late again

There was a time, about thirty odd years ago, when spring arrived in Shetland dot on time, or even a little earlier than its 21st March calendar date. Sometimes I wonder if this is just a fantasy, akin to those childhood memories where the sun shone all summer and winters were “cold and crisp and even”. It goes without saying that all Christmases were white – then.

winter heather


My garden had much less, in fact no shelter worth mentioning, yet I was out there, digging my vegetable patch in mid-March, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.


I wouldn’t be seen dead in that t-shirt now. It was a sleeve-less, pink-and-black animal print number – tigerish in a cute sort of way, and the date on the back of the photo reads 18.3.1980.


There’s nothing like photographic evidence. Pictures taken on 23rd March 2012 are proof that the garden is at least three weeks behind this year.


Spring seems to arrive later every year.


It’s been cold, cold, cold. It’s also been extremely dry, which is most unusual for the 3rd and 4thmonth of the year. Those endless Baltic Highs are more typical of May, when Shetland, if we’re lucky, gets its ‘little summer’.

spring's progress


Weeks of blue sky and stunning sunsets have made all those outdoor chores a pleasure, and there is a little progress in the garden after all. Some shrubs are flushed with new green, herbaceous plants are making new growth and everywhere at ground level, there are new snouts and noses. One little snout is especially eagerly awaited each year. As soon as Erythronium sibiricumhas pushed its twin-leaves above ground, they open to reveal large, white-centred lilac stars.

Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant'


The winter heathers, usually ready for a short back and sides in mid-April, still look superb.

Spring bulbs have enjoyed a much longer than usual flowering season. In shady places the snowdrops still look as good as new. All my chionodoxas, (glories of the snow), over in a flash during warmer weather, or gnawed to stumps by slugs during wetter springs, are truly glorious. Wedgewood blue C. luciliae is the most prolific closely followed by gentian-blue C. sardensis. I also have a nameless white form with large, upward-facing flowers and the beefy C. forbesii‘Pink Giant’.  

Lysichiton americanum



One of the most spectacular spring heralds at LeaGardensis the bog arum, Lysichiton americanum, the yellow spathes breaking through the ground look like short, fat bananas.


It would make a perfect companion of the tangerine-orange baubles of Berberis ilicifolia.

Berberis ilicifolia

Alas, the two need very different conditions.


Spring can’t be far now. A moorhen landed on the pond the other day and while I worked in the potting-shed I observed a Shetland wren pulling wads of moss from underneath plant pots and vanishing into an ivy-covered tree stump with them.




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strange days at lea gardens

All of a sudden we’re in April. Things are hotting up – just time for a little retrospective on the first day of the month.

Gardens can be strange places. They attract all sorts of weird fauna, including humans. Imagine my horror one morning. I had strolled around the garden – taking the scenic route to the Back Yard – complete with a laundry-filled basket. As I reached the washing line I was met by the following scene. A pack of hunting, fish-blood thirsty, otters, a giant heron, but worst of all – Donald Trump on a Segway, hell-bent on turning my little stretch of water into a mini-golf course – a treble threat to my pond. Otters and herons I could cope with, but a Donald?

There was only one thing for it:Donald was duly despatched by a member of my feline hunting pack but, rather than devour its prey on the spot, as  my cats are known to do, this hunter took one bite, shook his head in disgust and walked away. There was nothing for it  –  I had to deal with the corpse. I fetched a spade and a wheelbarrow. As I returned to the scene of the kill, the sun broke through the clouds. The Donald started to jerk and fizz, puffs of smoke rose from his chest, and before I could say ‘Dunes of Scotland’, all that remained of the Donald was a pile of vile-smelling black ash.

Some garden visitors are more demanding than others, and some are downright troublesome. Knitting red carpets, buying suitable Tupperware containers, and cutting rind-less cucumber sandwiches into perfect triangles, were just three of the arduous preparation chores.

I had told my wwoofers to retire to their sheds as soon as the Royal party arrived, but there’s always one, isn’t there? – deciding to make the garden look untidy. On the plus side, the Royal yacht, anchored in Tresta Voe, looked picturesque.

