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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