In the garden

Remember when hostas were all the rage, and whole borders were scrapped to make way for the fashionable plant of the 1980s? I still have quite a few˜Sum and Substance’,˜Hadspen Blue’,˜Frances Williams’, and of course, the inimitable˜Tallboy’ with drooping clusters of purple bells, towering above them all.

Hemerocallis, also known as day lilies because the individual flowers only last for 24 hours, next took the breeders’ fancy, but I gave them a wide berth as very few perform satisfactorily in Shetland.˜Golden Chimes’, a warm yellow, and˜Frans Hals’, a brownish pink with lighter stripes, are the only ones to bloom for me.

Next came the indispensable pulmonarias with their spotted foliage and early flowering habit. They thrive in Shetland gardens and love our damp soils and cool climate.˜Fruehlingshimmel’, a pale blue, is still a firm favourite. The plants hybridise freely, and we now have a rather nice collection of our very own creations at Lea Gardens.

At present hellebores are the in plants or, to be more precise, hybrids of Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose, and for good reason. At this, still a little bleak time of year, there is simply nothing that can compete with them. The earliest come into flower during February, and their season stretches into May and beyond. The longevity of their flowers has to do with a little quirk of nature. Petals only stay on a plant for as long as they’re needed. Once the flower is fertilised and starts to set seed, they drop. Hellebores don’t have petals. Those beautiful coloured segments that surround and shelter the reproductive organs are actually the plant’s sepals, known as tepals if they fulfil both functions, and they remain in place until the seed is ripe.

The predominant colour of Helleborus orientalis is pink, pink in all its shades, from dark and dusky to pale, delicate apple blossom. In the species, and most of its hybrids, the flowers are nodding, which calls for a slightly elevated position that allows the gardener a peek inside the blooms, where the rings of cream stamens form a contrast to the coloured calyx.

I can’t remember when the first spotted strains of this plant came on the market, but I splashed out on quite a few. In those days all were pink, and I am still left with two of these plants. One is a pale pink, in bad need of a move from its soggy and over-crowded quarters. The other is a dusky beauty with superb spotting, opening as many as 40 blooms a season in its cosy, south-facing bed.

Both came from Washfield House, the nursery of the late Elisabeth Strangman, who specialised in hellebore breeding. James and I paid her a visit one early spring and were enthralled by her long, north-facing hellebore border. She didn’t think much of raising plants in pots, and grew them all in the open ground. Plants were lifted and divided after flowering, and chunks sent out by post.

In many a plant genus it is only a matter of time before the much longed for doubles appear, and so it was with the Lenten rose. Most of its crosses are now referred to as Helleborus x hybridus, as other blood has played a role in their creation. I suffered a brief, but fierce infatuation with the doubles, but have since then gone off them a little. In some, the flowers are small and scrawny looking, while in others they’re rather too blowsy, too Barbara Cartland, for my liking. None have the artless beauty of the single forms. Still, I’m holding on to them in pots, not quite sure yet where to put them in the garden.

All these hellebores would make wonderful cut flowers, if only they lasted in water. Dipping stems in boiling water or searing their ends with the help of an open flame is said to give them staying power, but is a process I find far too tedious and weird.

I came upon a way to make them last in water by complete chance. Having snipped off some blooms with a fraction of stem, to show the colour range of my plants at a Farmer’s Market in March, I stuck them into a shallow dish filled with saturated moss, where they remained fresh and beautiful for over a month.

Now we come to the important bit. How to grow them in our gardens? In Shetland they don’t need semi-shade or the margins of a woodland, recommended for their wellbeing further south. Simply grow them as you would any other herbaceous perennial in reasonably well-drained fertile soil, and a little shelter, if your garden can afford it. If you garden on peaty or very acid soil, give your hellebores an annual top dressing of garden lime and they will repay your kindness a thousand-fold.

The easiest, most satisfying, and by far the most exciting method to increase hellebores is from seed, preferably sown as soon as it is ready. You have to be vigilant to catch the seed from the split pods before it falls to the ground, or you can take precautions by tying small, perforated plastic bags around the ripening capsules of the desired parents.

Hellebores, like all other plants, need amicable companions and are admirably suited to serial monogamy. The earliest to flower can be teamed up with snowdrops and crocuses, followed by other small spring bulbs such as scillas and chionodoxas, and a little later in the season by early flowering herbaceous plants such as pulmonarias, dentarias and primulas.

A friend of mine grows his interspersed with hostas, especially some of the new, smaller American cultivars. They like the same soil and condition, and the hostas camouflage the hellebores during their off season.

I find this a rather nerve-racking arrangement. Hostas grow like cabbages in Shetland, displaying double the vigour of the most enthusiastic hellebores and such a planting would have to be closely monitored and interfered with frequently. I’m also not too sure about those new Americans. They would have to be exceptionally deserving plants to persuade me to grow something called˜Elvis Lives’ or˜Christmas Is’, in my garden.

Lenten roses are evergreen, and April is a good month to rid them of their tattered, overwintered leaves. Walking around the garden with a pair of well-sharpened secateurs is always a highly conducive exercise.

Garden ferns need a good going over now, before their new fronds start to unfurl and make the removal of the old an arduous and complicated task. Some of the polystichums in my garden have convex crowns that get filled with all sorts of debris. Cleaning them of rotting leaves and dropped pine needles leaves a perfect bird’s nest, filled with the pastel green eggs of tightly curled young fronds.

In Phyllitis scolopendrium, the hart’s tongue fern, the new fronds nestle at ground level, hidden among the old like ever so many pale snails. This fern has glossy, entire fronds, and is easily grown in a scraping of soil, in any odd corner, where it makes a handsome feature all year round.

Ornamental grasses, especially the sedges, benefit from a short back and sides now. Shorn back to a fraction of their height, they are soon stimulated into vibrant new growth. Old clumps can be lifted, divided and replanted to give them increased vigour and a new lease of life.

I have a broad band of variegated woodrush bordering a path and value it as the easiest and best weed-suppressing thing in my garden. It is an undemanding and handsome plant, but is hardly ever noticed by garden visitors. Just before it bursts into new, pale green growth, I give it a good going over with the garden shears in April to smarten it up and to keep it within its allotted space.

We are told that evergreen shrubs, especially those of doubtful hardiness, should never be pruned before May, or until all danger of frost has passed. That may well be so, but in my case May is far too busy a month for incidental pruning, which means the job gets left from year to year and, as a consequence, many of my hebes look much the worse for wear.

Some hebes tend towards legginess, which means they carry most of their foliage towards the top of the plants, leaving the lower regions bare. For the inexperienced gardener, cutting all the top growth, and therefore all the leaves off a hebe (shrubby veronica), leaving nothing but bare stumps, must be a daunting prospect. Take courage, the plant will refurbish and look all the better for it in the months to come.

Buddlejas, unless pruned hard annually, all too easily get out of hand and tend to carry their flowers high up in the bush, too high to appreciate without the help of a step ladder or, in the case of a very large specimen, a helicopter. Cut back all of last year’s flowering wands to the lowest pair of leaves or leaf buds you can find, and you should be able to enjoy blooms at head height or even slightly below.

These rounds with a pair of secateurs are always highly satisfactory, and bring instant gratification. The garden looks almost impossibly well groomed as a result. The only ill-groomed thing in it“ is the gardener.

Rosa Steppanova


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