I had been led to believe that the prince was to accompany the monarch, but there was no sign of him. “Philip likes to make himself useful”, answered the Queen, as I enquired as to her husband’s whereabouts. He had come, I was told,  to Shetland for the sole purpose of inaugurating my new compost heap and had invited some undesirable guests:

Lea Gardens is open to the public from 1st March to 31st October daily, except Thursday, from 2 – 5pm. It can get a little crowded at times…..

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Back in Harness

The garden and gardener, like my blog, have risen from the dead. Treble Lazarus. It feels good to be back in harness. Those days between weathers always do the trick.

soggy beige

All through winter I walked past devastated borders countless times, but blocked out the mess. Soggy wads of grey or – worse – beige – the slimy remnants of hostas and herbaceous potentillas covering the ground , the black and mouldy stands of aster scapes, the reddish-brown collapse of crocosmias, the pustules of coral fungus on supporting sticks.

Now, all of a sudden, I can stand it no more. The sun’s come out and there’s work in progress: tidy heaps of the spent, decayed and broken sit along the paths of the new garden.

It is tempting to simply wade in and remove the most offending items but, given that these Shetlandic weather windows can be brief, this temptation must be resisted at all costs.

Ironically, some plants still looking respectable must be given priority. Sedums, deciduous euphorbias, epimediums and, to a lesser degree, evergreen ferns, have a tendency to put on new growth rapidly – hidden deep amongst the old spent leaves, stalks and fronds of the previous season.

Unless the old is cut away before the new has time to make progress, it becomes an impossible fiddle to remove one while avoiding the other.

work in progress

Once the decks have been cleared, the fun starts. Planting spring bulbs. “But isn’t this the wrong time of year?” I hear you ask. “No it isn’t, it’s exactly the right time of year.”

I’ve never understood how gardeners manage to plant spring bulbs in the autumn and manage to get them exactly where they look their very best when their time comes.  Perhaps they have photographic memories or super-human powers of visualisation?

I pop mine into small pots as soon as they arrive, singly for daffodils and larger tulips, and from three to five for the likes of crocus, Anemone blanda, fritillaries and erythroniums.

Bulbs other than snowdrops can be moved “in the green” provided they’re not allowed to dry out and are lifted with all or most of their roots intact. Leucojum vernum, the spring snowflake, has increased nicely over the years, and is a great candidate for spreading around the garden now.


It has not always flowered freely for me – buds used to vanish over night. Whenever there’s a death in a garden, even concerning a mere flower bud, it pays to carry out a post mortem examination. While molluscs don’t find snowflake leaves very palatable, they love snacking on the buds as soon as they appear above ground.

Raking the thick, grey wads of decaying sycamore leaves off their quarters not only deprives them of their five star hotel accommodation, but also renders them vulnerable to the garden’s blackbirds.


Blackbirds aren’t generally fond of slugs, but during times of hardship I’ve watched a bird wiping its gastropod prey on a stone or tree trunk to remove the slime, before devouring it. As we all know, necessity is the mother of a diet change, and now the trend seems to be catching on.

The fine weather has eased the strain on the hay, sheep muesli, and ultimately the pocket. The ladies take to the hill in the morning to feast on young heather shoots, and when the sun is shining all day, they remain there, rather than return home for their evening feed.


Dale, our new ram, came from a hill flock in the Dale of Walls, can jump two metres vertically (right over James, and clearing his head by 1.5 inches), and was the ovine equivalent of a bucking bronco when he arrived here.

Taming him, if that is ever fully possible, takes time and patience, and food is the magic bullet. At first he would only come to his feeding box if I stood well camouflaged behind a stand of Sitka spruces. Eventually I was allowed to remain 3-4 metres away – fully visible. He was off at the slightest move I made. A sitting human seemed particularly threatening; it took him well over a week to tuck into his oats with my hunched figure nearby. The first time he sniffed my hand, casually resting on the rim of the box, he was off like a shot.

those horns

I’m still a little nervous of those horns, but can now keep my hand in the box – about an inch away from his nose, and look forward to our first skin-to-facial-hair-contact, but the time window is closing. The sunshine has made the grass grow and soon he’s bound to put up his nose at anything I have to offer.






