16th October 2018
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In the garden

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Running out of space is a chronic complaint in even the largest of gardens, and I have decided to apply William Morris’s house rules, with a twist to my garden: have nothing in your garden that you don’t know to be useful or think beautiful.

This isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, as there are a lot of beautiful plants in my garden that aren’t useful, or at least not useful in their present locations. This means that some beauty must be sacrificed on the altar of usefulness, but only on a temporary basis, in order to make room for more beauty. Garden­ing is a very complicated business.

Regardless of drought, some herba­ceous plants take up an in­ordinate amount of space, and hardy geraniums are among the worst offenders. I’m not quite sure what that chalky-pink one in my kitchen border is called, Geranium endressi and G. oxonianum spring to mind.

Either roots as it goes, creating large, sprawling and rather hand­some leafy mats, decked in pink flowers for months on end. There are numerous self-sown seedlings, always craftily placed, and by the time I spot them, they’re already in full flower and far too vulnerable to be dug out and potted up for sale.

Geranium macorrhizum falls into the same category, but seeds with greater abandon. The highly aro­matic leaves of this plant are made into geranium oil for the perfume industry and change to vivid orange and red in the autumn.

Young plants are especially charm­ing and have a knack of placing themselves into awkward, bare corners, gracing them with splendid displays of pink, white, mauve or magenta flowers in early summer. I rarely have the heart to pull them up.

It makes superb ground cover, but in the Old Garden, where I have many treasures waiting for a spot in cool, humus-rich soil, it is now too overwhelming to be classed as use­ful. Large areas underneath shrubs and trees in the New Garden, temp­or­arily covered in membrane are waiting for some lusty geraniums.

The moving of bare-rooted plants will have to wait until the autumn, or at least until we’ve had some significant rain. A wet day or two hardly manages to dampen the sur­face, leaving the lower soil regions bone dry. Digging planting holes in some of the new beds is a frustrating business, as the dust simply slides back. It’s like trying to excavate Saharan sand.

I was surprised to read that we had nine days of rain during June. Not in Tresta. Apart from celeriac, beetroot and legumes, which are doing superbly well, vegetable growth is still stunted, and our re-sowings of root crops are making little progress.

During a prolonged drought it is tempting to blame everything that goes wrong in the garden on this one factor. When my purple fennel started to collapse, I carted cans of water to it every evening, in an attempt to revive it, and could have saved myself the trouble. As more and more stems started to droop, I eventually investigated and found several large cream coloured chafer grubs munching their way through the crown of the plant.

It is – perhaps this should be past tense now – one of the most impor­tant inhabitants of the Long Border, providing a subtle, smoky backdrop to all the hot colours there. More often than not it is such key plants one loses, rather than those that play a minor role, or one has several acres of; let alone those one wishes would quietly vanish altogether. I’m sure my garden is not the only one where plants remain be­cause they’ve always been there, regardless of the contribution they make, or in some instances fail to make, to the overall picture. I’m not sure why I’ve tolerated three huge clumps of some nameless filipendula with dirty pink flowers for the best of a decade. Relegating them to the compost heap has left me with some delectable planting spaces; perfect for hostas, dwarf astilbes and dicentras.

Last week I mooted the removal of some large and, dare I say, ugly trees, a criminal offence in the eyes of some Shetland gardeners, and beauty, as we know, lies in the eye of the beholder; so far at least two sycamores, one Japanese larch (among the oldest trees in the garden) and a crab (or should this be “crap”?) apple feature on the firewood list.

There aren’t all that many apple trees in Shetland, and mine has its moment of glory when it blooms in late May; it never fruits, and for the rest of the year it blocks the view to the South Border from the kitchen window and bores me to tears. I’d much, much rather have the Lang Kames and its deep, stark, subtle beauty in my garden than this apple tree. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said this in public, as we now seem to have a branch of the beauty police in Shetland, and I run the risk of being carted off by men in white coats. So be it.

The old roses have excelled them­selves this year, and by removing a few trees, there’ll be space for more; I’ve already indulged in a brief, short-listing scan through David Austin’s online catalogue. They’ve revelled in the heat and the drought which is no surprise, as some of their ancestors hail from hot, dry climates, such as the Middle East.

Rosa ‘Albertine’ is a vigorous rambler and has, over the years, not only engulfed the porch, but is now reaching for the roof of the house. It is best viewed from the south-facing skylights, and is such a magnificent sight that I’m toying with the idea of moving to the guest bedroom for the duration of its flowering. The scent from its coppery pink flowers, pro­duced with great abandon, wafts in through the open window and fills the upper floor of the house.

Until a couple of weeks ago it was all but invisible from the garden, obscured by a large specimen of Eleagnus ebbingii, an evergreen shrub with handsome grey-green foliage. Its removal has revealed the cramped and starved conditions ‘Albertine’ has had to put up with for almost two decades.

Planted in a tiny raised bed it hadn’t been fed since planting, and with the greedy evergreen as a close neighbour I can’t work out how this rose managed to get enough nut­rients, let alone water, to put on such a magnificent performance year after year.

Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ was also an invisible rose, unless one flew over the garden in a helicopter. It is a huge rambler, capable of reaching a height of 10 metres or more, and can, since we removed a row of Japanese larches, be seen as one walks from the Round Garden into the White Garden, where it lives. Its enormous clusters of single white flowers hold sway through most of July.

Rosa alba ‘Maxima’, the great white Jacobite rose, really lives up to its name this year, the shrub has more than doubled in size, and is spreading wands of scented double white bloom over all its neighbours, dominating the South Border.

Rosa alba ‘Celeste’ is to my mind one the most beautiful old roses we can grow in Shetland. It has hand­some grey-green foliage; its semi-double, pink flowers have an un­surpassed clarity of tone, and open from long, perfectly scrolled buds. It easily reaches two metres and is disease-resistant.

Old roses don’t perform well if planted too close to the sea, or in a place where they are constantly battered by winds. For gardeners in such locations allow me to recom­mend Rosa ‘Sarah van Fleet’. It has all the charm of an old rose, rich pink colouring, a strong perfume and semi-double flowers, but thanks to the rugosa blood in its genetic make-up can put up with a good deal of exposure. Due to its fiercely thorny wood it should never be planted near a path. : : : : : I eventually managed to free myself from the vice-like grip of High Maintenance Husband’s hand and ran up the garden path to the house. There I found Lily the Sup­reme Illustrator comforting Society Lady, who was in floods of tears. I’ve mentioned in the past that SL shows great skill and finesse in the culinary department, but today’s starter of grilled asparagus was off the menu. She’d burned the spears to a crisp, and, as highly an accomp­lished cook as she would have pulled an alternative from her sleeve with ease.

Not on this occasion. She fled from the room with a loud wail and locked herself into her bedroom. At exactly the same time the cargo vessel Shambolia, course set for Sydney, slipped her mooring ropes at Southampton dock. She was one of the last privately owned cargo ships in the world, and Captain Blunder, who was getting a bit long in the tooth, and was rather unsteady on his sea legs, was worried.

If this trip didn’t go as planned, and he failed to deliver his cargo on time and in mint condition, this would spell the end of the Shambolia. There had been rather too many insurance claims of late, and his premiums had gone through the roof.

Rosa Steppanova