Light is just as important in a garden as it is in a painting. It goes without saying that all plants need light to survive, flourish and thrive. Some need more. Some need less. But there is more to it than that. Plants need to be positioned to best effect. The smooth, grey trunks of the common ash look stunning when briefly illuminated by the setting sun. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, always associated with a sunny open position, glows and smoulders when placed in dappled shade or planted against a dark-green background. Just one shaft of light can brighten the darkness beneath trees. In all such situations the gardener needs to lend nature a hand now and again, in her role as assistant lighting engineer.
Much of the old garden is now what could be described as woodland, with narrow paths meandering between shrubs, trees, and shade-tolerant plants. I love the contrast between it and the wide open, sun-lit spaces of the new garden.
The old garden’s main flowering season runs from March, even late February, until the beginning of June, when the borders are at first awash with spring bulbs and wood anemones, then all green with stands of blue poppies and a sprinkling of pink cow parsley. Once all the trees are in leaf some of the ground flora has to put up with considerable shade, which suits some of the plants like hostas, ferns, dwarf dicentras and tellimas.
Coming from bright sunlight into a green and mysterious place of ferns, moss-covered tree trunks and dappled shade is always an enchanting experience, especially in the mornings and evenings, during spring and autumn, when the sun sits at the right angle.
Come to think of it, with the exception of succulents and other sun worshippers, the glare of the midday sun turns some colours harsh, while it bleaches the life out of others. All plants look better, and their colours gain in vibrancy, during the gentle illumination the beginning and the end of the day bring.
The play of light and shadow can enliven the flattest, dullest plant and planting for a few brief moments. I don’t know how many times this summer I walked past Anthemis tinctoria ‘C.E. Buxton’ and its cheerful cream disks in the long border, noticing it out of the corner of my eye – until the other day, when I found it transformed and enlivened by the falling evening shadows.
Once trees get their roots down, it’s astonishing how fast they can grow, even in this climate. Thirty years ago the sycamore was the tree of choice for the Shetland gardener, and I planted many. Most have long since become firewood, but those on the southern and western boundary of the Salad Garden in front of the greenhouse have, for some reason, been left to get on with it.
The place became so heavily shaded that despite copious amounts of garden compost and horse manure dug into the soil every spring, results were meagre and something drastic had to be done.
Where once there was darkness, there is now light. Some extensive crown-lifting – the Americans call it “skirt-lifting” (they would, wouldn’t they?) – has made a colossal difference. Removing a multitude of lower branches and a few large, horizontal sycamore limbs higher up, has transformed my little Salad Garden, and sunlight now floods the once permanently damp and shaded beds.
Even in a woodland garden populated with shade-loving ground flora, it is the gardener’s never-ending task to stop the tree canopy from closing completely and plunging the forest floor into seasonal darkness – more crown or skirt-lifting in the near future.
Just now and again, and I have no idea what brings this about, nature’s illuminations border on the miraculous. Last Friday I stood awestruck and spellbound, as the setting sun bathed the pastures to the north and east in a golden light.