the best laid plans….

Hosta fortunei 'Albo Picta'

Every garden has its problem areas and mine is no exception. In the north-west corner of the Back Yard our predecessors had made an attempt at ornamental gardening. A square raised bed had been built, and bulbs had been planted. We inherited a forest of Narcissus ‘Telamonious Plenus’, a 16th Century double yellow daffodil, blue bells and Ornitholagum umbellatum,  star of Bethlehem.

ranunculus aconitifolius

Ranunculus aconitifolius

This trio has long since broken the boundaries of its raised bed and after the bulb’s foliage has died down in June, I’m left with a large expanse of  bare soil, in an area that is now classed as ‘dry shade’, due to the rapidly drying peaty soil and the trees we planted.

This inherited garden used to be a stronghold for hairy bittercress and the bane of my daughter’s life, who earned her pocket money hand-weeding ‘white flowers’.

 

Once the bittercress was more or less under control the area struck me as an ideal location for Lamium galeobdolon, yellow archangel, known as galloping deadnettle at Lea Gardens. It is a handsome evergreen plant with silver-patterned leaves and heads of soft-yellow lipped flower in early summer. It swallows all other vegetation in its wake – a weed-suppressing groundcover dream come true.

Ranunculus aconitifolius flore pleno

It roots as it goes and my annual attempts at confining it to its allotted slot grew more strenuous while proving less successful from year to year – the nettle had to go. Digging it up wasn’t difficult due to its shallow roots, and once again, I was left with a large expanse of bare soil in a difficult location.

 

Viola cornuta, the horned violet, will grow just about anywhere and the idea of a simple, restrained and elegant planting came to me: a carpet of scented violets, a sea of blue underneath the trees – and nothing else.
I managed to plant about twenty last autumn, and a good few more followed early this spring. The plants have settled in well, with the first ones elongating flower stems. The bittercress’ attempt to stage a comeback, was prevented in the nick of time by the edge of a sharp trowel and a long spell of hot, dry weather.

wild garlic

 

The violas don’t really get into their stride until mid-summer and it struck me as a good idea to add some Claytonia sibirica for early colour – the mauve, rather than the white flowered form. While fetching them from the nursery I found myself toying with the idea of adding some Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’ for earlier colour yet, and said to myself that a few colchicums to prolong the season into autumn wouldn’t go amiss either.

As I set about planting in the deep, dry shade of the whitebeams, I found huddles of young foxgloves, mingling charmingly with polemonium and aquilegia seedlings. If they manage to scrape a living in such an inhospitable place, surely they deserve a chance, I told myself. There were ferns also, tiny ferns, unfurling tiny fronds.

Asperula odorata - sweet woodruff

The planting is now less simple, less restrained, and in all likelihood, a good deal less elegant than planned. In order to save a vestige of my original plans, I’m expecting all the foxgloves to be white. If they’re not, I shall have to give nature a helping hand and get rid of the non-whites.

 

Pink, I am told, is one of the British gardener’s favourite colours, but one can have too much of a good thing. Rhododendron yakushimanumcultivars are pink – mostly. Some have the decency to bleach to white after a while, but most remain stubbornly pink – cherry pink, sugar-mouse pink, toothpaste pink, campion pink, strawberry pink, peachy pink, blossom pink, mallow pink, carnation pink.

Ranunculus amplexicaule

 

Green is a good antidote to pink and as we sail into June there is plenty of green – the warm greens of young oak and the vibrancy of new birch foliage, the yellow green of the balsam poplars and the tender, soft green of the Japanese larches.

Then there are all those delectable green and white combinations: Ranunculus aconitifolius and its double form, the green and white tiers of ourisias, and the incomparable purity of Ranunculus amplexicaulis. Starry wild garlic, blue-leaved hostas and the embroidered carpets of sweet wood ruff make a perfect foil for the lily-of-the-valley scented Smilacina racemosa.

Smilacina racemosa

Green and cream or pale yellow are equally fresh and spring-like. I never tire of Trollius ‘Alabaster’, great for the front row of a damp border, but perhaps best of all, are the newly emerging leaves of Hosta fortunei ‘Albo Picta’.

 

 

The garden and nursery are open daily from 2 – 5pm or by appointment – look for Lea Gardens in the Shetland telephone directory. We propagate and grow a wide range of plants – alpines, border perennials, shrubs and trees. All are grown without the protection of glass or polythene and are fully adapted to the Shetland climate

Alpines from                      £2.20

Border plants from         £3.50

Trees from                          £1.60

Shrubs from                       £4.50

 

 

 

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and suddenly it’s voar…

 

 

 

Meconopsis 'Lingholm'

After 36 gardening years in Shetland I should be used to it by now, but still, almost every year, it takes me by surprise. Nothing but wet, cold and grey, and then suddenly – overnight – spring sails in on the blue skies of a Baltic high. Temperatures soar, the soil dries up and regardless of how early I started on the garden, the nursery and the vegetable plot, there’s a mad rush to get everything done on time.

