A Missing Week

sunset 7.11.

Let me start with my sincerest apologies for the lateness of this posting. I’m not sure what happened, but somehow, I seem to have lost a week. It is still missing, and I’ve no idea where it’s gone, as despite concerted searches I failed to find it.


It’s been some time since I felt a weather-induced urge to put on my wellies in the morning, but Monday (7.11.) was just such a day, a perfect day for groundsel eradication.

Senecio vulgaris is classed as an annual but is in reality an ephemeral, capable of germinating, flowering, and setting seed within a few short weeks. This it has in common with the dreaded bittercress which, if my powers of observation are anything to go by, can go through the same process in a matter of days.

American land cress

Pulling up bittercress is a joy. Pulling up groundsel isn’t. It has a tenacious little tap root that invariably brings a large plug of soil with it or, when growing in a mortar path, breaks off, allowing for the production of new leaves, flowers, and of course seed.

Strangely, and unusually, the whole garden has been free of groundsels all summer and most of the autumn. Now they’ve popped up all over the place, getting ready to release their little grey parachutes. Most weeds can simply be left lying around to wilt, provided the weather is suitable. With groundsel this isn’t an option, nor is the compost heap, where it will continue to grow etc. etc. The only safe way of disposal I have found to date is stuffing it tightly into refuse sacks and leaving it to decompose in splendid isolation.

Despite my very best intentions I never manage to groundsel* for more than an hour or two at this inclement time of year. And a stitch in time does not save nine, but gives one sore knees and leaves one feeling very cold.

Fuchsia 'Lady Thumb'

I also find it impossible not to get side-tracked. There was a sudden urge to do a full flower count, delayed by the dilemma of whether to include the flowers of weeds or not. There are some fat yellow dandelion flowers, believing themselves to be in June, not November, foxgloves in all the wrong places and American land cress, looking splendidly glossy but incongruous on the peat bed. A late calluna looks more in keeping, but is eclipsed by Fuchsia ‘Lady Thumb’ and a few late blooms on Papaver rupifragum ‘Plenum’. Dianthus ‘Brympton Red’ has decided to repeat and, much to my surprise, there are a few tangerine ‘baubles’ on a young Berberis ilicifolia, a definite first.

Berberis ilicifolia

If this weren’t dilemma enough, there are the questions of keeping a photographic record of said count or not, and would it be non-hc (horticulturally correct) to include plants – regardless of their November splendour – which had long since lost their labels?

And should I continue to distinguish between plants in or out of their season, or trust my readers to know the difference?

All this anxiety increased my appetite and after a brief struggle I decided to go – as fantasised about while groundselling* – for a slab of re-heated cheese and spinach lasagne, rather than the humble and girth-reducing lunch of rye bread, low fat hummus and cherry tomatoes as originally planned.

Fish feeding had been slowly phased out a week ago and the food containers returned to the porch, but when I returned to the garden after lunch the fish had a sort of lean and hungry look about them. They fed rather sluggishly, which provided an ideal opportunity for a long-overdue fish count.

Fish count disrupted by appearance of large man – nearly jumped into pond with fright. Large man turns out to be P.H. looking for birds, nothing exciting to be found, but gives advice on possible future raven breeding, seems that without construction of large cliff prospects bleak.

Dianthus 'Brympton Red'

Remember to check greenhouse. No watering needed, but hyacinths, planted in bowls a fortnight ago and covered in black polythene are attempting to flee their bowls. Bulbs sit – or rather lean – at precarious angles on white roots like bristles on nail brush. Must remember to google phenomenon and rectify tomorrow.

Resumed flower count is disrupted by spectacular sunset at 16.15. Rush into house, dis-boot and fetch camera as I know from bitter experience that sunsets wait for nobody. Still regret having allowed myself to be persuaded not to fetch camera in August when pond set alight by fierce orange while walking with guest and husband in garden. Sunset promised by husband for following day never materialised.

Papaver rupifragum 'Plenum'

My post-sunset presence in garden wholly undesired – blackbirds screech and fly off, wrens switch on metallic alarms, moon hides behind tree branches.

* creeping slowly on hands and knees while vigorously tugging at small plants with insignificant yellow flowers and terminal grey puffs.

Moon in hiding

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Regardless of how rough the weather gets, some plants remain stubbornly in denial. They don’t want to know. For them it is still spring or summer, or perhaps spring and summer all over again. There are various primroses I could mention, especially doubles or those fabulous Barnhaven Venetian Cowichans.

double primrose repeating

Please don’t get me wrong, I enjoy their out-of-season flowers as much as the next person, but there are conditions attached. Having painstakingly lifted several large clumps, chopped them into nice fat pieces, trimmed their leaves and roots before lining them out in fresh soil to fatten up under the pale autumnal sun, I want them to produce new roots and leaves, not flowers.

