In the garden

The pond’s health check is complete, the temperature is still over 18C, perfect for Piscean as well as human swimming, and Paul Featherstone gave me a rundown of the great variety of phyto- and zooplankton he’d found in the water samples he took.

Phytoplankton is at the bottom of the food chain, eaten by zoo plank­ton, which in turn is consumed by the pond fish and other creatures. He enthusiastically rattled off a list of Latin names, and I can’t remember a single one of them.

This, I’m sure, will please some of my customers who, at times, find themselves at the receiving end of my botanical Latin enthusiasm. Thank goodness the garden always comes to the rescue, and seeing a plant in the flesh not only connects it to its name, but beats the most detailed description. The second, much smaller pond is underway, thanks to Shetland Con­servation Volunteers. Clive Ban­nister, Pete and Linda Glanville and Ann Karin arrived armed with spades, forks, gloves and trowels, and immediately set to work, stripping the turf off an area marked out by a hose pipe pegged securely onto the grass.

Building a pond on sloping ground isn’t straightforward, and when our first one was dug, we had to get a second digger in, as the first excavation was sloping precariously to the south. With “Millimetre Pete” as our consultant engineer, exact levels were established in no time.

Cutting through the dry, matted sods was hard work, but building the faely dyke around the lower edge, and ramming soil into the air spaces was great fun, as was the coffee break. Linda always brings the most delicious cakes and tray bakes. This time it was rhubarb and white chocolate cake – out of this world.

All I had to offer in return was a pick-your-own strawberries session. Harvest usually starts in late July, and this is the first time we have had strawberries in time for Wimbledon.

With the help of our friends we picked 30 kg within a fortnight, and the freezer is filling up fast. There’s little time to process them into jams, ice cream, cheesecakes and sorbets at this busy time of year, but whizzed through a blender with a little sugar and lemon juice, and frozen straight away, they retain all their taste and aroma for at least six months, and take up far less space than berries frozen whole.

We grow them on a labour saving, matted row system, which means runners are aloud to root and grow into fruiting plants. This makes picking difficult, but the yield is phenomenal. The bed is now in its fourth year and still going strong. After harvesting is complete, we simply dig out the oldest plants, and let youth take over. There are several varieties in a free for all, but the most prolific and by far the tastiest is Fragaria ananassa ‘Marsh­mallow’. It’s far superior to any you can buy, but you’ll never find it in a shop or on a supermarket shelf because the berries don’t travel well.

The blackbirds take gashes out of a good few if we don’t net them. Any blemished or slug-damaged fruit is thrown onto the lawn, and they soon come and help themselves. I was pleased to watch one bird I hadn’t seen for some time tuck into a hearty supper the other day.

In late spring we came across a female that constantly held its beak open, a beak that showed a rather strangely shaped upper mandible. She spent a lot of time sitting, tail and wings fully fanned out, in the South Border, on one occasion less than a yard from a sun-bathing cat (why is there never a camera to hand when one needs it most?). I didn’t expect her to survive, but there she was, her beak now closed, but still showing a curved upper mandible; perhaps it was broken and since mended?

Some blackbirds like to start the day with a refreshing bath, and it is a joy to watch whole families splash­ing and preening in the shallows of the pond in the morn­ings. There’s still plenty of water in it, but in many parts of the garden things are getting desperate.

We confine watering to plants in containers and those newly planted; established plantings don’t get a look-in. Apart from the pond side plantings, moisture lovers all over the garden are at a critical state now. Ferns, hostas, astilbes and filipen­dulas are close to collapse, and we only have two options: to cut them to the ground and forgo their flowering for this year, or to water, water, water.

This, without any doubt, is the longest and most severe drought the garden has ever gone through. Trees draw a lot of moisture from the ground, and plants in their vicinity, especially those growing in full sun, are feeling the pinch. While attempt­ing to plant something in one of the raised beds of the Kitchen Garden, I found nothing but dust, regardless of how deep I dug with my trowel.

We have to make contingency plans for next year. Mulches applied in spring when the ground is wet prevent a lot of evaporation, and removing some large and greedy trees is another strategy.

It’s not all doom and gloom. South Africa is settling down well, with the first gladioli and watsonias in flower. Watsonia bulbifera, with its long-tubed, elegant apricot flowers, is one of my favourites. Suc­culents revel in heat and drought, and provided they have been well soaked before planting, can store enough water in their fleshy “leaves” to last them all season. There is an abundance of home-grown food now. All kinds of salad leaves and herbs, radishes, sweet, finger length carrots, young turnips, spring cabbages, courgettes, broad beans and the first golf ball sized beetroots.

On the brassica front we’ve encountered a new pest this year, one not usually associated with these vegetables. Leatherjackets, stoury worms, or crane fly larvae are well-known pests on pasture, but also gnaw the fine feeding roots off newly planted brassicas, which causes the plants to collapse. With ample rain they have a chance to re-grow their roots, but during a pro­longed drought they’re doomed.

We also had very poor germina­tion among our carrots and parsnips, which meant we had to re-sow in mid June, but due to a lack of moisture the young seedlings are making very little progress.

It is very difficult to germinate lettuce and its relations when temp­eratures are high, and now, as the weather has cooled down, is the time to give it another go. We’ve sown chicory, lamb’s lettuce, Swiss chard, and repeat crops of dill, rocket and mixed leaves for autumn harvesting.

While the hot, dry weather hasn’t been beneficial for edibles growing on a sheltered baking, south-facing field, it has worked wonders for the roses. We try and give every bush a bag or two or rotted horse manure in the spring, but some are always overlooked, and manage perfectly without it, which, in some cases is nothing short of miraculous.

There was a bowl of roses on the dinner table, a table laid with the best linen, china, crystal and silver, but rather than the large, merry crowd usually encountered at Society Lady and High Maintenance Husband’s Edinburgh abode, there was only one other guest: Lily, the Supreme Illustrator.

My heart was pounding as we mounted the stairs; I was filled with a joyful anticipation and suddenly knew that, as soon as the door was opened, a very large black and white tom cat would throw himself at me and smother me with kisses.

There was no sign of Mr Gentle­man, and SL, strangely flustered and nervous, pressed a glass of champagne into my hand and, while avoiding my gaze, asked me to join HMH in the garden at his urgent request.

He came towards me, hand outstretched, lips pursed for a kiss: “Aahh, Rosa, how very good to see you.” What seemed like a heartfelt welcome was no such thing. His eyes were hard, his face contorted into a sardonic grin, and his lips, raised in a snarl, exposed two rows of small, sharply pointed teeth.

I turned on my heel, attempting to flee to the house, but he caught up with me, gripped me by my elbow, and frogmarched me to his pond, his empty pond. “We all know what that means don’t we?” he hissed. “The finest fish money can buy used as cat food.” He was spit­ting with rage: “That vile creature of yours! He’s done it this time, and I promise you, he’ll never been seen alive again.”

Rosa Steppanova


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.