Field-grown shrubs and trees, lifted during April and early May, are crying out to be potted up or planted out. Carpets of bittercress and willow herb need to be rubbed out before they get a chance to seed, a few remaining gaps in the border vie for new inhabitants, and several buddlejas, forgotten during the early spring pruning, have gone into a lanky sulk.

mystery rhodo in bud

 

There’s been some satisfying progress on the vegetable front. The courgettes, released into the great outdoors, have doubled in size, and their close relations, pickling cucumber ‘Vorgebirgstraube’, followed a few days later.They are a first for me, and I have great hopes invested in them: cucumbers that actually taste of cucumber. The salad garden looks neat now with rows of lettuce, dill, Florence fennel and parsley seedlings released from their pots or trays, and sowings of more salad, Turkish cress and chicory, tucked underneath white propagation film to prevent them from getting scorched.

The sun is fierce and the small, south-facing area in front of the greenhouse gets extremely hot during the day.

Fitting the coldframes with shade-giving green windbreak net curtains has proved a blessing and helps to cut down on watering.

and in flower

Apart from the thickly seaweed-mulched area of the vegetable rig, all is sown and planted, peas and broad beans, carrots, beetroot, swedes, parsnips, Swiss chard, turnip ‘Atlantic’, kohlrabi and last but not least 132 leeks – I did count them.

The seaweeded patch is awaiting the planting of brassicas, still in their trays, but fattening up nicely on twice-weekly liquid seaweed feeds.

The sunshine and a still ample amount of moisture in the ground, have brought the garden on in leaps and bounds. The blue poppies are glorious, especially Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’, growing in the shade of a larch hedge. The white May broom, in the same location, is fully out, and just around the corner, a large, white-flowered rhododendron has revealed itself to be scented. We have no name for it, but Ken Cox is on the case.

twelve gods

Twelve Gods. What a wonderful name for a wonderful plant. Dodecatheon meadia has increased magnificently and dominates the west side of the peat garden. I read somewhere that it had been named by the ancient Greeks, which means America must have been discovered long before Christopher Columbus’ days.

There used to be evenings, leisurely, long evenings. Where have they gone all of a sudden? It’s impossible to stay indoors as the nights get lighter and warmth lingers well into the evening. That’s when I potter, rather than work in the garden – until exhaustion gets the better of me.

white may broom

 

After 36 gardening years in Shetland I should be used to it by now, but still, almost every year, it takes me by surprise. Nothing but wet, cold and grey, and then suddenly – overnight – spring sails in on the blue skies of a Baltic high. Temperatures soar, the soil dries up and regardless of how early I started on the garden, the nursery and the vegetable plot, there’s a mad rush to get everything done on time.

Field-grown shrubs and trees, lifted during April and early May, are crying out to be potted up or planted out. Carpets of bittercress and willow herb need to be rubbed out before they get a chance to seed, a few remaining gaps in the border vie for new inhabitants, and several buddlejas, forgotten during the early spring pruning, have gone into a lanky sulk.

There’s been some satisfying progress on the vegetable front. The courgettes, released into the great outdoors, have doubled in size, and their close relations, pickling cucumber ‘Vorgebirgstraube’, followed a few days later.They are a first for me, and I have great hopes invested in them: cucumbers that actually taste of cucumber. The salad garden looks neat now with rows of lettuce, dill, Florence fennel and parsley seedlings released from their pots or trays, and sowings of more salad, Turkish cress and chicory, tucked underneath white propagation film to prevent them from getting scorched.

The sun is fierce and the small, south-facing area in front of the greenhouse gets extremely hot during the day.

Fitting the coldframes with shade-giving green windbreak net curtains has proved a blessing and helps to cut down on watering.

Apart from the thickly seaweed-mulched area of the vegetable rig, all is sown and planted, peas and broad beans, carrots, beetroot, swedes, parsnips, Swiss chard, turnip ‘Atlantic’, kohlrabi and last but not least 132 leeks – I did count them.

The seaweeded patch is awaiting the planting of brassicas, still in their trays, but fattening up nicely on twice-weekly liquid seaweed feeds.

The sunshine and a still ample amount of moisture in the ground, have brought the garden on in leaps and bounds. The blue poppies are glorious, especially Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’, growing in the shade of a larch hedge. The white May broom, in the same location, is fully out, and just around the corner, a large, white-flowered rhododendron has revealed itself to be scented. We have no name for it, but Ken Cox is on the case.

Twelve Gods. What a wonderful name for a wonderful plant. Dodecatheon meadia has increased magnificently and dominates the west side of the peat garden. I read somewhere that it had been named by the ancient Greeks, which means America must have been discovered long before Christopher Columbus’ days.

There used to be evenings, leisurely, long evenings. Where have they gone all of a sudden? It’s impossible to stay indoors as the nights get lighter and warmth lingers well into the evening. That’s when I potter, rather than work in the garden – until exhaustion gets the better of me.