All are hell-bent on flowering themselves to death and I have to go on at least twice-weekly dead-heading, or rather life-heading rounds. The more buds I tweak out, the more they produce. I can’t remember this autumnal floriferousness to occur to quite such an excessive extent but am still determined to put an end to it as, come spring,  I want sturdy little plants ready to be potted up, not spindly, exhausted primula fragments.

Well established primroses can flower their hearts out all winter as far as I’m concerned, especially as I now make use of this unseasonal bonus by teaming them with seasonal performers such as autumn crocuses or the smaller colchicums.

Colchicum aggripinum

Colchicum aggripinum is one of those plants I shouldn’t grow. It doesn’t like me. It doesn’t like my garden. But I adore it. A clear case of unrequited love with all the pain and despair associated with this condition. Its spring foliage is neat and small enough to earn it a place in the rock garden and its delicate pale lilac flowers are bewitchingly beautiful – each segment tessellated like a snake’s head fritillary. I’ve tried to make it happy for well nigh on twenty years and one of the many replacements has produced a single, slug-eaten bloom with rather poor chequering this autumn. I’m thrilled all the same and worship it on a daily basis.

My relationship with the autumn crocus is not an entirely happy one either. Millions ( I have a tendency to exaggerate) naturalised in grass ages ago have dwindled to a handful over the decades and until this year I have never felt the urge to replace them.

Crinodendron hookerianum

Crocus kotschyanus and C. speciosum ‘Conqueror’ are now more or less safely ensconced in the lime bed. More or less, because some bulbs of the latter have been dug up several times by I’m not sure whom or what. Both are on the point of flowering.

Some of the roses are still going strong. This comes as no surprise in the case of ‘Pink Perpetué’, a rose that, from July to December, is always determined to live up to its name. Its charming neighbour ‘Buff Beauty’ has decided not to be outdone and presents me with freshly opening buds on an almost daily basis.

In the bed opposite, all was gently and appropriately autumnal, some pale geranium blue, the odd fading crocosmia, bleaching grasses, until a nameless rose put it into its head to eclipse its surrounding with a truss of neon-bright vermillion. No more mid-season potash feeds for you my dear!

Berberidopsis corallina

Apart from a few late maturing courgettes all blossoming and fruiting has come to an end in South America or rather had, as Crinodendron hookerianum, a plant that forms its buds in summer, but never opens a sepal before the following spring, has decided to be precocious. The little group I planted in April is hung with long-stalked cherry baubles and would make perfect tone-in-tone companions for Berberidopsis corallina. Alas, I have never managed to raise a single cutting of the latter and, well-established in a narrow raised bed on the east-facing wall of the house, it is too late for a move. This evergreen climber has leathery leaves and produces bunches of tiny long stalked ‘cherries’ in autumn. It is said to be almost extinct in the wild.

Drymis winteri

While some plants from the southern hemisphere adapt when they find themselves moved to the north, some continue to adhere to their original patterns, while yet others – in all likelihood very confused – just flower whenever they like. Drymis winteri is such a plant. Once fully settled in, it will produce flurries of creamy white blossom from spring to autumn. This year there’s still a sprinkling of seed pearl buds, and I’m hoping for rich Christmas pickings.

Rosa 'Buff Beauty'

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More Small Mercies

Herbaceous plants rarely if ever feature on those “spectacular autumn colour” lists, which is understandable. Compared to mature trees or whole hillsides in their autumn glory, they must appear decidedly unspectacular to the horticultural world. Apart from those very humble members of the horticultural world who have to be content with very small mercies indeed.

Ajuga 'Catlin's Giant'

Some of these little herbaceous mercies are indeed so small that they are best viewed or photographed from a reptilian position. Ajugas fall into this category. All are evergreen, but shed some of their old leaves in autumn. The foliage of Ajuga ‘Catlin’s Giant’ is a dark, almost blackish green, a wonderful contrast to its bright autumnal beetroot leaves. One of my favourites is the German A. reptans ‘Braunherz’ with neat rosettes of a glossy mahogany. The colour intensifies at this time of year as a touch of pink appears at ground level and all is enhanced by a few bright yellow ‘pennies’, courtesy of Spiraea japonica ‘Snowmound’ above.

hosta swan song

Most hostas are capable of a spectacular, if somewhat messy, swansong before collapsing – at the first touch of frost – into something resembling a heap of very damp tissue paper. Few stand up to close autumnal scrutiny in this climate, but from a respectable distance they make a satisfying yellow splash.

