13th November 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

In the garden

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Now and again, when I have a spare moment, I go through the Lea Gardens chore list, ticking off items that have been accomplished, and circling those still to be done with a red pen.

“Lift Gunnera manicata early spring and line planting pit with thick polythene” received a red circle well over a month ago, but somehow was forgotten about in the hustle and bustle of a busy plant nursery and garden.

The note was made because, two years after planting, the plant in question didn’t live up to its expected giant dimensions. It never showed any signs of stress, but I was sure that the lack of giantism was connected with a lack of water.

The gunnera is now in flower, and had revealed the reasons for its modest dimensions. It has turned out to be Gunnera tinctoria, the giant gunnera’s smaller cousin. The young leaves of both species are highly susceptible to frost and need a suitable covering, such as their old, spent foliage, to protect them.

Gunnera manicata has green flowers, while those of G. tinctoria, displayed in the typical cone-shaped inflorescence, are a fetching crimson. All hail from southern South America, and Gunnera repens makes superb, weed-suppressing groundcover in damp places. It also manages to sneak into the pots of its neighbours in the nursery.

There used to be a time when all the pots in our nursery were weed-free, a freedom achieved more often than not, with the help of germination inhibiting herbicide called Ronstar (how do they come up with these names?). Abandoning Ronstar, for environmental reasons, has given rise to some rather interesting events.

“A weed is a plant in the wrong place.” I’m not sure who to attribute this quote to, but it is still by far the best definition I know. We still blitz bitter cress, grass seedlings, and an unnamed willow herb, that has the knack of making itself look important enough to be left unharmed by inexperienced weeders.

That leaves a whole host of other “weeds”. Columbine and foxglove seedlings frequently turn up in the pots of others plants, as do polemoniums and Welsh poppies. Candelabra primulas also like depositing their numerous offspring in the pots of their neighbours.

The fecundity of Primula florindae, the Himalayan cowslip, knows no bounds. There’s no need to sow seeds, as vigorous young plants can simply be lifted from the gravel in the nursery aisles.

Geranium macrorrhizum seeds around like the proverbial mustard and cress. It is a vigorous plant with scented leaves (oil of geranium is made from this), and whenever it has planted its seed in a pot filled with small and vulnerable treasures, it is weeded out mercilessly. Where its vigour matches that of its host, I tend to leave it in situ. Certain shrubs and trees are also very free with their progeny, especially escallonias, hebes, black currants, olearias, rowans, Swedish white­beams, cotoneasters and Sitka alders.

When I point out these stow­aways to my customers, offering to remove them, the answer is always a no, and quite rightly so. Who on earth would turn down getting two, three, or even four plants for the price of one? The little invaders are easily separated from the major plant and can be potted up or planted out separately without causing any damage to host.

There’s just one more “weed” to be mentioned, the one I’m rather partial to and, I have to admit to my shame, I try to remove from all plants before they are sold. I’m not sure how this is coming about, but Shetland native orchids, northern marsh and heath spotted, have started to seed themselves about in the nursery without any encouragement from me.

Perhaps that statement isn’t quite true. There were three orchids in pots and I tried to encourage them to seed by placing three full-sized seed trays filled with delicious compost at their feet. The trays remain empty to this very day, but every pot in their vicinity sports orchid seedlings.

Most have placed their offspring into rather precarious situations by seeding into the pots of mature or semi-mature shrubs where these youngsters are bound to be shaded or starved out in the very near future. Under no circumstances could this be allowed to happen, and all large shrubs containing orchid seedlings were placed in the potting queue for examination and possible surgery by myself or Dr Kara, my gardener.

Extracting the fleshy roots of an orchid from the matted and tightly woven root balls of hebes and escallonias turned out to be an impossible task. The only way to save the orchids was to cut large wedges out of shrub’s root balls, leaving the latter rather depleted in the sub-terrestial department.

A shrub, devoid of most of its root system, needs to be pruned hard in order to survive, which meant reducing about 30 beautiful woody plants to the size of liners. After completing the surgery, I couldn’t make up my mind which plant was the weed in this particular incident.

As the garden already has a lot of native orchids near the pond I initially decided to pot up the “wedges” for sale and, having had limited success with pot-grown orchids, googled “compost for terrestrial orchids”. The result popped up immediately but the mix was a very complicated one, including components I’d never heard of. The wedges have now been added to the areas around the pond, where their friends and family are thriving already.

Pots of mixed blessing are becoming a regular commodity. Where the originally intended plants have left some space, others take advantage. It’s rather difficult to sell these in the nursery, because it’s hard to give priority to just one pot inhabitant, and the jury is still out regarding which will be the dominant one.

For the time being I’m planting them out in odd corners, keeping a watchful eye. One pot, containing a seedling each of Linaria purpurea, Geranium pyrenaicum, and Viola cornuta should be an interesting one to observe, as the plants match each other in both vigour and the power to produce self-sown offspring.

In all likelihood, it was I who introduced a new weed to my garden. There were no dandelions here when I came, and now there are quite a few. Dandelions are weeds of course, but I refuse to give them their proper slot. If they were rare they’d be much sought after for their beautiful yellow flowers and edible leaves.

I’m toying with the idea of growing some prize specimens in large clay pots. Their only drawback is their self-seeding, and that is easily taken care of. One simply removes the spent flowers before they get a chance to release their little “parachutes”.

My herb and salad garden is bordered by mixed plantings on its southern and eastern margin. Ferns, hostas, perennial honesty, dicentras, double celandines and other well-behaved plants inhabit these beds. There are definitely no foxgloves, but hundreds of foxglove seedlings turn up in the spaces between herbs and salads each and every year.

There are places in the garden where I long to have foxgloves, and in order to have them there I have to go through the elaborate process of digging them up and planting them where I want them. There are always far too many for my needs, and when there is time and compost available, I pot some up to be sold in the nursery.

Whenever I do so, nobody on this island is interested in buying foxgloves; they, and all my efforts, go to waste. With this experience fresh in my mind, there are years when the surplus young foxgloves go to the compost heap. Yes.

You’ve guessed it. That is the year when everybody is crying out for foxgloves and I have none to offer.

I am led to believe that the above-described scenario is known as “Sod’s Law”.

It doesn’t just apply to foxgloves. It also applies to my hiding plants. The other day, a customer who’d travelled all the way from Orkney, and was asking for a plant of Thalictrum aquilegifolium, a won­der­fully airy concoction of tiny columbine leaves and fluffy heads of mauve flowers, was sent away empty-handed.

The next day I came across half a dozen of these plants in the “too small to sell August 08” department. My gardener, Dr Kara, suggests a computerised register of all plants and their whereabouts, which is a good idea on the face of it.

Alas, plants are moved around all the time, potted up, potted on, pruned, shaped, kept back, brought out. It would take all my time to keep such a register up to date, with no time left to write my column. In this case the choice is a straightforward one: the register is the weed, my column is the desirable plant.

Rosa Steppanova