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days of miracles and wonders

Remember the dead, dark and empty pond, the frost damage, the gardener’s despondency? All vanished about a fortnight ago. A miracle happened. The sun shone.

Venetian Cowichan

The huge dark cloud which had hovered above Lea Gardens vanished. A thrush was singing outside my bedroom window one Sunday morning. A pair of redpolls dipped and swooped across the borders. Blanche, our tame blackbird, absent for weeks, re-appeared for a sharp-eyed earthworm search amongst the freshly turned earth of the salad garden, unperturbed by the presence of Mousie, our silver-grey semi-Burmese cat, balancing on  a nearby fence. Blanche gobbled up the worms there and then, which means she’s no young to care for – yet.

The most severely frost-bitten plants sported new buds and leaves almost overnight; even Inula hookeri, all its new growth grey and soggy, is pushing up furry, bright green rosettes at ground level.

And almost overnight, the garden has turned green, countless shades of fresh, soft spring green.

in the shady parts

But most miraculous of all: some fish have escaped the otter’s killing spree. Five inch-long “invisibles” basked in the sunshine amongst the parrots’ feathers on the margins of the pond. “Invisible” fish are young shubunkin, near-black from a distance, purplish-brown close-up. They change colour rapidly as they mature, adding pink and red highlights to their dark, sombre scales. They were briefly joined by a small, orange goldfish, darting in and out of cover, and a golden orfe, basking for a minute or two before returning to the deep.

With the addition of two blue shubunkin I couldn’t resist buying, there should be nine fish in the pond altogether; and for all I know – hope springs eternal – there could well be more survivors of the massacre, too traumatised yet to rise to the surface.

Euphorbia griffithii 'Wickstede'

There have been a few days between weathers since, dry and calm, at times even sunny enough to make use of the light nights. Being an owl, my creative juices rarely start flowing before 3pm, and are most prolific after 6pm, when the last visitors have left, the Tresta rush-hour traffic has dried to a trickle and the garden is quiet.

Visitors, more often than not, remark on all the hard work that must go into the garden. They’re wrong. It’s play, rather than work, even though I often find myself aching all over on the morning following one of those late sessions, when everything flows and falls into place, borders create themselves, all the right plants are suddenly at hand and the perfect spaces can be found for those who’ve sulked in pots for years.

self-sown polyanthus

It’s also the time of day when the gardener’s inhibitors flee: cultural considerations hampering the creative flow – too damp, too dry, too shady, too bright for a given plant. No ifs, no buts, plants can always be moved if they’re not happy where I’ve put them and – this happens more frequently – if I’m not happy with them in their new locations.

But the moving and shifting is some way off yet. At the moment the garden and I are on our annual honeymoon. The shady parts of the old garden take care of themselves, and newer planting, such as the bed next to the nursery, are coming into their own. Euphorbia griffithii ‘Wickstede’, a dark, compact cultivar, has pride of place in the latter. Everything looks – almost – perfect, even the jumble of Barnhaven primroses, in one of the limed, raised beds. All were raised from seed, polyanthus and acaulis types in a bewitching range of colours Visiting their website is a must for all primrose lovers:  www.barnhavenprimroses.com

I’m particularly fond of their Cowichan polyanthus range, solid pools of colour, devoid of the large yellow eye, so typical of the tribe. The reds are especially delectable, garnet, ruby and strawberry shades, each flower with a tiny, precision-stamped star in its centre.

Primula sino-purpurea

Their double primrose seed is for gamblers only, and during my latest attempt, I pulled the short straw; a healthy crop of plants, but only one double amongst them, cream-coloured and far inferior to a single-flowered wisteria blue, compact, floriferous and exquisite.

Cowslips and primroses seed themselves about where the drainage is good and the soil not too acidic. An almost obscenely vigorous red polyanthus has joined the throng of watsonias, crocosmias and nerines in the South African bed, feeling very much at home in a gritty, semi-scree mix, proving, if proof were needed, that British mainland’s damp and shady translates into sunny and well-drained for Shetland.

June is the main season for Asiatic primulas in my garden, but there is one notable exception. Primula chionantha ssp. sino-purpurea is an exceptionally handsome plant; tall, sturdy stems rise from strong clumps of long, narrow, silver-green basal leaves, and carry at their apex a generous bunches of cool lavender-blue flowers with a reddish-mauve eye. There are also white, cream and pink forms. It thrives in damp, humus-rich, but not water-logged soils.

Populus trichocarpa

A sweet scent carries on the air during May and visitors, curious to find out its floral source, are in for a disappointment; the fragrance is wafted by the newly-expanding leaves of our Alaskan balsam poplar, Populus trichocarpa.

PS. To all those who’ve left comments: I’m very sorry, but I’m swamped by spam and have found no way to stop this and, sadly, no time to seperate the wheat from the chaff. So for the time being I won’t be able to approve any comments.

