By the time you read this I’ll be back in Shetland after a week in the south of England. So for all I know there might have been a seven-day scorcher or snow, sleet, hail and howling gales to ruin all our gardens during my absence.
What I do know is that the downpour on 23rd May came not before time. It refreshed the whole garden, made the scent of rowan and whitebeam blossom carry on the air and watered in the new plantings. No endless rounds of pot-grown subjects – what a relief.
In fact, I was so delighted that I claimed that rain as my personal wedding anniversary present (30 years and still going strong); and there were two others courtesy of Mother Nature. When I lifted a pot of lily seedlings from a high ledge at the front door, a large, golden-green frog jumped out of it.
Later that day I found a blackbird’s egg hidden underneath the foliage of a dwarf veronica in the nursery. No nest, just an egg; a beginner perhaps? Or, the thought crossed my mind, the missing egg from the abandoned nest mentioned earlier this month? It has now joined the other three in the nest on my hall table.
May has rushed past as usual, and early spring, with its stretches of bare soil swathed with bulbs and primroses, is like a distant memory. The garden is lush, green with young fern fronds and unfurling leaves. My red tree peonies (Paeonia delavayi) had an early start this year and some of their large green seed- pods are swelling alarmingly. Those planted in shade don’t flower quite as freely as those in sunny spots, but their flowers last a good deal longer.
Seedlings take between five and seven years to start flowering, and no matter how many flowering-sized specimens I manage to produce, they’re instantly snapped up in the nursery. There are times when I try to put off potential customers, as these shrubs can take up a lot of space in small gardens. A much better bet in such situations is another Chinese species, Paeonia potaninii, a small, suckering shrub with red-tinged ferny leaves. The flowers are proportionally smaller, slightly nodding, and include maroon, crimson and a warm orange red in their chromatic range.
Anniversaries must be celebrated in style, and to my mind there’s nothing better than a bit of champagne planting of an evening. It goes without saying that I can’t afford the real thing, but Spanish Cava, or French Veuve de Vernay brut will do just as well.
Coaxing my husband into active participation in these events doesn’t happen all that often; he usually sticks to his role as consultant, explaining the needs and habits of the more obscure plants in his personal collection and suggesting suitable habitats for them.
On the rare occasions I can persuade him into joining my creative frenzies, he always comes up with the most brilliant ideas. Last week I bemoaned the lack of shelter in my new peat garden. Enter James and Larix leptolepis, the Japanese larch. It never occurred to me that this stately conifer could be “bonsaied” into a tailor-made hedge for small spaces. Planted on a curved ridge, it will provide fantastic shelter from the south-east in as little as a couple of years.
Clipped to a maximum width of 70cm it can’t be allowed to grow tall enough to give protection to my little flock of Cardiocrinum giganteum (giant Himalayan lilies). And, as tales with good villains are always the most exciting, I must update you on the Broadleigh Gardens giant lily saga.
Assured, and assured again that the rotting, root-less bulb I’d received would be fine, I removed the browning, squishy outer scales and planted it with a benediction, next to the other, healthy ones I’d bought. The latter started into growth the minute their roots touched the ground and soon put out large, glossy leaves.
Broadleigh lily tried to unfurl a leaf, tried for about three weeks, but failed. There was clearly something wrong. I dug around and underneath it very carefully so as not to disturb its roots, and could have saved myself the trouble. There were no roots, just a bulb, rotting away quietly.
I should have known. It was all my fault. According to Broadleigh I’d omitted to dig one ton (!) of manure into the soil first, or bury a dead sheep underneath the bulb. All I could muster was a poor, stillborn lamb and a hundredweight of horse muck. No wonder the bulb failed so miserably.
Stories that have a villain must also have a knight in shining armour. Every gardener who’s seen Paeonia rockii in the flesh wants to grow it. It makes a sizeable, rounded bush with handsomely cut foliage and opens large white saucer-shaped flowers in June, each petal marked with a purple blotch at its base.
Three good-sized shrubs (a special offer from Thompson & Morgan) arrived, but only one came into leaf. I snipped away at the tips of the other two – dead wood, snipped a little more – dead wood. All their top growth was dead. What had I done wrong? Should I have planted pig’s trotters or fish heads with them?
With the Broadleigh experience fresh in my mind, I didn’t hold out much hope for a satisfactory outcome, and was pleasantly surprised. The first replacement, still dormant (obviously kept in cold storage), arrived today, and is alive from tip to toe. That’s what I call good customer service.
The larch hedge won’t be tall enough for another of my dream plants either, one that richly deserved but didn’t get a mention last week. Enkianthus campanulatus is a native of Japan and a perfect delight. It’s a medium-sized, deciduous, ericaceous shrub with two seasons of glory; the first in May and June, when its branches are hung with clusters of tiny bells, fawn or pale yellow, delicately striped with brown or maroon. The second comes in autumn, when the foliage turns the most glorious shades of peach, orange and fiery red, colouring unsurpassed by any other shrub I know.
It is easily grown in acid or peaty soil, in a reasonably sheltered, but sunny position. I also have one with deeper coloured flowers. I’m not sure which species it is derived from, as I only know it as Enkianthus ‘Red Bells’. The colour of its flowers is hard to describe, somewhere between cinnabar red and warm, light mahogany, deepening with age. It is smaller in stature than the species.
Menziesia ciliicalyx, also from Japan, is a midget by comparison; deciduous, with azalea-like foliage, and branches hung with small, glistening urn-shaped flowers just beneath its new, fresh leaves. Colours range from cream to a rich, deep mauve. A treasure for the larger rockery provided the soil is acid and there is a modicum of shelter.
As I said last week, my peat garden contains no peat, a lamentable state of affairs. I reckon that between 0.8 to – at the very most – 1.2 cubic metres should give it a nice finish. A drop in the proverbial ocean compared to Viking Energy’s 800,000 cubic metres of peat to be stripped off Shetland’s moors. I believe I can take my wheelbarrow up the Dudd (our local peat hill) with impunity, to scrape the odd möldy blett.