Peltiphyllum peltatum is one of those plants that has some gardeners cooing with delight while others barely give it a second glance. It is variously known as Indian rhubarb, umbrella plant or water saxifrage, and forms an almost impenetrable carpet of hard, overlapping rhizomes that sit on the soil surface. The glossy, rounded leaves, carried on metre tall stems, appear after the pink spring flowers and take on pleasing autumn tints in November. It likes damp soil and will happily grow in a peat bog.

Peltiphyllum peltatum

Cornus canadensis is a herbaceous member of the dogwood family and little-known in Shetland gardens, despite its liking for damp, peaty places. In my garden it creeps slowly along the northern edge of the peat garden, forming a dense, green cushion. It charms in late spring when every whorl of leaves is tipped with four pale green bracts that expand and gradually change to white as the tiny central flowers, tipped with blue stamens, open.

In autumn, as the foliar chlorophyll is gradually absorbed back into the roots, the leaves take on spectacular sealing wax tints.

Cornus canadensis

Deciduous euphorbias are fabulous autumn performers. Stately Euphorbia palustris becomes a ‘burning bush’ of delicate pinks and oranges, while the tiny, needle-thin leaves of the ground-covering E. cyparissias flare into a satisfying yellow before dropping.

Euphorbia palustris

Some geraniums can be relied upon to provide a chromatic flurry and scented-leaved Geranium macrorrhizum is always amongst them. A nameless, beefy crane’s bill takes up a lot of space on the lime bed and fails to earn its keep with a brief display of mauve flowers in June, but sparkles in the autumn with ravishing flamingo stems and fiery foliar colour.

lime bed geranium

I wish I could persuade a pair of ravens to nest at Lea Gardens. They started paying brief visits a half decade ago or so. They come in pairs or small groups and impress with their aerial acrobatics. My friend, the late Gunni Moberg, used to coax and tame them with chunks of “aromatic” meat. I never seem to have any handy at the right time, but was treated to something quite extraordinary while photographing ajugas on the Temple Terrace the other day. A raven hovered a few feet above my head, rose high up into the sky, then turned on its back, folded its wings and  – head first – plummeted dangerously before spreading its wings again. This was repeated several times while it called to me with throaty cries. I returned the calls then rushed into the house in search of aromatic meat, but found none.

I later realised that I was mistaken. This wasn’t an overture for a human-corvine friendship, but a telling-off. The raven had said: “Get lost so I can swoop down on the half-eaten mouse your cats have left lying around.”

Ajuga 'Braunherz'

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Small Mercies

Small Mercies

witch hazel

Most gardeners in the temperate world take autumn colour for granted. As soon as September is by, their shrubs and trees flare up and transform their gardens into chromatic fireworks. This, sadly, is not always the case in Shetland gardens. There are several reasons for this, such as those non-summers, like the past one, when it’s been too cool and damp for plants to change their starch/sugar ratios in favour of the latter. A lack of sugars equates with a lack of autumn colour.

Aronia melanocarpa

Then we have those equinoctial gales. Some years they have little or no impact, while in others, such as 2011, they blow with great ferocity and tear the leaves, still green, off the trees.

Finally there are plants who don’t manage to shut down shop early enough. Used to a different climate, they throw the switch too late and don’t start to absorb the nutrients from their leaves back into the roots – the process which causes those spectacular colours – until too late in the season.

deciduous azalea

Autumn colour at 60º North is a hit and miss affair and we must be grateful for small mercies. The gardener who selects plants solely for this purpose had better prepare for disappointment now and again, or play it safe with the following:

Enkianthus campanulatus performs regardless of weather and climate, as do witch hazels and deciduous azaleas. Aronia melanocarpa is another suitable candidate but tends to shed its leaves the minute they’ve reached chromatic saturation. It’s one of those plants that presents gardeners, especially those with small gardens, with a dilemma. Berries and autumn colour are the Aronia’s  major assets. Apart from a brief flush of white flowers, it’s a dull dog, too dull to give it a prime, sheltered location, where its autumnal glory lasts a little longer.

Sorbus 'Joseph Rock'

There are two rowans in my garden I wouldn’t like to be without at this time of year due to their fiery autumn colours. Sorbus commixta is a native of Japan, the Russian far east, Korea and Sakhalin Island, and grows into a handsome small tree with domed heads of creamy-white flowers and bunches of orange red berries.