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tadpole titanic

Time travel is possible. I was eight years old again just the other day – and for much of that day. The first time I was eight the millstream in my village burst its banks and flooded the surrounding area. It was paradise for children. We built dams and rapids and floated toys on the muddy brown water.

Water can be a dangerous element for land dwellers, while for water-dwelling creatures the danger lies in the air. Frogs are amphibians and at home in both elements, but their offspring, before it grows lungs, is in mortal peril when water runs short.

Ironically, the water shortage was initially caused by an overabundance of moisture. Heavy downpours created a strong current on the east side of the pond, between the inflow and the outflow, taking plants and tadpoles with it down the hill.

My pond had become the Titanic. Streams of tadpoles came tumbling down the stone steps, desperately wriggling to find their way back into their element. Some were lucky enough to be washed into puddles, while others floundered in damp grit.

Those travelling in the luxurious first class accommodation on the western, northern and southern margins had no idea their fellow passengers in stowage were fighting for their lives, and went about their daily business without a care in the world.

It goes without saying that there weren’t nearly enough lifeboats and in the ensuing chaos, the unfortunate ones who found themselves near the margins of the boats, were washed overboard, wriggled, vigorously at first, then increasingly weakly, until they coiled their tails around them and lay lifeless on the mud.

My tadpole lifesaving skills are limited and involved a completely different scenario last year: thousands of tadpoles among soaking wet grass, and child’s play to scoop them up with a jam jar.

Make-shift lifeboats had to be procured from the kitchen: a large plastic jug half-filed with pond water – a tea strainer for the larger puddles – a teaspoon for very cramped places, and a dessertspoon for those in-between.

Tadpoles swimming near the surface of tiny pools are easily scooped up with a tea strainer, sometimes two or three at the  time, but those in rocky puddles with crevices to hide in have to be ambushed with a teaspoon, while those buried in damp gravel are best lifted into the jug-lifeboat with a dessertspoon.

It’s quite extraordinary how those seemingly lifeless grey blobs revitalise as soon as they are dropped into water, uncurl their tails and swim around joyfully after a hearty meal of blanket-weed.

Sadly it proved impossible to save them all.

All survivors are now ensconced in first class.

Perhaps a tightening-up of aquatic safety regulations is in order.

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bitten

So far, April was indeed the cruellest month. A touch of frost had been forecast for the 2nd day of the month and I thought it wise to cover all rhododendron blossoms which, without exception are frost-tender. But when I headed for the garden, armed with a wad of tablecloths under my arm, it was too late already. Each and every flower was frozen to a crisp. My rhododendrons’ brief début was also their swan song.

Rhododendron 'Snowlady'

This wasn’t the zero or minus one forecast, this was something far colder altogether. If only weather forecasts were more reliable.

I still remember my parents’ whispered conversations, concerned facial expression, and hasty activity, whenever a late frost threatened. Newly planted and not quite hardy vegetable transplants could be found easy protection with the above-mentioned table cloth, in later years replaced by sheets of clear polythene, but little if anything could be done to spare the precocious peach, plum, or cherry blossom. There would be a meagre harvest or no harvest at all that year.

cooked drumstick primulas

The mild winter had lured many ornamentals into early growth and flower. Several plants of Meconopsis betonicifolia ‘Gote Skogholm’ were in bud at the end of March, their stems elongating rapidly. Drumstick primulas had been in flower a good fortnight prior to their usual slot, and one of my favourite spring plants, Heloniopsis orientalis, the Japanese swamp pink, had decided to put on a late March, rather than a late April show, and paying dearly for their precocious behaviour. The flowers of my swamp pink trail limply over the wooden edging of their raised bed, Meconopsis leaves are blackened, the flower stems bent, which gives some hope of recovery, or kinked, which means they’re doomed.

cooked swamp pinks

It’s the same with those white, mauve and lavender drumsticks, some lying spread-eagled above foliage that looks well cooked. Bone-hardy bergenia foliage has taken on a glassy, transparent look, the flowers, pert the day before, limp and sprawling. Pieris ‘Debutante’ has changed from cream to a pale, and not altogether unpleasant, orange-caramel shade.

The young leaves of Ourisia macrocarpa have taken on unhealthy olive and brown tones, and there’s where once there was delightful rhodo blossom in white, pink and amethyst we also have various, but less pleasant brown and fawn. Pieris ‘Debutante’, turned from white to pale brown still looks respectable – from a distance.

Pieris 'Debutante' - from white to brown overnight

Dicentra spectabilis is often above ground as early as January and has, during its three decades, never suffered as a consequence, taking snow and ice, even the odd blizzard in its stride. It looks a sad mess now. Where there were juicy, upright shoots, there are sharp angles – those kinked flower stems again. Definitely a first in my garden.