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milk of human kindness

Of late I’ve been wondering how many orphaned blogs pine away in cyberspace? Mine has been swelling their ranks for over six months now. Perhaps an internet adoption or fostering agency should be set up that takes care of them while their owners/parents have turned their backs on them and left them cruelly abandoned?

As Valentine’s Day has just passed, and we should all be filled with love and flowing with the milk of human kindness, I’ve decided to rescue my poor little orphaned blog.

Shalders (oyster catchers) usually return to Shetland in time for Valentine’s Day and strut the meadows, long red beaks to the ground, in search for worms and grubs, but this year there’s no sign of them yet.

This winter somehow seems the longest I’ve ever lived through since arriving on the shores of the Shetland Islands thirty-seven years ago. Its calendar date was of course unchanged, but its actual start dates back to last summer. A cold, wet, windy summer, that turned into a cold, wet windy autumn and continued unchanged until now – give or take a few days between weathers when the sun broke through the clouds or the garden was brightened by a sprinkling of snow and a hard crust of frost.

the 'poodles'

I always move into winter laden with a multitude of good intentions: cleaning, oiling and repairing all tools, sanding down and re-painting the garden benches, cleaning out the greenhouse, tidying the potting-shed, washing seed trays, clearing the borders of spent vegetation, liming the vegetable patch, and generally getting everything ready for spring.

Only the potting-shed tidy-up has been ticked off my list so far, and solely because I had two strong and enthusiastic wwoofers to help.

James and I moved into The Lea, Tresta on 31st January 1977 and started our career as crofters. We had been left with an orphaned flock of sheep – inbred and starving. The number of burials we carried out that first winter escapes me, but there were many. As James worked full-time it fell to me to care, to the best of my abilities, for the sheep, soon to be followed by a dog, two milking goats, and a flock of ducks.

Then, as the years passed and my garden expanded, James gradually took over the croft and became the shepherd – until the last week in January this year, when he abandoned me and his flock to their fate for a week.

some of the ladies in their salon/diningroom

I’d all but forgotten how enjoyable and rewarding caring for ovine creatures can be. Enjoyable enough to continue after his return, taking over his daily chores and living like a peasant. Fetching peat and wood, cleaning out, lighting and keeping the fires in the stoves going, foraging for leeks and carrots in a muddy field, bagging up hay and mixing ‘muesli’ in large buckets, filling the feeders for the sparrows, robins, starlings and one great tit, then dishing out the mutton-fat-and-oat-flake porridge for the blackbirds after the starlings have gone with the sun.

Best of all is feeding and watering the flock. Our friend Julie used to winter her horse here and left us with a nice little stable, divided into two sections. The smaller one houses three “poodles” – tiny hill lambs that wouldn’t have survived the winter outdoors. Bone and wool two months ago, they’re fattening up nicely and have started to eat out of my hand.

old spot

The larger section has been converted into a dining room/salon for the ladies and their offspring. That’s where they pull their daily hay ration from nets hung on the walls, and huddle, ruminating contentedly, during wet and windy weather.

Spot is the oldest sheep on the croft. He was our daughter’s caddy (orphan) lamb, hasn’t got a single tooth in his mouth and is pushing 18, perhaps 19 years now. He, his friend Jemima and some of the other older ladies, get a little dessert most days. Stale bread and boiled potatoes are favourites.




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looking good

I can’t remember the pond ever having been at such a low level. The late Johnny Copland, my first horticultural mentor, when extolling the virtues of the Shetland climate, always topped his priority list with the absence of severe droughts. I’ve never seen such deep cracks in the soil – I can stick a trowel blade up to its full length into those fissures that net the land like the vast and complex web of some malign arachnid.

parched earth

Quite a few tadpoles are still at the “singing” stage, lying on their backs, filtering plankton. They look ridiculous in their grey-spotted plumpness and those tiny, constantly opening and closing vertical mouths – rather like a miniature caricature of an elephant seal. A manifold increase in ridiculousness takes place when that vast mottled belly starts sprouting a pair of pathetically spindly hind legs.

