Midge, itch, scratch

Just when the rush of garden visitors is tailing off after the schools in Shetland have gone back, and you think you can now get on with all those unfinished jobs, they strike. And this year, probably due to an ample supply of moisture, they strike in force. It’s not so bad if you keep moving around, or if there’s even a hint of a breeze, but on still days, and while working low to the ground, the midges have made gardening all but impossible.

buddleja seedling

I have tried everything from Mosiguard and Autan to the legendary Avon Skin-So-Soft which, incidentally smells vile and is rumoured to protect the British army abroad from all manner of enemy insect attacks. None work for me and the little blighters not only cause the most infuriatingly itchy bites, but get into my ears, my nostrils, my eyes, whenever I bend or kneel to do a spot of much-needed hand-weeding. If matters continue in this vein, I fear I’ll have to resort to that most desirable of fashion accessories, a pair of tights – aaaaggghhh – stretched tightly over my head.

For the time being, there’s nothing to be done but wait until the wind gets up or the sun comes out and chases them back into their hiding places. My friend, the late botanist Grant Rogers, when interviewed for a radio programme many years ago, was asked, had he been Noah, which animal he would have left off the ark. You can guess the answer.

red admirals return

Other winged creatures have been much more welcome. Some buddlejas have come into bloom earlier than usual, especially the self-sown seedlings that have cropped up all over the garden’s eastern extension. I don’t know why this should be the case, but before those beds and borders were created I never found a single buddleja seedling in over twenty years. They’re all but a nuisance now, but I can’t bear to pull them up before they’ve had their first flowering, and then it gets even more impossible, for all are splendid and I’m toying with the idea of extensive buddleja hedging, perhaps even a little buddleja forest.

I used to team Buddleja ‘Loch Inch’ with Inula hookeri and Helenium ‘Möhrheim Beauty’, but the latter kept dying during wet winters, and, fed up with replacing it, I now make do with just the two, still to good effect.

Inula hookeri

Suddenly, the red admiral butterflies, conspicuous by their absence since the flowers on Buddleja globosa faded in June, have returned in force and are accompanied by a few painted ladies, all feeding enthusiastically. I do leave the odd nettle standing, so they can lay eggs, but have yet to come across any caterpillars.

The only ones I find belong to the cabbage white, and without access to the broccoli, cabbages, Brussel sprouts and cauliflowers, they’ve decided to devour the leaves of Swede ‘Marian’ and my black Tuscan kale.

Turnip ‘Tiny Pal’, growing between the swede and the kale, is left untouched and I can guess why. This year as every year, I ordered Turnip ‘Atlantic’, a red-topped, meltingly tender cultivar that needs no thinning and never runs to seed. This year I was supplied with something called ‘Tiny Pal’ which, according to the seed company had ‘superceded’ the turnip of my choice. It is worse than useless, tastes like a radish, goes woody in no time and bolts at the drop of a hat.

Turnip 'Tiny Pal'

I’m convinced the caterpillars can hear my approaching footsteps and drop off the leaves as soon as I get anywhere near the vegetable garden. Regardless of how thorough my squashing has been the day before, there are always more the following day – not newly hatched ones, but fat middle-aged ones.

Weigela middendorfiana has long since reached the stage of middle-aged spread and was ear-marked for a hard pruning but, as I approached her, secateurs in hand, I found her covered in a second flush of buds – a first in my garden for the weigela, but not an uncommon occurrence otherwise. I’m convinced some of my plants know intuitively when they’re earmarked for the chop and pull out all the stops to prevent my hacking them back.

Weigela middendorfiana

Rosa ‘Albertine’ looked a sorry sight after the heavy rains; its spent flowers turned into soggy brown balls and its foliage – for the first time – succumbing to hideous black spot. I’m sure no more than three days passed between my noticing this and my fetching a pruning saw – only to be met with the most charming new buds, some already opening into flowers.

Second crops, with a few exceptions (midges, slugs, weevils and weeds), are always welcome. This year’s crop of frogs have long since left the pond, but the other day, much to my amazement, I came across quite a few, as yet, leg-less tadpoles.

Albertine's new buds

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