The hybrid origins of Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ have been lost in the mists of time but judging by the number of leaflets, has a good dose of Asiatic blood in its veins. My young specimen has yet to produce any amber berries, but makes up for this failing with a bewitching mélange of orange, copper-red and purple in October. Both are suitable for small gardens and need little or no maintenance.

Spiraea betulifolia

The Icelandic and coastal Norwegian clones of Betula pubescens thrive in cool, wet climates and, provided those gales don’t throw a spanner in the works, turn a luminous yellow at the end of their growing season. This autumn, the gales did throw an enormous spanner, but spared some yellow closer to the ground.

Spiraea betulifolia is a twiggy, little-known Asiatic shrub, small enough for the rock garden and a perfect delight during May and June when its branches are outlined with creamy-white corymbs. Its autumnal transformation depends on location – birch-yellow in shade, copper-orange in full sun.

Berberis wilsonii

Berberis wilsonii is a tough, fiercly thorned shrub with clusters of small yellow flowers in early summer and turns a stunning crimson purple, especially when grown in a container.

The common beech, Fagus sylvatica, hangs on to its papery brown foliage all winter, and tends to struggle in an oceanic climate, while its southern cousin, Nothofagus antarctica is very much at home here and one of the best large trees for autumn colour – bright, buttery yellow.

Nothofagus antarctica

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Damp and Decaying

I’m expecting a rainbow any minute now. The sun, just west of its meridian perch, backlights a curtain of fine drizzle. This could be April rather than October, were it not for the brown leaves accumulating on the paths. Many of the trees are completely bare now, and the wind, getting up strongly from the south-west, is whistling through their empty branches. The common rowan guarding the garden gate has flared reliably into striking yellow and orange every autumn, but not this year.

leaf path

Clearing paths and borders of rotting leaves is a piecemeal affair. I dash out as soon as the sun breaks through the clouds, then dash back indoors as I get soaked by a sudden downpour or pelted with hailstones.

Rose hips as well as rowan, whitebeam, and cotoneaster berries are disappearing fast down the gullets of blackbirds and starlings, and I envy those gardeners who get to enjoy them a bit longer than a mere week or two. Holly berries which, for all I know are less tasty, usually hang on for much longer; often well into the New Year. So I was surprised to find my hollies all but stripped and I believe I know who the culprits are.

gate rowan 2011

Large flocks of redwings have been descending on the garden and feeding to their hearts’ content. They belong to the thrush family and are omnivorous, raising unrealistic and foolish hopes in the gardener, expecting them to devour each and every slug. They prefer a vegetarian diet it seems, gorge on tree fruit, and take off as soon as I set foot outside the door. Getting a close look is rare, and I was delighted to spot a single bird sitting in the branches of a tea tree through my study window – what a beautiful creature with its plump thrush-spotted breast and belly, rusty red flanks and prominent pale yellow “eyebrows”.

Patches of intense blue still smoulder on the peat bed. Gentiana sino-ornata, the Chinese autumn gentians, came into flower early this year, September rather than October, with  G. ‘Cairngorm’ just squeezing into the final days of August. This, as far as I can ascertain, is quite early for a G. sino-ornata cultivar, but I have it on good authority that even this rare manifestation of precociousness is not quite early enough for the Queen.

Gentiana 'Strathmore'

Ian Mc Naughton of MacPlants in East Lothian has been breeding gentians for some time and is the creator of the famous Berrybank strain. He’s now come up with the earliest of them all, Gentiana ‘Balmoral’ – one for the Queen to enjoy while she’s on her annual Scottish vacation.

It is protected by plant breeders’ rights, a highly frustrating state of affairs: I’ll be allowed to grow it in my garden, but won’t be able to propagate and sell it.

vegetable Rorschach test

The foliage of the peat bed gentians is turning yellow and some of their flowers are decaying slowly, pale brown chalices amongst the remaining blue; more discerning and less lazy gardeners than myself probably dead-head their gentians in order to preserve their pristine looks for as long as possible.

I rather like mine warts and all and don’t object to a bit of decay; it’s all part of the natural cycle. There are some rather intriguing examples of it in the pond. Water lily leaves have turned into pale vegetable Rorschach tests, and their flowers, once pert and pink, now float just below the water’s surface, mysteriously intricate in their maroon dying.

decaying water lily

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From Adagio to Furioso

Hard to believe that a week or so ago there was an outbreak of “Indian Summer” in Shetland.  The whole islands discussed the phenomenon and its consequences: People smiling on “da street”. A little summer with all its rich tonality – pastorale – rural bliss – interspersed with allegro and scherzo – the lifting of spirits – gardeners gardening, fish jumping, cats mousing – flowers flowering – island inhabitants unusually cheerful.