Unless there are more such set-backs, all my frost-bitten plants should make a full recovery. An outside thermometer has been placed on my “essentials” shopping list, and I suppose in future I’ll have to follow my parents’ example: mutter, take on a concerned facial expression and indulge in some hasty activity – such as covering my entire garden with a frost-proof membrane.

Dicentra spectabilis - not much of a spectacle just now...

It’s freezing out there; a sharp north-westerly has brought a wintery chill to the garden – and my bones.

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spring fashion

The pond, a sad, dead and empty watery hole, has become deader and emptier yet since a pair of mallards and one or more herons ( I found tell-tale rounded feathers) have made short shrift of the black wriggling masses of immature tadpoles. Only a few stragglers remain and those juicy stands of Caltha polypetala (buttercups on steroids), have been grazed down to green ribs by I don’t know whom or what. Perhaps the otter, bound to be facing a severe shortage of fish by now, has turned vegetarian?

camouflage

What is a woman to do? Cheer herself up with a new wardrobe is one solution, and I’d found just the thing. One of our German wwoofers had bought the April issue of “Marie Claire”, which contained a supplement, entitled “WORKWEAR SPECIAL”. It was a revelation, starting with “THE WORK SHOE CHART”. I instantly spotted “a practical chunky, heel with a high fashion twist” by Marni, green and white and a snip at £408 as just the thing for making those “chunky but fashionable” indentations into soft ground, suitable for planting potatoes in at a later date.

Synthryris mussurica var. stellata

The purple stiletto on the same page will come in really handy for the lining out of hard-wood cuttings. Why laboriously punch holes into black plastic with a short length of fencing wire, prior to inserting said cuttings, when I can simply walk across that shiny black expanse in my £470 Gio Diev’s?.

Rhododendron 'Praecox'

And it gets even better. I rather fancy that bright yellow bargain blazer (£330) on page 23 – great camouflage while working amongst buttercups. But then, a silk mix is perhaps not the most practical and I might plump for the white cotton jumper at £465 instead, white being the traditional colour for those who toil in the soil.

There’s no doubt in my mind that most, if not all, of the models in this supplement are gardeners, as they not only stand, bolt upright ( a sure sign of gardener’s back, also known as sciatica),  next to some potted greenery, but have at their feet, green handbags (such a telling colour), bound to hold secateurs, pruning knife – perhaps even a small trowel?

There was a brief outbreak of spring during the final week of March, lasting exactly three days – three days of sunshine, prompting frantic activity and culminating in a tropical 16º Celsius in the shade on Monday, 26th. This, as was to be expected, really showed off the spring fashions of some plants.

Plants, unlike humans, don’t follow fashions, they wear the same outfit year in year out and simply wait until fashion comes to them and their floral colours and textures are all the rage again. There’s Rhododendron ‘Praecox’ in diaphanous amethyst silk – perfect for gliding down the red carpet. Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle’ harks back to the days when crochet was in vogue, while Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ sports trusses in timeless Barbara-Cartland-pink.

Double hellebores have brought back the ra-ra skirt, displaying white, apple-green and dusky pink versions, and Pieris ‘Debutante’ lives up to her name in coy, muted cream.

I’m not quite sure where the highly textured leaves and inflorescence of Gunnera tinctoria, in a fetching combination of rhubarb stew pink and rich green, fit in, but Synthyris missurica var. stellata is elegance personified. Its crowd of long-stalked lavender-lilac flower cones, backed by rounded leaves in a restrained shade of green, are a cat walk sensation.

pink double hellebore

Finally, there are the garden’s frogs in timeless black and olive camouflage.

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GRIEF

If this week’s offering seems a little damp, your eyes are not deceiving you. The text is moistened with my tears.

A week is not only a long time in politics, it is also a long time in gardening.

There was something markedly different about this winter, compared to the previous four. By the end of November fish traditionally retired to the bottom of the pond and we never saw them again until well into March the following year.

once

This year, due to the very mild weather, they were visible for most of the winter, cruising sluggishly but still coming to their familiar feeding spot and taking the odd pellet.

On the last weekend in February all was well with the world and God was in his heaven.

34 fish cruising, five orfe, three carp and the rest goldfish of various

shapes, sizes and colours, and all in excellent condition, which sounds infinitely more polite than calling them fat.

The first frogs arrived a few days later, with the first deposits of spawn on the 28th.

That’s when I noticed that the pond looked strangely disturbed, bits of pondweed and marginals floating in the water. Probably damage caused by the frogs or by the pair of Mallards that alight on the pond every spring, squawk around for a bit before flying off to nest on our neighbour’s land.

there

13 fish were cruising. Nothing unusual or alarming in that, until I found a neat pile of fish scales near the steps leading up to the water, and more of the same on the eastern margin, yet more near the inflow pipe, and several pieces of fish, one of them a belly brimful with eggs.

The bed of candelabra primulas looked severely thrashed, the just emerging plants flattened as if a steam roller had gone over them, and there were tell-tale tracks in the mud. Five, rather than four toes clearly visible – an otter, rather than our dog, a dog, I must admit, who’s very fond of a fish supper.