...growing legs...

And then the great transformation takes place; a second pair of legs appears, that Falstaffian corpulence vanishes, and as the body slims down, reptilian lines and spots appear along the tiny creature’s back. A day or two later it’s suddenly grown a head complete with a wide frog’s mouth, and is ready to leave the water for the land – a miniscule, still-tailed frog, a tail providing nourishment during those harsh days of acclimatisation to a new element.

The low water level exposed bands of ugly black pond liner – hot, sticky and lethal to brand new froglets when warmed by the sun.

So there was nothing for it but to place flat stones, bits of wood, and where steepness prevented the positioning of those, pulling layers of predator net over the lethal black stuff.

brand-new froglet

When tadpoles grow their lungs, they turn from harmless vegetarians to fierce carnivores. Not only are they ravenously hungry all the time, but they are complete strangers to gratitude. They devour the cat biscuits I throw them, turning the water into a seething, wriggling dark mass. They also use the biscuits as lilos, as they paddle across the pond, before proceeding to eat the tails and fins of young fish. Some of those poor creatures look alarmingly gnawed and tatty. Minute frogs have left the pond in droves, but there are still far too many tadpoles feasting on Piscean extremities.

Next spring, I shall think twice about organising another tadpole rescue mission, unless they promise to leave my fish alone.

and another one...

And while I’m on my favourite watery subject, I’m delighted to announce that there are still fish in my pond – survivors of the March otter massacre. Sardino, the runt goldfish Anna and I bought last autumn, is not only alive and kicking, but randy, and in hot pursuit of the new ghost carps and blue shubunkin. Late in the evenings some fish – mostly tiny ‘invisibles’ – the offspring of my original shubunkin given me by High Maintenance Husband – decide to rise for food. Others just flash past, close to the surface, still a little shy. My heart missed a beat at one such flash – Bulgakov – my striped carp, reported missing, believed dead, is very much alive.

feeding frenzy

We’ve had a little rain now, enough to settle the dust and to give the vegetables and weeds a boost. Established plants don’t need watering, but those in containers and newly planted – as far back as March – keep drying out and I’m deeply thankful we have no hosepipe bans in Shetland. I’d probably have died of exhaustion by now.

The garden looks good – it isn’t perfect, but I’m actually quite pleased with most of it, which is a most unnatural state. Must make some improvement plans without further delay…

strategically placed cat


If you, like I, still have embarrassingly bare patches in your garden, a cat, placed strategically, brings instant improvement.

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running with secateurs

… is a relatively low risk activity, provided they are closed and stuck in one’s gardening coat’s pocket. To avoid large and annoying holes in said pocket, through which plant labels, pencil stubs and other small, but essential items will find their way into the coat’s lining, it is advisable to place them handles down.

Running, or walking, with secateurs is of course highly detrimental to those woody plants hell-bent on keeping hold of all their annual growth. I hate to admit this, but those light June nights have a habit of turning me into a serial pruner. Pines, willows, larches and olearias, wherever their horizontal growth – and there is a lot of that in a Shetland garden – interferes with the border plants or small shrubs planted in their vicinity, end up as victims of severe amputation.

Geranium clarkei 'Kashmir Purple'

Old larches, especially when their top growth vastly overhangs those lower branches, tend to grow threadbare. At 5’10”, using a pair of telescopic loppers, I can reach branches 9 feet above ground level – about half way up our oldest Japanese larches. A compromise is called for and I’m following the lead of Mr. Walterson who, in his wonderful Scalloway garden, has clipped his New Zealand hollies (Olearia macrodonta) into columns – as far up as  he could reach, with the rest of the bushes sprouting out of those green containers like enormous foliar arrangements – not a bad look

My gardening day, after having run amok with a pair of secateurs and a pruning saw where appropriate, ends at about 11 pm and I’m always shocked the next morning when I encounter those huge piles of branches my butchery has left in its wake.

