In the garden

That south-westerly gale two weeks ago is still a major topic among Shetland’s gardeners.

Tales of woe abound: whole beds of tulips in their prime wiped out in a few hours, bedding plants set out the night before turned to crisps.

It is heart-breaking when this happens – every five years or so, if my memory serves me right – but it’s a reality every gardener at 60° north has to live with.

At Lea Gardens, anything in the firing line of that storm looks a complete mess as a result, with the worst damage at and above eye level. Every tree and shrub on the western front has been badly burnt by the wind. The scented leaves of the balsam poplars are black shreds. The buds on Canadian elders, just about to burst into bloom, hang limp and brown.

There was also, much to my dismay, considerable damage on the east side of the garden, an area I believed to be well “covered” by a shelter belt. A newly-planted golden leaved alder at the north-eastern margin of the pond looks as if it had been torched – it’s spring display cruelly cut short with not a speck of golden green to be seen.

Black is not a colour we associate with spring. And there was a shade of white I hadn’t expected to see for at least another fortnight. We managed to get our vegetables in early, too early to bother protecting the brassicas from the cabbage white butterfly with agricultural fleece or windbreak netting. But there they were, several of them, fluttering about the South Border, pretending to be quite harmless.

Black and white is far too monochrome for May. Let’s think pink instead. There is a feast of pink in the Back Yard just now, raspberry, sugar mouse, carnation, coral, peach and rose – all courtesy of rhodo­dendrons, primarily Yakushimanum hybrids.

There’s pink elsewhere in the garden, the mauve-pink of tulips, the soft, lilac pink “cow parsley” of Chaerophyllum hirsutum and the first flowers on Geranium macor­rhizum ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’, and there’s a fair bit of pink to come yet. But none has quite the same impact as these “yaks”. Each one gives a good, solid cubic meter (rounded not square) of pink.

Even Rhododendron ‘Golden Torch’, which eventually turns to a luminous pale yellow, starts its flowering season in pink. A deep clear shade in the bud changes to warm peachy tones. This gradual lightening is something all these hybrids have in common, and, in all likelihood, has to do with their Jap­an­ese genes. The wilding, Rhodo­dendron yakushimanum sports cherry red buds, the flowers open a deep pink then gradually pale to apple blossom and finally white.

All have a long season of beauty. It starts as soon as the buds start to swell and reveal a glimpse of colour between the pale green bud scales, and ends with the unfurling of the new foliage a couple of months later. The young leaves are never green, but wonderful shades of buff, white or silver.

We used to grow all our rhodo­dendrons in pots, but have since taken a leaf out of the book of one of Britain’s most famous rhododendron growers and breeders, the Coxes of Glendoick. They grow these shrubs without exception in the open ground, then lift and pot them for sale when they’re at their best.

There’s open ground and open ground. At Glendoick the lining out beds are completely sheltered, much like woodland glades, while those at Lea Gardens are out in the open, facing the sea, and the plants in them have to put up with a fair bit of punishment. Still, it somehow works. Those plants higher up the hill suffer a bit of leaf scorch, but manage to bud up beautifully.

It’s all to do with horticultural realism, and Shetland Horticultural Society plant sale last Saturday was a good lesson in that department. It was immediately apparent which plants had been grown in Shetland and which hadn’t.

I’d rather have a lop-sided plant with a few scorched leaves, knowing that it is fully used to the Shetland climate, than an unblemished one that’s come out of a poly tunnel and will curl up its toes after the next gale.

The amount and variety of locally grown plants was impressive, but some of the pricing was quite unrealistic, more developing world than wealthy island community. Growing plants is still seen as something of a hobby or a sideline, with the prices of some items barely covering the cost of seed and compost, leaving pennies for the grower.

This doesn’t just apply to Shetland. Workers in agriculture and horticulture are still amongst the lowest paid in the country, which is a disgrace. If we want a viable horticultural industry in the islands we have to take it seriously, move away from the pin money ethos, create proper jobs and pay decent wages.

That’s enough ranting; let’s get back to pink, and my desire to continue the impact beyond the rhododendron season. I’ve never been a gardener that goes for bedding in a big way, but just now and again, a bit of summer bedding will do the trick.

I’m thinking opium poppies – lots of them. There’s already a red one in the garden which produces single or double flowers, and self-seeds wherever I want it and don’t want it. This year I raised some dark plum purples and a voluptuous double pink from seed. Pricked out as clusters, rather than single plants in large plug trays, they had lived outdoors since the beginning of the month and were crying out to be planted.

I want them all to make a real impact, pink in the South Border, red in the Entrance Bed, and dark plum in the Long Border of the garden extension. Spring bulbs just going over present perfect planting spots as, for that matter, do spring bulbs in their prime.

I’m referring to the Spanish bluebell here. If my garden was left to its own devices it would be filled with nothing but bluebells. Pulling up their flowers as well as their leaves, created an astonishing amount of space, all now filled with plump little poppy seedlings. Fingers crossed, their neighbours won’t be in too much of a hurry to take over the newly bare territory.

Wading into a well-filled border in May calls for a certain amount of agility and a good sense of balance; it also presents the gardener with a last chance to do some, often much needed, hand-weeding in all those places that become out of bounds once June arrives. There’s no scope for the Dutch hoe, but the long edge of trowel, pushed to and fro a few times will do just as well.

The hungry gap hasn’t yawned quite as wide as I’d feared earlier on, largely thanks to one plant. Good old Swiss chard has provided us with rich pickings since the end of April. The German cultivar ‘Lukul­lus’ not only stands up to the weather, but also comes into new growth early.

The leaves, when picked young, are very similar to spinach, and can be used in the same way. Green omelette features regularly on our menu, and is very easy to make. Wilt a large amount of roughly chopped Swiss chard in a large sauce pan, squeeze out any excess liquid (a salad spinner works well for this), mix with a few well-beaten, sea­soned eggs, and fry in a little olive oil over a low heat until set. Great with a tomato, garlic and parsley salad.

Premiers always raise the pulse, especially if they’ve been long in coming. Podophyllum hexandrum has been in the garden for three years now, and is an extraordinary plant. Podophyllum means a leaf on a leg, and the stout leg is topped by something resembling a shaggy ink cap, or a barely open cocktail umbrella with a camouflage of green and brown mottling.

What looks like one leaf is actually two, and between them a good sized solitary flower rises in May. It is, of course, pink, a muted blush shade. A prominent seedpod graces its centre and will expand into a large red, squashy fruit, provided the bees have done their job properly.

Rosa Steppanova


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