Two years ago a young otter took a brief dive in the pond, surfaced, turned, took one look at me (I know I look a fright) and vanished up the inflow pipe, never to return.

were

The most obvious thing to do was block the inflow pipe at both ends, which didn’t take long.

The next day the fish tally had fallen from 13 to 9.

This was too sad for words. These were my fish. I’ve known some of them since they were eggs, and many had names. There was little Sardino, a goldfish runt Anna and I  had picked up at a garden centre last September, Big Mama, the oldest goldfish, brilliant scarlet with a pale pink head and prominent, red lipstick, two oversexed blue schubunken, the carp Pasternak, Bulkakov and Gorki, and five golden orfe, three of them a magnificent size. I could go on, but the recollections are too painful.

And there was nothing I could do. My remaining fish were doomed to become otter fodder. I know the otter, with a generous 3000km of seashore at his disposal, won’t rest until he or she has killed the very last one. Perhaps there was more than one otter, more than 20 good-sized fish gone in three nights could mean a whole family had feasted.

All was doom and gloom and as if severe piscean grief weren’t enough, I’d suffered the worst attack of sciatica in two decades.

I felt bereft and helpless and had more or less decided to spend the day in deep mourning. Five minutes after this decision was taken, Isabelle, our wonderful German Wwoofer came in the kitchen, carrying an old bucket. “I got one,” she said. A pale fish, Pasternak, the white carp, was swimming in the bucket, caught with the help of a child’s net, the sort of net children use for scooping up tadpoles or sticklebacks. “If only we had a bigger net, a real landing net, one with a long handle, I could probably get them all out.”

A state of emergency was declared, a large landing net procured after endless phone calls, and help summoned in the form of my friend George, who knows a thing or two about fish. Isabelle donned a pair of waders and waded into the pond which, much to my horror, has silted up severely since its installation.

Two more fish are caught and placed in a large, well-scrubbed tub, filled with pondwater and oxygenators.

Eventually a concerted fish-catching effort begins at 5pm, an hour later than planned due to cars breaking down and other delays.

One more fish is caught and the pond has turned into a muddy brown hole.

fish

At 7pm James comes across the otter, a young one, too scared to leave a pond now surrounded by 3 humans and a barking dog.

The dog is removed, and after some persuasion – and amazingly, the rescue of one large orfe – exhausted, it eventually climbs out of the pond over an hour later, and makes for the nearest ditch which leads down to the road and the sea.

Hopefully never to be seen again – in or near my garden?

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LAZARUS

Officially spring is still three weeks away, but unofficially it sprang the day before yesterday (Saturday, 26th February). The sun shone. The meadow pipits sang. Mousy went outdoors for a pee. The fish were cruising enthusiastically. James felled two superfluous trees, which has created an amazing amount of space and light in the Backyard. Alex, miraculously, managed to get the shredder started no less than three times. It did die after that, but at least we now know it is capable of starting and there’s hope of that huge heap of brash-wood being transformed into woody mulch after all. Isabelle, our almost brand-new wwoofer, worked wonders clearing borders and getting the greenhouse ship-shape.

ship-shape greenhouse

As everybody else was doing something, I’m pretty sure I did something too, but given my advancing years (I suddenly and inexplicably feel old), my recollections are hazy and as is all too often the case, I forgot to take “before” photographs. I could, I suppose take “after” ones, but without the comparison they’re not nearly as impressive as they could be.

But one thing is sure, unlike that foolishly optimistic false alarm in January, the gardener has now definitely risen from the dead and, instead of sleeping, spends much of her time in bed planning and dreaming up new plantings, and thanks to Isabelle, who is a great, highly intelligent worker and very pleasant company, some of the dreams are already becoming reality.

One of the “entrance” beds, established in 2003, has been overhauled, narcissus bulbs lifted and replanted, close-to-death sedums and pulmonarias rescued from the dry shade underneath tree and shrub canopies – probably the only dry places in the whole garden, as all else is still squelching and  Jimmy, my 89 year old neighbour, who knows about these things, has declared the winter of 2011/2012 the wettest he’s experienced in his long life.

The nursery, avoided for six months, sports one or two almost tidy compartments, where the bulbs potted last autumn and kept under cloches in the salad garden, sit in nice rows and are starting to show some colour.

Iris 'Katharine Hodgkin

Oriental poppies, raised from root cuttings and freed from their all too small containers with the help of nail scissors (pots rather than roots cut), look visibly relieved.

I love Crocus sieberi ‘Tricolor’ in bud. The buds are striped white, yellow, purple and I wouldn’t mind a bit if they never opened, as is sometimes the case. There are little flocks of Crocus tommasinianus all over the garden and, given the mild winter, they started to flower at the beginning of February and some of them – the species and that sweet little pink one C. tommasinianus ‘Roseus’ – are now starting to go over without ever   opening their flowers. What a shame. I hope this might teach them to get up at the right time next spring, such as the start of March when the first pollinating insects are on the wing and the sun has been known to shine for more than ten minutes.

