In the garden

Do you remember your first love? Most of us do. Some have married their childhood sweethearts, while others had to kiss a lot of frogs before they found their prince or princess. There’s first love and first love, a register ranging from a crush on a favourite teacher to the first person to make a deep and lasting impact on our psyche.

I had a massive, passionate, devastating crush on a teacher when I was about nine. He was called Michael Klose, and he was very ugly – stick-thin with lank blond hair, thin lips, a hooked nose and thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses, yet I adored him because just now and again we had the most wonderful adult and wonderfully intellectual conversations. He was the first adult to take me seriously, not only respond­ing to all my childish ques­tions in an honest and in-depth way, but answering every one of my letters I wrote to him during the summer holidays. Where are you Michael (pronounced Mee-chaa-el)? If you read this, please get in touch.

Some plants I have a massive crush on fall into this category. They are not beautiful in the conventional sense, but they press the right but­tons. I’ve, sadly and vexingly, long since lost the label of a herbaceous peony I raised from seed a long time ago. Given a little corner in a generously limed bed, it grew a little each year and eventually produced its first bloom. Nobody apart from me has ever noticed it. The more flamboyant inhabitants of the bed steal the show with their magentas, purple and fuchsia reds. My ex­quisite pale yellow darling doesn’t get a look in.

Enough of this Meechaael in­duced tangent. My first horticultural crush was rock gardens, rock gar­dens, rock gardens. All those little treasures, creeping, crawling, trailing, had stolen my heart – a case of unrequited love if ever there was one. The more affection I heaped upon them, the more they spurned me – until many years later, when I had ceased caring for them but could provide them with the conditions they crave: full sun, light soil and perfect drainage. They performed like well trained dogs, and I spurned them for being so easy to please. Isn’t this always the case?

This first infatuation was eventu­ally followed by something appro­ach­ing real passion and full emo­tional involvement. Reading Alfred Evans’ The Peat Garden and its Plants was electrifying. The late Alfred was of course curator of the world-famous peat garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. I still visit that shrine as often as I can, and most of my time there is spent drooling. My relationship with peat gardens has become complicated as well as simplified over the years. More unrequited love of a kind, but in reverse this time. A little slope, initially on the eastern frontier, but now, since we’ve expanded, bang in the middle of the garden, was the place where our predecessors originally kept their peat stack. As the stack was shifted to a more convenient place, its location be­came a compost heap cum rubbish dump. My friend Dorota would probably have called it the armpit of the universe, and she would have been right.

After extracting two Singer sewing machines, the cast iron re­mains of a fire place, a mangle, several dozen pairs of leather boots, an assortment of broken bottles and china – there it was: my very own peat garden. Unimaginable treasures flowered and flourished there. Stately slate-purple notholirions and pink spotted nomocharis, tiny trilliums, fleshy leaved, white Roman­zoffia unalaschkensis, the rarest blue poppies and Rhododen­dron williamsianum. And – planted far too close to the front of the bed – one of my dream rowans, Sorbus setchwanensis, an exquisite and exquisitely slow-growing, fern-leaved, pink-flowered, white-berried tree.

It was all too easy. In time I grew a little tired of those wan, exquisite, slow-growing beauties. They were like puppies, constantly wagging their tails. Let’s add a little excite­ment and an easy maintenance element, I said to myself, some broad (very broad, as it turned out) winter-flowering heathers, a few native ferns, two, or even better, three large and flamboyant azaleas, a pair of lusty bog myrtles and – the most fatal mistake of all – weed-proof ground cover by the name of Oxalis magellanica. Please forget this name as soon as you’ve read it – unless you have a very large garden and want acres of it swal­lowed up by a perfect and innocent little plant with tiny clover leaves and masses of white flowers.

What gave my little peat garden the death knell were two plant thefts. It is a universally acknowledged truth that some gardeners when visit­ing other gardens carry capa­cious handbags, capacious enough to hold an assortment of appropriate tools as well as seedlings, cuttings, ripe seed heads and, on occasion, semi-mature plants. I don’t believe that my Glaucidium palmatum or my Shortia soldanelliodes have found their way into Shetland gar­dens. I’m sure they’ve gone through the Sooth Mooth, and now grace the gardens of connoisseurs far afield.