Those poor trees do indeed look like amputees. Where, the day before, their lower branches majestically swept the ground, there are now pale circular wounds. These heal rapidly and even James, my tree-loving husband, eventually admits that my nocturnal sharp-tooled interventions, despite the initial carnage, are conducive to the garden’s equilibrium – curtailing the strong to give the weak a living chance.

cobra lily

One recent entry in Lea Gardens’ visitors’ book said: “This is a garden where everything is allowed to grow as nature intended”. Hmm…. little do they know………

There is of course the British “cutting back” mentality. After all, one must keep things looking neat and tidy.

The great, late Christopher Lloyd hit the nail on the head with his now legendary statement: “Cutting back is for the benefit of the gardener, while pruning is for the benefit of the plant.”

But then, there are those occasions when nothing but a severe cutting back will do. Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue’ is one of those dwarf shrubs everybody wants to grow. It likes well-drained acid soil and a little shelter and, clipped back after flowering in July, it can be kept compact and well-clothed.

Its white form, L. diffusa ‘Alba’, in common with many albinos, has not only much increased vigour, but flowers continuously from June to October. Mine has now matured into a sprawling mass with several bald patches in its centre, with the first buds expanding into flowers .

There was nothing for it but to clip it back hard, buds and all. This means there won’t be any flowers for a couple of months, but I’m looking forward to a reward in August – a crop of milky-white stars on a neat and fully clothed bush.

Thymus citriodorus aureus creates dense carpets of the freshest golden green imaginable, but it too, with age, begins to look threadbare in places, especially when several specimens have been planted at close quarters. There’s nothing for it but to wade in with a pair of sharp scissors and brutally trim all growth back to within a few inches of the crowns.

After this intervention my lemon-scented golden thyme looks as self-conscious as a newly shorn sheep, but within weeks (a little feeding helps) returns to its former, glorious self.

I do, sort of, disagree with my late friend Christo. Cutting back can benefit both plant and gardener. I can’t recall their purpose, but I did plant some box – willy-nilly – on the east side of my Kitchen Border, the oldest part of the garden. I’m fond of box and its evergreen winter presence, but as time moved on, they began to look more and more out of place, eventually reaching the state of pointlessness amongst their herbaceous neighbours. Clipped into neatness, they have become focal points.

Richea scoparia

Best to put those sharp tools away for now and revel in the garden’s June glory. The first Oriental poppies are out and Geranium clarkei ‘Kashmir Purple’ is laden with flowers, as soft to the touch as Mysore silk.

Some plantings, never intended to harmonise, but arranged according to the individual’s needs and preferences, come off all the same, and at the moment I’m rather pleased with a Backyard trio, consisting of  pink Syringa x josiflexa ‘Bellicent’, pale cream Rosa xanthina, and Rhododendron ‘Blue Danube’.

I’m always thrilled when visitors spot and remark on those treasured rarities that thrill me to bits. In “South Africa” Cyrtanthus parviflorus is opening its fat, waxy, yellow buds and on the peat bed a cobra lily is in flower.

I’m almost certain it’s Arisaema cilliatum var. liubaense. I was given two seedlings of this plant a lifetime ago, by my friend Clement, who owns what is arguably the most magical garden in Scotland – Fröhlich, on the shores of Loch Tummel. One seedling succumbed during its first Shetland winter. The other survived, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with itself, pushing up a lonesome leaf year after year – and I, anxious that I might lose it, wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Planted on a raised peat bed three years ago, it produced a good-sized flower this year – a hooded, long-tailed spathe, vertically striped mint-green and bitter-chocolate black, thrilling, but barely half the height of its Fröhlich parents. Must do better!

Not far from the cobra lily grows a trio of Richea scoparia, dwarf, and very prickly-leaved New Zealand shrubs – the only successful “rooters” from a bunch of cuttings given me by RBGE some years ago. The flower spikes are cream, fading to orange-brown, rather than the hoped for pink or red; all the same, I’m thrilled to bits about this “Shetland first”.

back yard trio





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night magic

Lea Gardens’ plant collection is classed as ‘significant’ in the Scottish context and is the largest north of the famous Inverewe Gardens.