Hamamelis mollis 'Pallida'

The slightly beefier cultivars such as ‘Barr’s Purple’, ‘Whitewell Purple’ and especially ‘Ruby Giant’ start a little later and benefitted from a few hours of sunshine two days ago.

How I adore those little tuberous larkspurs. They flower their hearts out regardless of the weather. Their glauceous, ferny foliage looks impossibly delicate, and they are in flower for a good month from February onwards. I have a rather pretty red form of the common Corydalis solida, and C. solida ssp. solida ‘Beth Evans’ a blush-pink newcomer, still in the greenhouse, and both are sheer delight.

Coridalys solida ssp. solida 'Beth Evans'

The great, and much longed for awakening has begun. Witch hazels and Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ are in flower, the latter somewhat sparingly. The buds on Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ are turning from green to pink. Spring snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) are taking over from the snowdrops and look particularly good in shady corners. Unfortunately slugs also have a liking for shady corners and have started to nibble little notches into those creamy-white green-tipped bells.

A friend of mine has offered to send up some toad spawn this spring and toads, I’m told, consider slugs a delicacy. Unlike frogs, they can’t leap and are thus inept at catching  winged insects.

The alternative would be a flock of Khaki Campbell ducks. We used to keep ducks in the early eighties, long before the garden became important. They did get rid of the slugs alright, but they have large feet and I shudder at the thought of what they may  trample underfoot as they go about their slug-eliminating business.

Corydalis solida

A few bulbs of Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, planted on the lime bed a couple of years ago, have increased tremendously and are still going strong from an early February start. They are a wonderful sight, but nothing makes the heart leap as a first ever flowering.

Chrysosplenium macrophyllum is a relatively recent introduction from China and very different from its little, also Asian, cousin C. davidii, the golden saxifrage. Its foliage is large  and important looking; it could almost be mistaken for a bergenia and its clusters of small white flowers are enhanced by prominent pink anthers and backed by a ruff of pale green leaves, turning them into ready-made posies.

Chrysosplenium macrophyllum

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OUT OF HYBERNATION?

I’m sure there was a time when all humans in the northern hemisphere, in tune with other mammals, laid on fat during the seasons of plenty, then used up their fat reserves during the winter when food was scarce.

Not anymore. Especially not if you’re a gardener. A friend of mine, who isn’t a gardener, has claimed she gained a pound an hour during the festive season, and I’m not far behind.

Most of my additional fat layers were accumulated during hibernation. Hibernation of a sort I suppose; hiding in a dark cave, huddled round a fire during the worst of the weather from November to February, while still indulging in some necessary activities such as operating several remote controls, hunting in cupboards for chocolates and biscuits and gathering paté, smoked salmon and other high-calorie items from the fridge to prevent starvation.

This year I have decided – with the utmost reluctance – to come out of hibernation prematurely or while I can still fit into a small pile of seasonal garments, garments several sizes too large last autumn, but wisely kept for girth emergencies, several of which I find myself in the middle of as I write.

The world is coming to an end – not in December 2012 or as forecast by some ancient South American calendar but, according to the weather in Shetland, each and every day.

The sun does attempt to rise, but is, as soon as it has managed to break through the clouds for a few seconds, eclipsed by instant nightfall. It is dark out there, even at midday, each day and every day.

Hail and rain are lashing this inhospitable archipelago day in and day out. Half the pastures are under water and the sheep look as if they’re living in an ovine spa, with permanent, slimming mudpacks enveloping their legs and bellies.

Lea Gardens is a mud bath, and each day, as I venture out there, weighed down by sacks of hay, the mires are trying to rob me of my gumboots, sucking them into the mud.

I had expected  my daily fight against the elements, climbing a steep ladder to the hayloft, stuffing dusty hay into bags, sweating behind a farmers-lung-preventing face mask, struggling over fences and climbing to higher ground to lay out the hay on something still resembling pasture, to constitute a vigorous daily work-out, but I was deceived.

Fighting against the elements etc. gives one a healthy appetite and my waistbands are growing tighter by the day.

And now, as this is a gardening blog, I should sing the praises of the garden, marvel at all the new shoots that have pushed through the bog, kneel in admiration before the gorse flowers, and swoon with delight at the winter heathers and snowdrops. But I don’t feel like it.

Those shoots can go on shooting and those heathers can go on blooming, while I return to my dark cave – for another day or two.

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Brain-dead

Doesn’t time fly? Especially when one’s away from home.

But leaving this island brings with it countless pitfalls and unforeseen dangers.

Therefore, the very best advice I can give fellow island dwellers is to stay put. Regardless of how enchanting those journeys to the south are, how benign the climate is down there (we don’t have one up here – we have weather only), and how wonderful the hospitality of friends and family –  there’s usually a price to pay.

