In the garden 19.06.09

Just two more days to go until the official start to summer and with it the gradual shortening of daylight hours. Perhaps the latter is just as well. Several new plantings beckon, and after the nursery closes at five, the real fun starts. Those light nights are seductive, far too seductive for late night, or on occasions, all night gardening. One can only burn the candle at both ends for so long.

Seasons don’t adhere to the calendar, and at Lea Gardens we’ve had summer and summer temper­atures for quite some time now. It’s a different world here, compared to the rest of Shetland. I only leave the place if I absolutely have to, and on the rare occasions I do I forget at my peril that there’s a cold, draughty world out there.

Last Saturday I loaded up my car with plants for the Tingwall farmers’ market to join my friends and fellow growers Ann and Babsie for a few enjoyable and companionable hours. With the sun blazing since five that morning, the garden was baking by nine. I discarded my woolly jumper and set off in a thin cotton top from the Mediterranean to the sub Arctic.

I ended up wearing said jumper as well as a winter coat that James, who ventures from home almost daily, and knows about the climate “out there” had handed to me. I also bought myself a woolly hat to keep my lugs from freezing.

Perhaps the weather had changed, I said to myself. It hadn’t – on my return the garden was shimmering in the heat, and I gardened in shorts and a t-shirt for the rest of the day. Shelter, shelter, shelter. That’s the secret. If you, for whatever reason, can’t create it yourself, you’re welcome to share mine, and enjoy a few hours of real summer.

The garden’s annual green phase – a week or two when the flora holds its breath, to make the transition from spring to summer – was all too short for my liking. I love this all-green spell when the flowers hold their breath, nothing but buds and promise. Ferns are at their best then, all the trees are in full leaf and the last of the hostas have unfurled their foliage.

This year the columbines and Welsh poppies were impatient and filled the dark spaces between shrubs and underneath trees with ribbons of blue and dotted the ferns with luminous yellow. Both are ferocious self-seeders and, just before they drop their final petals, I cut them to the ground and cart them to the compost heap.

Columbines hybridise freely and I find it extremely difficult to discard even a single seedling. All are left in situ where possible, or potted up until they come into flower for the first time. The majority are nothing to write home about, but just now and again a pleasant surprise turns up, such as plants with scented, double flowers.

Some years ago I crossed the greenish white Aquilegia fragrans with the blue and white Japanese Aquilegia flabellate, and still have some of the offspring, tall, impres­sive plants with pale, ice blue flowers and a strong, fresh eau-de-cologne scent. The scent gene still gets about it seems, and is parti­cularly welcome in those strange little pleated and fluted flowers, reminiscent of a traditional Austrian Guglehupf cake.

All columbines are said to be short-lived but, apart from the long-spurred hybrids which tend to run out of steam after two or three seasons, I’ve had some blue singles and old-fashioned granny’s bonnets in the garden for almost 20 years. Cutting them to the ground after flowering is probably what keeps them going.

Scent isn’t something we asso­ciate with aquilegias but there is no doubt that theirs adds to the overall fragrance of the garden in June. Deciduous azaleas have a strong, sweet, heavy perfume that carries on the air, and the first roses are out now, almost without exception spe­cies, and therefore single flowered. Rosa xanthina from Korea is a perfect gem with neat foliage, reminiscent of Rosa pimpinellifolia and sweetly scented cream flowers that open from elegant yellow buds.

Oriental poppies, if they like the spot you’ve given them, will be with you for life – and have the potential to outlive you. These plants need the most careful siting, not only to provide them with the ideal growing conditions – sun or part shade, and a well-drained soil – but also because moving or removing them will prove well nigh impossible.

Papaver orientalis has long, fleshy roots that reach deep into the soil, more often than not too deep to allow the gardener to extract them in their entirety. If your soil gets waterlogged during winter, even for brief spells, these tap roots start to rot, and your poppy is doomed.

There’s a modest, ordinary red one in a sheltered, south-facing, raised bed outside my ben window. I’ve come to resent its presence, as the space should be occupied by a plant that cries out for such a location, while the poppy could easily make its living elsewhere. Countless times I’ve dug it up, and countless times it has returned – re-grown from scraps of root two feet below ground and probably safely wedged between the foundation stones of the house.

Choosing the ideal poppy for your garden is no easy matter. Cultivars fill two pages of The Plant Finder and, apart from the poppy red ones there is now a delectable range of pinks, whites, maroon and bi-coloured ones to choose from.

For me ‘Türkenlouis’ (Turkish Louis) comes top of the list for reds with its flowers of pure, glowing scarlet with fringed edges to its petals. “Harvest Moon” is an excellent orange red, on a more compact plant. It flowers earlier than most. I used to adore the dusky hues of ‘Patty’s Plum’, but feel more ambiguous about this poppy now. It doesn’t die very gracefully. Rather than shedding its worn petals it holds on to them until they bleach to an ugly, brownish lilac. Still, the colour is unique, and dead heading is the answer to the problem.

Pink oriental poppies do something to me. I can’t get enough of them, but shall limit myself to three plants today. ‘Kleine Tänzerin’ (little dancing girl) has small, cupped blooms of a light, clear pink, each petal marked with a dark stain at its base. ‘Pink Ruffles’ does exactly what is says on the tin. Several layers of fringed, ruffled petals look playful and over the top in warm, light pink.

‘Wild Salmon’ has the largest flowers of any oriental poppy in my garden. Some are almost 20 centimetres across, and as with all poppies, it pays to take a closer look into the centre of the flowers, where a large, green and purple carpel is surrounded by rings of sooty stamens.

A quick trip to the veg patch after our return from sooth was a bit of a mixed experience. Everything planted out is growing away fine, but the sowings are patchy at best, and disastrous on the parsnip and carrot front. There was nothing for it but to get out the drag hoe, and beat up the rows. There’s bound to be a good downpour soon to water it all in.

Summertime, and the living is easy. Most of the cats have taken to the hills, and only return sporadically for a saucer of milk and a nap on the duvet. They behave like wild cats, stuff themselves with meat, and then sleep off their kill until the belly rumbles again. It still amazes me how even the smallest cat can fit a whole rabbit – as large as itself – into its stomach.

Sadly, they pay a price for this bounty. As the rabbit dies, its fleas jump ship so to say, and the ears, sometimes the whole head, of the cat is attacked, resulting in thick, hard scabs, some scarring, and in rare cases, loss of fur along the spine.

But wait a minute. Aren’t cats sly, devious, deceitful and manipulative creatures? (Surely there must be more stereotypical adjectives, but can’t think of any more just now). It has been suggested by my old friend Jonathan, that my furry darlings are pulling the wool over my eyes. Perhaps he’s right? Rather than hunting rabbits, they’re probably singeing the down off swans, roasting rain geese, boiling bonxies and salting down whimbrels for the winter in barrels fashioned from tightly woven heathery twigs.

And that’s not all. Having foolishly believed that the caked peat around their necks is proof of their creeping into rabbit warrens, the truth has dawned on me at long last. I now know that these cunning muggies hitch lifts on lorries. They force the drivers (claw held to jugular) to take them to Sumburgh Head where they pull puffins from their burrows, before broiling them on little camping stoves.

Rosa Steppanova


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