Indian summer

I believe that in all other localities of the temperate world the appassionato of summer is gradually replaced by the armonioso and tenerazza of autumn – forests flare into colour, porcini break through the earth, grapes ripen on vines.  But not here. We go from damp, drizzly, tepid adagio straight to furioso – in one harsh step. Fierce westerlies have assaulted the garden for days and toppled the colchicums, discreet support notwithstanding. The trees flanking the drive are all but bare, their remaining leaves curled into ragged cones. The Norwegian briars in the same locations have decided to hold on to theirs, and have thus been instantly transformed into something resembling those dry flower arrangements one still encounters all year round in certain pubs or coffee shops – frilly silver foliage and quaint red hips.

Enkianthus campanulatus

What hasn’t been torn off, curled or frilled has been sand or rather salt blasted. The west of the garden looks thrashed. Shelter that seemed not only adequate, but decidedly luxurious, from spring to summer, has vanished over night, leaving bare stems and branches for the wind to whistle through.

There’s nothing for it but to plant some more, but not immediately, as I’m not only about to jump ship but have also grown too tender and cowardly with advancing years to expose myself to the certain risk of contracting pneumonia out there.

Hydrangea 'Phantom'

Earlier this year the “Falkofie” planting was established at the bottom of our drive; an assortment of tall and less tall shrubs that had languished in their pots for years and were extremely root-bound as a result. I didn’t hold out much hope for them, but didn’t want to dampen the enthusiasm of Falko and Sofie (our German volunteers the planting is named after) who worked unbelievably hard to hack their way through thick, matted turf, dug planting pits, removed a whole Matterhorn of rocks and carted down countless towering wheelbarrow loads of horse manure to be used as a nutritious mulch.

Given the cold, damp summer, I was convinced that July (a freezing cold month even by Shetland standards) was far too late to get them established well enough to survive their first winter in a very exposed location.

foliar arrangement

How very wrong I was. Three months on, thirty-nine shrubs (no. 40 didn’t make it), are not only settled in, but have also put on considerable growth as well as produced a sprinkling of out of season flowers.

None were blown out of the ground by the gales as feared, and none had rocked loose. The weigelas and flowering currants have shed their leaves early, the potentillas look a little burnt, but the evergreens, hebes, escallonias and olearias look good all considering, while several gorse bushes (Ulex europaeus ‘Irish Double’) are as fresh as the proverbial daisy.

Leycesteria formosa

Brief sunny spells have lured me out into the garden’s most sheltered regions where proper autumn is in progress. The tempest has left a charming, seasonal foliar arrangement on my door mat. Glossy, honey-coloured fungi  are sprouting on the lawn, Hydrangea petiolaris has changed from green to luminous yellow, and some of my ladies in waiting look charmingly seasonal. There is an especially pretty pair just outside my front door: Hydrangea paniculata ‘Phantom’ graced with fresh, pale green blossom, and Enkianthus campanulatus in deepest October crimson. Both should have been planted out years ago, but judging by the “Falkofie” success, I have no worries.


The Back Yard has also yielded a few delights. One of the many Leycesteria formosa seedlings that escaped the spade this spring has produced handsome strings of maroon fruit, and there’s some striking autumn colour at ground level courtesy of I don’t know what. Perhaps a small rheum? (Why is it that plants I’m familiar with have labels and those that puzzle me do not?)

The wind has dropped from furioso to agitato with the odd crescendo thrown in for good measure, but I’m hoping for sotto voce for my forthcoming sea voyage.

Hydrangea petiolaris

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Ruined Reputations

Ruined Reputations

South Africa in late September

South Africa is a problematic planting. Apart from the osteospermums, Cyrtanthus parviflorus, Phygelius capensis and a few watsonias, the bed’s colour from March to late July is created by non-South African plants. I do explain, and point out the healthy leaves of kniphofias, crocosmias, nerines and agapanthus to my visitors, but have the sneaking suspicion that most of them remain unconvinced.

The reputation of South Africa, all but ruined, would be completely down the drain by now were it not for August, September and October. Most S.A. non-natives have taken a backseat by now, or been hacked into submission by the gardener. The true South Africans shine.

Crocosmia 'Okavango' in background

Crocosmias are indispensable at this time of year and I’ve lost track of some names over the years. Some are worth keeping, while others, which produce masses of foliage and few flowers, have been earmarked for naturalising. Most have orange or reddish flowers, so Crocosmia ‘Severn Sunset’ with its soft, peachy colouring brings a welcome change (it needs full sun to give its best). I’m rather enamoured with the plants from the relatively new African River series for their strong, upright foliage and long flowering season. I own two and adore the delectable pink flush in C. ‘Limpopo’ as well as the glorious bright and pure orange of C. ‘Okavango’.