Taking the Northlink ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen means one is going to find oneself in mortal danger for twelve hours. If the ferry travels via Orkney the being in mortal danger time increases by two hours. This, as you can imagine, can be rather nerve-racking.

During my last trip south the degree of nerve-racking – just after James (my husband) and I had found our cabin and settled in for the night, or rather gritted our teeth in expectation of being tossed about by a force 8 south-westerly while on the high seas – increased from a force 5 breeze to hyper-hurricane force 14.

This rapid jump on the Beaufort Scale was caused by an announcement on the ship’s tannoy. Please believe what I am going to say next. Honestly, I’m not making this up. The silence in our cabin was disrupted by a crackling from the loudspeaker between our beds and a seamanly voice saying: “Would Davy Jones come to reception please, Davy Jones to reception.”

In case you don’t know this, according to Tobias Smollett in his ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ (published 1751), Davy Jones has saucer eyes, three rows of teeth, horns and tail, and blue smoke coming from his nostrils.

The voice from the loudspeaker didn’t say anything about Mr. Jones’ locker, but it probably goes without saying that wherever Davy Jones goes, he brings his locker with him. And Davy Jones’ locker, as we all know, is the place where drowning sailors, and presumably drowning ships’ passengers go, i.e. the bottom of the deep, blue sea.

I wasn’t present, but I’m certain that the conversation between the ship’s purser and Mr Jones went as follows :

“As you know we’re going to have a bit of trouble during tonight’s crossing, according to the latest weather forecast. It’s just a precaution. I’m not saying we’ll all head for your locker, but it is a distinct possibility. It’s really just to make sure your locker is ready and waiting and equipped to the relevant maritime safety standards. As I’ve said, let’s hope we won’t all need it, or ideally we won’t need it at all, but it’s always better to be prepared, just in case.”

Thankfully, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I did not go to Davy Jones’ locker that night nor, as far as I know, did anybody else on board the Hrossey or Hjaltland (not sure which ship we were on), but the mere fact that Mr. Jones was on board was disconcerting in the extreme. I was too sick to lift my head off the pillow and found myself levitating several inches above my bunk on more than one occasion during the crossing, waiting for the next message from the loudspeaker, which was bound to be: “Abandon ship, every man for himself” (I guess the women and children are already in the lifeboats before this announcement comes).

Apart from being in mortal danger there are other pitfalls related to those journeys south, and I’m not talking about delayed or cancelled ferry sailings, long and dull motorway drives, and a purse that gets lighter with every mile, that’s all to be expected. No. I am referring to all those nasty germs that lurk south of the border. We don’t have them up here. Or rather we have different ones, ones we’re all immune to by now. Down there they have particularly vicious non-Scottish germs that pounce on all Scotland-dwelling travellers as soon as they’ve passed Gretna Green.

First one of them pounced on James, then one of them pounced on me. I’ve been brain dead ever since – and have suffered greatly as a result – hence no blog for some time, and my sincerest apologies.

Well, things down there aren’t all bad. There is that wonderful and wonderfully ramshackle nursery in Surrey, called Morris & Stevens, the kindness of friends and family (already mentioned above). Sadly there were exceptions to this. Baabin, our dog ate a Persian rug and some newly-restored oak flooring the last time we stayed with friends in London. This time, one of said friends tried to sell our dog, rather than have it in her house.

Luckily she found no buyers, and this rather distressing interlude was more than made up for by the kindness of strangers. Should you find yourself out of pocket and with a rumbling stomach in Kennington, there’s little point in sitting on the pavement with your hat on the ground in front of you. People will just pretend they can’t see you and walk past.

Go to the ‘Beehive’ instead, a little gastro pub in a quiet side-street. There you’ll find fellow guests generously donating their surplus-to-requirement chips to you, and very delicious they are too, chunky and with skins left on, though our dog didn’t like them.

I attended my first ever Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, traced some lost family silver, and ate rabbit stew with seasonal vegetables and herb dumplings. Or rather I didn’t get to eat the dumplings and veg, as they only featured on the menu, but did not appear in the stew.

James got lost in Leith, walking the dog at night, after a splendid dinner party and a lot of confusion about peace and peas.  He’d forgotten to take his glasses and had to take a taxi back to Lily’s flat from Salamander Street. The ride took just under three minutes. Actually he hadn’t forgotten his glasses, they were on his head, underneath his woolly hat, all the time.

And then we came back home, to a winter-white Shetland – eventually – two days later than planned. One boat cancelled, the other taking an estimated twenty-two hours – too long for the dog, if not the humans, and probably with Davy Jones on board once again, as it was rather stormy.

Sadly, there’s no photographic record of this – now legendary – trip, so my readers will have to make do with images of my winter-white garden. Could kick myself for not taking a picture of Mr. Jones, but my camera was in the car – three decks down….

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