It comprises over 1,500 taxa from all over the world, from rare Chinese members of the lily family in the east, to North American woodland species in the west of the globe, and from Alaskan shelter trees in the northern hemisphere to shrubs from New Zealand’s South Island to Tierra del Fuego in the Antipodes.

Lea Gardens receives no subsidies or grants and is funded entirely from plant sales,  visitors’ donations and writing.

The garden, still expanding, comprises two acres, and includes shelter belts, wild flower meadows, woodland areas, herbaceous and mixed borders, a pond, wetland and especially constructed limestone and granite landscapes for lime lovers and ericaceous plants respectively.

The garden is run by its proprietors James and Rosa with the assistance of one dog, five cats, at least two hooded crows, seasonal staff, and volunteers from all over the world, but maintaining and restocking it to the highest standards and safeguarding our valuable plant collection is stretching our very limited funds.

We are at the moment busy preparing for a fundraising event to be held on

Saturday, 30th June from 7pm until late

We provide:

 A ‘peerie’, but lavish buffet – Shetland lamb, Vaila pork and seasonal Lea Gardens produce including Rosa’s legendary Bohemian raspberry cheesecake

A plentiful supply of delicious tap water – bring a bottle if you fancy something stronger or different

Classical Music

 Guided tours of the garden if it’s dry – guided tours of the house if it’s wet

 Our wwoofers, Angelo Sky and William Tsang, will attend to your every need

 Frolicking on the lawns optional but highly recommended

 Bathing in the pond at your own risk – beware blood-sucking leeches and killer tadpoles.

 Suggested donation to garden funds £5.00 per person

To book see contact details in Shetland Times 23.6. and Shetland News website

Garden and nursery open daily from 2-5pm, some rare plants available

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wwoofer stolen by hairy bikers

William, our new wwoofer, boarded the north boat at Aberdeen yesterday evening (Wednesday 20th June) to arrive here this morning to  help with earthing up our tatties and other urgent June chores.

Bikers from all over the world gather in Shetland every June for their Simmer Dim Rally. It seems our wwoofer has fallen into their hands and been taken to Vidlin where I’m told they put up tents, drink beer and frolic.

All we know about our wwoofer is that he’s Chinese, highly educated, and rather thin – probably in need of feeding.

If you come across him please make sure he’s safe and well.

Lea Gardens open daily from 2-5pm

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There is a plant nursery in Surrey called Morris & Stevens. It is a large, sprawling nursery/garden centre with two or three substantial polytunnels protecting plants from winter wet and frost, and what looks like acres of pot-grown herbaceous perennials sitting on woven ground cover. There are weeds in the pots and elsewhere, muddy patches, piles of discards and empty pots, broken crates and small mountains of logs.

first impressions count

It is a ramshackle nursery and I find visiting it deeply comforting, while exciting and satisfying at the same time. Deeply comforting, because it confirms what I have always suspected: Lea Gardens is not the only ramshackle nursery in the United Kingdom.

Exciting, because there is always treasure to be found. Last November I was able to cross several items off my “badly wanted” list.

Satisfying, because the plants at Morris & Stevens cost a fraction of those to be found in non-ramshackle nurseries or garden centres.

There is a vital difference between a plant nursery and a garden centre. Plant nurseries actually grow the plants they sell, while most garden centres buy them from nurseries, put them on a shelf, double, treble, or, in some cases, quadruple their price, and sell them. Garden centre plants always look pristine and perfect, while Lea Gardens plants, grown entirely out of doors, rarely if ever look pristine and perfect.

It all started as a plant nursery more than thirty years ago, then, as demand increased beyond capacity, it turned for a few years into a combination of nursery/garden centre. Not a good idea, as plants straight out of a southern polytunnel tend not to adjust well to our wonderful Shetland climate. So Lea Gardens headed down the nursery only path again.

to be composted

Then, four years ago, I simply couldn’t bear the thought of yet another season spent propagating, potting up and potting on, pruning, feeding, top-dressing and repetitive labelling. But, far worse, my garden had become sadly neglected because there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do justice to both. One had to go and the garden won hands down.