Of all the kniphofias in my garden, K. rooperi is perhaps my favourite late flowering

Kniphofia rooperi

species. The conical inflorescenses tower above their surroundings and look incongruously exotic under Shetland’s grey autumn skies.

There are probably as many species and cultivars of agapanthus as there are of kniphofia and crocosmia, but I have no idea what to call mine. They arrived as a job lot – unlabelled – from a wholesale nursery many years ago, and languished in pots for most of them. Their colours range from wisteria blue to delicate pastel shades – all are glorious and flower with immense freedom.

pale agapanthus

Agapanthus, incapable of shaking off its reputation as a semi-tender plant and, classed as flowering too late at this latitude,  is rarely seen in Shetland gardens.

Nerine bowdenii suffers from the same fate. But the cultivar ‘Mollie Cowie’, which sports a narrow white edge to its foliage, flowers a good three weeks before the species. I hope this may tempt some northern gardeners into giving it a try.

Nerine 'Mollie Cowie'

When ever I recommend the planting of some Michaelmas daisies to jazz up the autumnal garden, it strikes terror into the heart of my prospective customer: “Michaelmas daisies? – Never again.” They take over the garden and suffer from powdery mildew”, I’m told. None of mine do either, but the reputation of this wonderful group of plants has been irretrievably lost due to two reasons:

  1. A weedy, invasive cultivar that used to be in most Shetland gardens until copious amounts of “Tumbleweed” got the better of it.
  2. Leaving autumn asters without adequate moisture during the growing season will invariably cause mildew – another death knell.

striking terror into hearts

Colchicums aren’t universally loved either, because “they fall over”.  I believe they do – if placed in short grass in a windy location. They stand up pretty well if grown in longer grass, or given discreet support by herbaceous plants of a suitable size.

Gossip and rumour form an integral part of life in a small island community and mud tends to stick. Reputations ruined, more often than not without any foundation in fact, are hard to mend.

Colchicum 'Waterlily'

I’ll keep on preaching, and during my more optimistic moods, believe I may live to see the day when these wonderful plants manage to prove the gossips and scandalmongers wrong and take their rightful place in the islands’ gardens.

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Season of Mud, Mould and Misanthropy

It is official. Autumn is here. And it is here to stay. Better get used to it. There was a time when I used to wax lyrically about the months from September to December, especially if autumn wasn’t really autumn, but manifested itself in lengthy spells of Indian summer.

autumn is here

But such balmy days, let alone weeks, are rare in Shetland and what we usually get instead is a “day between weathers”. The term “weathers” in this context is difficult to define, as it can mean anything from howling gales to endless rain, grey skies and drizzle (also endless), hail, snow, the odd early blizzard.

We did get three days between weathers recently – glorious blue skies and sunshine, warm enough to discard socks, wellies, jacket and jumper to get a much needed vitamin D3 top-up after what has been a rather dull summer.

The “mould” in the title is a little misleading, but “various fungal infections” didn’t fit into my alliteration. They lurk in every garden, but are always more prevalent during a cool, damp season. They continue to lurk, and become a headache if the gardener, myself in this case, puts her head in the sand and hopes they’ll go away. They don’t. They keep on devouring healthy plant tissue with breakneck speed and, once they’ve polished off their favourite hosts, move onto other plants in the vicinity.

ailing cortaderia

It was comforting to see the same fungal afflictions in some gardens on the Scottish mainland I visited recently, and even more comforting to learn that the gardeners simply ignored them, as it was futile to apply fungicidal sprays once the infections had manifested themselves.

This I agree with. All fungicides available to the amateur gardener are prevention rather than cure, and having a garden based on organic principles means fungicides are a no-no anyway. But there is still something the gardener can do.

Plants worst afflicted at Lea Gardens were hellebores, lilies, hostas and peonies, in that order. We removed and destroyed all affected leaves and stems, then mulched the areas heavily to prevent the spores from rising from the soil once more and starting their destructive little games all over again. So far so good.

Deschampsia caespitosa - or is it flexuosa?

Some of our trees, especially poplars and alders, have suffered from disfiguring leaf spots for a couple of years now. There is no doubt that they are caused by some fungus, but using the methods which have proved successful with herbaceous plants are not practical here. It is simply impossible to defoliate dozens of mature and semi-mature of trees and burn their leaves.

