the large stars of the white-flowered Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Alba’ are white enough to outshine the freshest snow. The sheer brilliance of this plant can make it quite hard to place in the March garden, but it associates dramatically with “black” hellebores, and looks charming inter-planted with forget-me-not blue Omphalodes nitida. It also looks great, spread out as a carpet beneath the darker forms of the flowering current and the precocious, sugar-pink, Rhododen­dron ‘Christmas Cheer’.

The blue forms of chionodoxas always look much better in the flesh than in the bulb catalogues. I can never see much difference between Chionodoxa luciliae and C. forbesii, but their white eyed stars are campa­nula or periwinkle blue rather than the dingy mauve depicted. Chiono­doxa sardensis has more substantial sprays of a rather deeper blue. All are charming in the bud stage, displaying strings of graded mauve pearls, tightly packed into a leafy green sheath.

We’re always told to plant our spring bulbs in a natural, informal way. This can be much more difficult than it sounds, but is never a problem with chionodoxas. You can set them out in serrid ranks and they’ll soon break free from their constraint, self-seeding in the most delightfully informal fashion.

Yellow daffodils aside, there’s some welcome relief from the March blues with Pulmonaria rubra, one of the earliest lungworts to flower. Unlike most of its ilk, it has leaves of a bright apple green, rather than spotted foliage, and carries little clusters of bell shaped flowers.

They are a deep, warm pink without the faintest trace of blue in their chromatic make-up, a rare colour at this time of year.

Pulmonarias hybridise freely, and if you’re not too hasty with the hoe, you might turn up a few seedlings worth keeping. We’ve been lucky at Lea Gardens a few times in that department, and our latest treasures have plain leaves and carry large flowers of ravishing amethyst blue from pink buds.

March is a little early for most tulips, but there are three species that just can’t wait. Tulipa turkestan­ica looks interesting from the moment it breaks through the ground in February. It pushes up long narrow foliage and clusters of large, drooping, and perfectly weatherproof buds that open into cream-coloured reflexed stars. T. polychroma has exactly the same habit, but its flowers are larger, and sport a prominent, maize-yellow centre, once fully opened.

The bulbs of Tulipa humilis produce single flowers that range in colour from palest pink to crimson and purple in the wild. Such colour ranges are a plant breeder’s paradise, and the species has given rise to various cultivars, including T. humilis ‘Violacea’, which is a real show stopper, but I prefer it before it opens its flowers to show their contrasting yellow centre. The large egg-shaped buds are a uniform glossy violet magenta.

All three, in common with most delectable dwarf tulips for the rock garden, hail from the Middle East and do best in full sun and perfect drainage. They don’t increase much, if at all, in Shetland, but hold their own for a good number of years.

Sunny days can bring on a spring-cleaning urge – not in the house (heaven forbid), but in the garden. There, the equivalents of cupboards and drawers that haven’t been turned out and de-cluttered in years clamour for attention.

I have three plant observation wards in the garden. Newcomers spend some time there prior to plant­ing out, as do precious seedlings, and sowings I want to keep a close eye on. One, running alongside, and shaded by, the potting shed, seemed ideal when it was established a number of years ago, but has since become all but overgrown by the geraniums I keep there in fish boxes to bring a little colour to the area.

Having made a tentative start I now wish I’d never opened that particular drawer, as its contents defeat any attempt at meaningful categorisation. There is no point in sorting items into easy piles, such as definitely alive, possibly alive, doubt­fully alive, as doing so swal­lows up all available space, and is not at all good for my nerves. What makes matters worse is the lack of labels. What are all these plants? Do they need sun or shade, wet or dry? Where did they come from? Where shall I put them? Perhaps a neighbour will sell me a large field?

This is really, really hard, but I think it’s time to face up to facts. I’m an incurable plantoholic in desperate need of help. I must book into the nearest Priory forthwith, hire a life coach, a horticultural counsellor, a professional de-clutterer, a psycho­analyst, preferably one with a grey beard and a couch; I could probably also do with a personal trainer. It goes without saying that I phoned a friend, who offered the following advice: “You should do with your plants what I do with my wardrobe. Whenever I buy a new dress, I throw out an old one.” I think I phoned the wrong friend.

Rosa Steppanova


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