And then came WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) and its wonderful volunteers. Over the next three years the garden underwent considerable renovation and expansion and late this winter, I decided it was after all possible to do both. My little lean-to greenhouse and its heated propagator were cranked up in mid February and Lea Gardens went back into production. Now the coldframes and greenhouse shelves are filled with promise once more – long-term promise. Some of the treasures we have raised from our own and exchange seed will take at least a year, in some cases two, three or four to reach flowering size.

And that’s where a good friend of mine keeps shaking his head. Why don’t I just grow what the “punters” want? Bright annuals or short-lived perennials that can be churned out in a matter of months, even weeks and are bound to fly off the shelves?

another hellery

He’s a business man and he’s right of course. But I don’t like petunias. I wouldn’t enjoy growing them. I’m hooked body and soul on the slow plant movement, plants that take time to mature, plants that are long-lived and become permanent fixtures in the garden. Seeing a much-loved plant appear above ground again after a long, bleak winter is pure joy, and something I couldn’t do without.

Having turned a blind eye to the nursery and surrounding area, the chaos of pots, fertiliser bags, watering buckets and plants – dead and alive – for four years, I suddenly could bear it no longer and embarked on a major face-lift, which is a long-term and highly rewarding project.

I’m finding treasure. All kinds of treasure. Once the grass and weeds are peeled from the compost of a pot, plants miraculously appear, all manner of plants: Trollius, Astilbes, Incarvillea, Bulbinella, lily bulbs, tiny alpines, all clinging on to life in the face of adversity.

almost respectable

Hideous shrubs, starved and straggly, look almost good enough to buy after pruning, re-potting, or where they still fit their vessel, feeding, weeding and top-dressing. Clearing the debris of weeds and broken pots from the sales aisles and replacing them with neat rows of handsome plants, makes me feel like a little girl playing shop.

We’re getting there – a great transformation is taking place, Lea Gardens looks a little less ramshackle now, but will never again be a garden centre. We’ll be a plant nursery with everything grown here and all but the most difficult subjects propagated in situ. There are enough plant shops around the place already. And there won’t be any of those day-glow satellite-dish-sized labels either. The plants will speak for themselves and, what’s more, people can actually see them – in all their glory – in the garden – and not just imprisoned in a pot.

While the gardens’ ramshackleness has somewhat diminished, the gardener looks
rather worse for wear. For the best of a month I’ve spent the cool evenings
potting, trimming, feeding etc., wearing a strange semi-waterproof
bronze-coloured coat, and one of Anna’s childhood hats – bright purple felt with pink flowers.  My friend Alex dropped in unannounced and told me I looked like somebody who’d escaped from the secure unit of a mental institution.

playing shop

I was initially going to call this offering ‘Higgledy-piggledy’, but that word or whatever you call it still has a highly traumatic effect on me. It came up in conversation just after my wedding in 1979 – the context escapes me – and when I asked my mother-in-law what it meant, she answered: “that’s what your house is like…” Just as well she can’t see it in its present state…..

Lea Gardens and nursery are open daily from 2-5pm

And here’s what’s looking good just now: astilbes, purple loosestrife, hostas, various cultivars of “multi-coloured” broom (Cytisus scoparius), Incarvillea delavayi (hardy gloxinia) in bud, Lilium regale in bud (five-year old plants raised from seed), Azalea ‘Blue Danube’ and azaleas from the Glendoick small mammal series, large dragon willows and fuchsia (red and white) in 15 litre pots for instant impact and, last but not least a Hypericum (Rose of Sharon) species new to us.



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aches and pains


Osteospermum jucundum

I suffer from something called “gardener’s back”, which started with severe attacks of sciatica many moons ago and has been kept more or less in check by more or less strict adherence to Mr. Mackenzie back exercises.