The herbaceous fungus control method was also used on a specimen of Cordyline australis. I’d noticed some of its leaves turning yellow in the middle of summer and on closer inspection found the leaf bases rotting and brown. Stripped back to healthy foliage, the plant regained a sort of sprightly appearance, but my resulting optimism was brief. The rot returned.

Tutsan berries

Surely I won’t have to elaborate on the subject of mud? It’s the stuff that squelches underfoot and cakes every tool, boot and glove once the heavy equinoctial rains have taken their toll on beds, paths and borders.

This leaves misanthropy. Why do people insist on continuing their garden visits during autumn’s days of mud, mould and massive downpours ( those dripping umbrellas)?. I don’t approve of that and them. Don’t they (visitors not umbrellas) realise that by now, the gardener rests on her laurels, is reluctant to leave the house, reclines on a sofa in garments wholly unsuited to outdoor pursuits, eats Polish chocolate jellies, while watching a dvd, arrived from Amazon that very morning? Those knocks on the door, just as the plot begins to thicken, have been known to turn me misanthropic.

slug-gnawed colchicums

This week’s offering left me with an illustrations dilemma, which I have now solved. Rather than photographing mud and mould, I’ll show my autumn garden’s inhabitants from a slightly better angle.

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The herons have returned from their northern breeding grounds to spend the winter in Shetland. The other day I found a tell-tale rounded grey feather floating in the pond. In the absence of sufficient quantities of fishing line to be stretched strategically around the pond margins, I have to shout at them from time to time to scare them off. Shetland has 5000 km of coastline, there is water everywhere, and absolutely no need for them to come to my garden. My pond is tiny compared to the big ponds surrounding the islands.

small pond - big pond

There was a time in my life when French perfume, a Cashmere jumper or a pair of Italian leather gloves got my pulse racing. I still enjoy such luxuries, but these days, when I treat myself to a new luxury, it is more often than not a fish.

Oh no – not monk tails or fresh sardines from a fish monger’s slab, but the real thing, alive and fanning (fish don’t kick). Last week I treated myself to two golden tench and a tiny pale goldfish with a black band at the base of its tail, from the bargain bin of a garden centre.

There are several grass paths in the garden, all are well-used, but there is one where the turf is flattened, sparse and muddy – it’s the path to my pond, used several times a day. My pond, a broad oval about 12 by 14 metres, was constructed five years ago and my daughter and I used to swim in it during its first summer.

It became a magnet a year later as the first tiny shubunkin goldfish (a present from a friend’s ‘High Maintenance Husband’) were introduced. Four years on, it still exerts that same magical pull.

Water adds a new dimension to a garden. Surrounding plants are reflected in the water, as is the sky. The expansion of the pond flora, once the water starts to warm up, is breath-taking. Where there was one lily leaf, there are half a dozen the following day.

evening reflections

It is fascinating to watch the parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) returning to life in late spring. The mat of brown and dead-looking foliage suddenly sprouts delicate new red-tipped growth and within days brown is transformed to brilliant green.

Another transformation takes place amongst the pond’s oxygenators. Covered in slimy blanket weed after the winter, they soon undergo a miraculous cleaning process. Millions of newly-hatched tadpoles feed on this alga until there isn’t a single scrap of it left.

Watching the tadpoles is one of spring’s great joys, and there is a slope, covered in soft grass and wide enough to allow two adults to lie on their bellies side by side – a front seat for the tadpole theatre as it were.

Whole colonies of them busily pick away at the algae-covered plants, then – and I’m not sure exactly what this means – they sit upright in the water, bend slightly backwards while their large mouths move continuously. Perhaps they filter more algae from the water, but to all intents and purposes this activity makes them look like a tadpole choir in full song.   

Fish, after spending a long, cold winter on the bottom of the pond, start rising to the surface as the days begin to lengthen and the water starts to warm up a little. Sometimes, during mild and sunny springs, this happens as early as March.

They are shy and aloof at first, reluctant to take the pellets I throw in the water. It is almost as if their memory of the previous summer has been erased. As the season progresses they become trusting again, rise to the surface in great numbers as soon as they feel the vibration of my footsteps, and indulge in greedy feeding frenzies.

the magnificant Trotsky

Some are less adept at feeding than others, taking several attempts at swallowing a pellet. Trotsky, a four year old golden orfe, is the largest fish in the pond. He used to have several large companions, golden and blue orfe, as well as ghost carp and koi. None returned after the winter of 2009/10.