There’s no greater turn-off in life than love turned sour. Just now and again my conscience was pricked when I came across one of my treasures drowning in a sea of Magellan clover. Alas, it was never pricked for long enough, as I was off to new fields, indulging in passionate affairs with new, exciting and far more flamboyant lovers. South America beckoned with flame coloured embothriums and Chilean lantern trees hung with large, vermillion cherries.

Now, imagine that first love, somebody who’d perhaps proposed marriage to you but was turned down many moons ago, showing up on your door step. You have, all these years, carried a torch for him or her. And there’s your second chance.

I’m not sure when I originally read Alfred Evans, but he’s now become my bedside companion once more, and he is still as fresh and – perhaps more important – as relevant as he was all those years ago. He’s my faithful guide to Lea Gardens’ much enlarged and improved peat garden, a well con­toured and slightly raised south-facing bed. There’s just one draw­back. Unlike the first creation, this one contains no peat whatsoever, just bog standard, heavy, acid soil. Drainage has been improved by incorporating some well washed beach grit, and large amounts of rotting leaf mould. Instead of the peat blocks, recommended by Evans (there’s even a photo of a Shetland peat bank in his book), boulders of acidic rock will have to do.

This planting, exposed to all the easterly winds, which give the garden a thorough thrashing several times a year, is a lot more challenging than my first, snug little peat bed, and only time – and the winds – will tell if it can succeed. A north-east, south-east spine of dwarf mountain pine, Chiliotrichum diffusum, larger yak hybrid rhododendrons, upright Shetland juniper and the odd shrubby potentilla thrown in for good, but rather incongruous mea­sure, should provide some shelter. Apart from that, I’m working on the “nothing ventured nothing gained” principle, playing it safe in places with stretches of vanilla-scented Primula alpicola and vigorous white Ourisia macrocarpa, while taking calculated risks with treasures such as Codonopsis clematidea, a delicate beauty with grey-lavender bells, and ground-hugging, deciduous Rhodo­dendron camtschaticum with large red flowers.

There are autumn-flowering Chinese Gentians interplanted with Dodecatheon meadia. The latter has vivid magenta flowers, as well as a rather vivid name. Given my non-existent Greek, I managed to work out dodeca (12), and theo (god). Totally unlikely, I told myself, and consulted my botanical dictionary. And there it was, the little thing is indeed called 12 gods! It is easily grown in damp rich soil.

Some of my readers probably remember the much overdue, and much moaned about clear-out of cold frames and assorted pots earlier this year. It was time well spent and has yielded unimaginable treasures, such as a large pot of Erythronium sibiricum, a rare eastern trout lily, which came to me in a seed packet from Finn Haugli of the Tromsö Botanic Garden half a life time ago, three strapping little shrubs of Menziesia ciliicalyx var. purpurea, a small deciduous Japanese shrub with striking, waxy, rose-purple, pitcher-shaped flowers in early summer. What more can the heart ask for? I’m besotted.

And so, I hope, are the plants in question. Not with me, but with their new environment. A plant kept in a pot, however spacious, is still a plant in prison. Releasing them after many years of confinement has given them a new lease of life, and should, I hope, at least elicit a modicum of gratitude towards the gardener.

The new peat garden has con­sumed me of late, and the rest of the garden, not to mention the nursery, have been badly neglected as a result. “Feeling guilty, worried, waking from tormented sleep, the old love has me bound, but the new love cuts deep.” These lines from Joan Armatrading’s song The Weak­ness in Me describe the agony of the lover torn between two loves rather well. And we all know where this can lead, painful separation, messy divorce.

Thank goodness, such scenarios only apply to human relationships. Gardeners can have it all. It’s never too late to start a new love affair, and there’s an incomparable sweetness in rekindling an old one.

Rosa Steppanova


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