Now it’s not just my disks that are getting squashed and slip, but the actual vertebrae between them are crumbling away – due to something called osteoarthritis. This is also affecting what I call my “sacrilegious joints” which, on top of pain shooting down my legs, causes muscles to go into excruciating spasms.

Most days I go about my business bent or limping, especially in the mornings and evenings. Some days I also swear a lot, loudly when I’m on my own or under my breath, when there are visitors in the garden; Anisotome latifolia and Molopospermum peloponnesiacum being favourite expletives (I never use them when children are around).

Having, hopefully, just gotten the better of hellebore wilt, it was a pain to see the leaf spot which had disfigured my lovely stand of Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ last year returning with a vengeance.  And, probably a good deal worse unless nipped in the bud, there’s mare’s tail in the peat garden. It must have come in with the dwarf mountain pines I planted on a little plateau. I’ve never liked those pines anyway, and as soon as I get around to it, I shall dig them, and their stowaways up, hoping it’s not too late to get the better of the latter –an ancient, primitive and extremely tough plant that can push through tarmac.

It should have no problem breaking through the iron pan, the rock-hard layer formed between the garden’s top and sub soil in places. When the pond was dug, top soil was buried underneath sub soil, with predictable results. While attempting to plant some astilbes on the left bank, I hit something that felt like rock – the dreaded iron pan. It took me the best of an hour to crunch through it with a sharp trowel and mix it into the topsoil underneath – the joints of my fingers still carry the memory, but the blister on my palm is fully healed now.

Paonia delavayi

But that’s enough of aches and pains. Let’s do joy now. Wood pigeons are two a penny all over the country, but at Lea Gardens they are treasured. Our pair seems to have gone to great length with their nest building this year – securely placed right inside the green thicket of the Backyard’s Japanese larch hedge.

There was a lot of flapping in the jungle of the Round Garden the other day, accompanied by some alarming crashing sounds and the repeated lament: “my toe hurts, Betty” – and – hey presto – three instead of two Columba palumbus sort of flew across the garden before winging their way to the nearest hydro pole.

It’s been at least two decades since mealy redpolls bred in the garden. A pair arrived in mid May and the other evening I watched the tiny birds – weighing less than half an ounce – feeding amongst the sedums on the pondhouse roof.

Elsie, my wonderful Monday volunteer, is working her way through tray after tray of seedlings. She’s a dab hand at pricking out and potting up – everything her green fingers touch thrives. The first vegetable seedlings are up, and cherries and figs are ripening in the greenhouse. For the first time fruit, set the previous autumn, has managed to survive the winter and I’m watching it swell with joyful anticipation.

Osteospermum jucundum 'Blackthorn Seeling'

The first tadpoles are growing hind legs and “South Africa” is getting into its stride. The first fleshy new shoots of agapanthus and nerines, pulped by frost, are now replaced by new ones. The bed doesn’t reach its climax until August and at the moment those fabulous cape daisies (Osteospermum jucundum et al) have the scene to themselves.

Paeonia delavayi is one of the oldest shrubs in the garden and shows her age, or rather is a manifestation of gardener’s neglect, gaunt and leggy because I’ve never had the guts for a hard pruning.

Fritillaria camschatkensis

The heavy shade of two large Swedish whitebeams in close proximity doesn’t help either. They were planted in the early days to provide shelter at the margins – margins which, after extensive extension, are now the heart of the garden. They are beautiful, stately trees, but occupy all but a small corner of a south-facing wall – wasting a prime location I’d rather fill with something more delectable. I’m working on my darling husband to get the chainsaw out….

Oh dear, I’ve slipped back to pain and must immediately add more joy.   Fritillaria camschatcensis has not only made a return this spring, but increased handsomely, as has another anxiety-provoking inhabitant of the peat garden: Epipactis gigantia, a weird and wonderful orchid with reddish brown and yellow flowers.

Nomocharis, the most exciting members of the lily family, always come up late and my heart leapt when I found Nomocharis maireisafely returned. And now I shall leap – oops – I mean limp – into the garden and do some much-needed watering – wonderful evening light out there.

wonderful evening light out there

Lea Gardens – open daily from 2-5pm or by appointment. 







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