Goldfish started breeding four years ago; their offspring, a uniform mauvish brown with paler fins, are known as invisible fish. Some change colour rapidly, others do it gradually over the space of a year or more.

This year there is some variation amongst the small fry, tiny pink or pale blue fish;some with darker markings or prominent red spots appeared at the end of August alongside their “invisible siblings”.


There are two nurseries amongst the water lilies and their inhabitants have started to feed lustily on the flakes I provide twice a day. Feeding fish flakes is a tricky business in a windy climate and involves a bamboo cane first dipped into water then into the flake container. One of the adult goldfish has a liking for nursery fare and arrives punctually every day to mop up the leftovers.

a taste for nursery fare

My pond is my television and the wooden bench on its western shore is my armchair. I can easily while away an hour there – or more – spellbound by the fish, tadpoles and frogs. Sitting motionless for a long time also brings other wildlife. Birds alight on the shore to drink or bathe and, the other day, a young frog climbed out of the water and sat, wet and gleaming, on a lily leaf.


It still sat, as I crept away to fetch my camera, but had vanished when I returned, hiding under its former seat.

Evening is my favourite pond time. After the last visitors have departed, the garden is still, the fish cruise silently and after rain, large drops of water balance on the lily pads.

rain drops

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In and Out of Season

In and out of Season

It is not at all unusual for spring-flowering perennials to have a second go at the tail end of summer. Primroses tend to oblige and so do most Trollius cultivars, except for the wonderful and wonderfully pale ‘Alabaster’, which reserves its strength for a glorious once-a-year-only display in early June.

Now and again Oriental hellebores produce a little flurry of secondary blossom, but I’ve never known Helleborus niger produce as much as a single flower outside its usual winter slot. The Christmas rose only rarely lives up to its name and I still lament the loss of a plant, brought from the then Czechoslovakia to Germany, and finally to the Shetland Islands. Without fail it produced enough opening flowers to fill a small vase on Christmas Eve.

Rosa 'Buff Beauty'

A seedling, planted on the Lime Bed last year, expanded its first pink-flushed petals in May and is still going strong. Tiny, still green buds nestle in the crown of the plant and I’m hoping for perfect timing….

Some roses produce a second flush now and Rosa ‘Pink Perpetué’, while not exactly flowering continuously, as its name suggests, is weighed down with buds and opening blooms once more, as is its near neighbour, R. ‘Buff Beauty’.

Some of my dwarf rhododendrons open a few out-of-season buds most years and, during a flying visit to the Glendoick nursery last week, I came across a member of their bird series I’d never seen before. Rhododendron ‘Brambling’ is an upright shrub with clear, bright pink flowers and has since been added to my wanted list as a “must have.”

Eucryphia glutinosa

South America isn’t much to write home about yet, apart from the potatoes. Both, ‘Duke of York’and ‘Pink Firapple’ have yielded bumper crops and enchanted briefly with their blossom – blossom eclipsed by the ravishingly beautiful blossom of Eucryphia glutinosa –  a myriad of white cups filled to the brim with red-tipped stamens.

A friend tells me that Embothrium coccineum flowers twice a year in his native Tierra del Fuego, indicating that my once-a-year-only shrubs are somewhat inferior. Not any more, and I have a photograph to prove it.

Embothrium coccineum

Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean lantern tree, develops its little green buds in summer, before opening them into long-stalked cherry-red bells the following spring. This year, two young shrubs decided to get the best of both worlds by opening some flowers now, while reserving the remainder of their buds for next year.

There have of course been South American plants here long before “South America”, which ironically sits at the northern tip of the garden, was planted this spring. One of them is Maytenus magellanica, a small, handsome, upright, evergreen tree. Tiny lead-red flowers are produced in the leaf axils in spring and followed in September by tiny Naples yellow carpels, half hidden amongst the foliage. As they open, they reveal the pairs of dark red fruits, an echo of spring’s petals – a charming and subtle arrangement.

Maytenus magellanica in fruit

Charm is the operative word when it comes to Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Aglaia’, my favourite Shasta daisy. The large white flowers are a concoction of narrow, ribbon-like petals that curl and twist – swan’s down on a stem. They are reminiscent of those hats Audrey Hepburn wore in “My Fair Lady” .

And now it’s time to get on with some work. A week’s absence has brought a bumper crop of weeds, mostly groundsel, hairy bittercress and a naughty little willow herb – all flowering lustily. The pond margins need to be secured with strategically stretched fishing line – the herons are back in Shetland! Vegetables must be harvested and processed, primroses need to be lifted, split and replanted and….. I have some sleep to catch up on.

Leucanthemum x superbum 'Aglaia'

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