In the garden

Today, before we venture into the garden, dear reader, we’ll have a little catharsis. Better have your hanky at the ready.

Blackbirds choose the oddest places to build their nest in, and one of ours selected the shelf of a Danish trolley in our “industrial estate” where compost, pots and trays are stored, and where humans are a constant presence.

She’d laid four eggs and, securely wedged between stacks of seed trays, the lady sat, turning 180 degrees every half hour, beak facing south, then beak facing north. We played a game: she pretending she wasn’t there and I pretending I believed her. A couple of times she fled her nest with a screeching sound as my helpers, unaware of her presence, attempted to remove or replace trays.

The nest was never left un­attended for more than 20 minutes or so, and we tried as best we could to reduce activities that interfered too much with her coming and going. Then one evening, as I sat there potting young shrubs, I looked up, and there she was, looking me straight in the eye. The game was up!

There was no sign of her the following morning, and by the end of the day there were three stone cold eggs; of the fourth only a few fragments of shell remained.

It gets even sadder now. A date had been set for Bubble and Squeak to go to Boddam – and we all know what that means: chops, loin roasts, sausages and ham.

On Monday, May Day holiday, the stately porkers were lured into the corridor of death, made of net-covered hurdles and strewn with titbits, leading from their byre to a horse box. I was holed up in the ben, watching a DVD with the volume turned up high. Trying in vain to pretend this wasn’t happen­ing. A guilty conscience will out, and I burst into tears as I remem­bered our last happy moments together.

Pigs don’t like getting too hot, in the wild they wallow in mud to cool down. In their little byre I gave them a daily hosing down which they loved, opening their mouths to catch the water, and rolling on the straw in delight. They’d had a good life – without a single moment’s unhappiness.

It was the good life that saved their bacon. Magnus Smith of the Boddam abattoir took one look at them, and declared them to be beautiful animals (rather an understatement as far as I’m concerned).

“They’re far too fat for slaughter, but would make perfect breeding sows,” he said.

Next morning, the day of their planned execution, a deal was struck with a South Mainland farmer. Bubble and Squeak have found a new home, and are going to have lots of piglets – aahhhhh. Tears of happiness and relief this time. I love stories with a happy ending.

By the time you read this I’ve probably died of exhaustion. Pre­paring for the Green Day at the Clickimin Centre this weekend doubles the work load at Lea Gardens. The biennial event is the closest Shetland gets to the Chelsea Flower Show. There’s pot scrub­bing, late night label printing, last-minute pruning and shaping. Only the best looking plants will be allowed to go.

There are no medals to be won but it’s a competition all the same. For all the local growers are forced to compete on a very uneven playing field, unless they produce greenhouse crops such as annual bedding or short-lived perennials, crops that can be forced with impunity. Those producing hardy nursery stock are at a great disadvantage, as their plants, especially woody ones, of the same age, are generally half the size of those imported from the British mainland.

While many deciduous, Shet­land-grown shrubs have only just come into leaf, those from further south have already put on significant new growth, especially those reared in polytunnels, which applies to many. Sadly, more often than not, this lush new growth doesn’t last. All it takes to turn it from lush green spring foliage into autumnal brown threads is one average spring gale.

Imported shrubs should be treated like plants that haven’t been hardened off yet, for that is pre­cisely what they are. No gardener in their right mind would take, let’s say, an annual from the greenhouse and plant it straight into a bed before first hardening it off thoroughly.

Treat all plants that have come through the Sooth Mooth as if they’d come out of a greenhouse, which some have them have. A cold frame is a good place for them initially, and further along the line it offers protection during spells of bad weather. Failing that, the incomers could be stood in a sheltered corner, before planting them out a couple of months later, once they’re fully adjusted to our climate.

It is but a cat’s leap from lateness to precociousness. The other day, my mother-in-law complained about everything being far too early in her Surrey garden, and I chimed in. This year, some plants are almost indecently hasty in my own garden. Some clumps of Asiatic trollius have been in flower since the third week of April, and one of our tree peonies is already in full bloom, three weeks ahead of its usual season. Hostas, renowned for being late risers, have their leaves fully expanded, something they usually save for the last week in May.

I suppose I should be delighted, but I’m not (there’s gardener’s gratitude for you). I’m jumping in triangles (the German equivalent to running in circles) at the beginning of May and won’t have time to properly enjoy all this glory at the moment. There’s one group of plants I’d love to get up early, but they never do, regardless of the climatic circumstances. The plants in and around the pond always take their time.

All new ponds suffer from algal growth, and the problem abates once the plants mentioned above have expanded sufficiently to rob the algae of light. That’s the theory.

Our pond has now been fully operational for over two years, and refused to follow these rules. Oxygenators, sunk to the bottom with the help of lead clips have increased and are doing their job, as do the water lilies, water hyacinths and whatever else we’ve planted into the muddy margins.

I’m not sure why this should be the case, but the pond looks vile just now, with everything covered thickly in blanket weed (a form of algae). It clings on to everything – the hornwort, one of our main oxygenating plants, is completely smothered by the ghastly stuff which prevents the plants from photosynthesising, and eventually leads to their death. I take out as much as I can with the help of long oar, a yard broom, and a lawn rake, whenever I can find the time, but it seems to make little or no difference.

Tadpoles feed on algae and did a great job in 2008. This year, Frank the heron, made a meal of them. With his fishing efforts thwarted by a floating, marginal net, he managed to fill his stomach another way. The frogs lay their eggs on the net and the newly-hatched stay there in tight, pul­sating clusters for quite a while after hatching. Last year I protected them from the heat – and predators as it turns out – with an upside down laundry basket.

I’ve been warned against intro­ducing duckweed to my pond. This plant makes a thicket of thread-like stems and floats with minute bright green rounded leaves. It’s said to be difficult to control in a large pond, once well established. I’m toying with the idea of introducing it to create some much-needed shade. In any case, it should be a more pleasant task to scoop out green lentils rather than blanket weed which has the colour and consistency of fresh cow pat.

The pond gloom lifted a little as during one of my raking operations, I discovered some young fish I didn’t know we had. Our invisible fish (brown Schebunkies) have not only managed to breed, but have also kept the happy event a closely guarded secret.

Finally, I must mention one plant in my garden that always performs exactly when expected. Clematis macropetala is one of the most charming climbers for late spring. It is also very easy to grow, providing a little care is taken at the beginning. Climbers should always be planted a little distance from the wall they’re meant to cover. This stops them from drying out during the summer.

The only enemy of these climbers is clematis wilt. Always plant clematis a little deeper than you would other climbers. The parts underground are never affected by the disease, and are capable of breaking into new growth should disaster strike.

Our Clematis macropetala has all but smothered the porch roof again – for a second time – and following a drastic pruning two years ago. It comes into leaf quite early in the year, and as soon as the tender young foliage starts to expand, the dusky purple buds appear from the leaf axils. The lavender blue, white-centred flowers smother the bush. This glory lasts a good month, and is followed by fluffy seed heads.

Rosa Steppanova


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