There was a time when I used to be the proud owner of a handsome collections of cacti and tender succulents. As long as they’re kept bone-dry during the winter, they are capable of surviving surprisingly low temperatures. Damp is their enemy and a winter spent in the sodden Pond House got the better of them.

Hardy succulents are much easier to please, and the vast majority of those in my garden belong to the genus Sedum. Late sedums have perfect timing – just as the borders begin to look a little sad, and the woodland garden has taken on an overall dejected air, they burst into bloom.

bee magnet

But they begin to look interesting, as soon as the first new shoots emerge in the spring. Those glaucous or purple succulent leaves are a joy to behold from the minute they arrive on the scene, and make an important contribution to the garden long before the flower buds are set.

Those large, or not so large, plates of small, glistening starry flowers shine in late summer and early autumn. They hold sway on the lime landscape, where some of them have formed sizeable mats in just a year or two. They lighten up the borders and also feature prominently in South Africa, providing great contrast to the crocosmias and agapanthus.

Sedums prefer a well-drained soil and full sun to give and look their best. The drier and poorer the soil, the more compact their habit and the more intense their foliar colouring.  They revel in pure sand or gravel and look splendid in containers, especially large clay pots, which they happily inhabit in a mix of loam and grit for years without a single change of compost, let alone a smidgeon of plant food.

Sedum cauticola

The colour range of the late-flowering sedums is restricted to pinks, reds and mauves, with the odd white thrown in for good measure.

A good few of mine have been in the garden for as long as I can remember, survivors of vine weevil attacks and various upheavals. I remember lifting and splitting a large clump of Sedum telephium one spring, with the intention of replanting it in a new site. I forgot all about it, until that same autumn, while working in that border, I came upon its divisions, still going strong. They had grown, horizontally at first, then vertically, and every shoot was tipped with a large cluster of promising buds.

Sedum 'Purple Emperor'

Few other plants would’ve survived such treatment, let alone set buds under such trying conditions, but sedums, thanks to the phenomenal water-storing capacity of their leaves, continue to function, even with their roots left high and dry.

There are three dowager duchesses in my collection. Sedum spectabile ‘Herbstfreude’, better known as ‘Autumn Joy, is a large plant, suitable for the front of sunny border, and carries large flat heads of rich pink flowers. Before they gradually turn to a pleasing russet shade, a colouring retained through winter, they are a magnet for bees and other winged insects, which feed on them in great numbers. There is a handsome white cultivar named ‘Stardust’.

The annual growth of Sedum cauticola makes a dense, low mat of striking blue-grey and is smothered in cerise flowers as summer draws to a close. A recent cultivar named S. cauticola ‘Coca Cola’ is no improvement on the species, is protected by plant breeder’s rights, and probably does more for the promotion of a sugary soft drink, then for horticultural enhancement of one’s garden.

sedums on the lime bed

Sedum ewersii, the Mongolian stonecrop, has trailing stems clad with bright, fresh green rounded leaves and produces pale pink flowers. It is a wonderful plant for cascading over a rock, or trailing over the edge of a raised bed.

Sedum ‘Ruby Glow’ hasn’t quite reached the dowager status of the previous trio, but has been a stalwart of my Sunk Garden for many years. It has the same trailing habit as S. ewersii, and clads the grey retaining walls with purple-flushed glaucous leaves and dark pink flowers. S. ‘Vera Jameson’ is in the same league with leaves a shade to two darker.

Sedum 'Vera Jameson'

I have a very soft spot for Sedum anacampseros and its subtle colouring. It is rarely if ever noticed by, let alone generates any excitement amongst, my garden visitors. It’s the underdog of my sedum collection, which makes me love it all the more. Its leaves are arranged in a beautiful spiral pattern around the long, trailing stems, an arrangement reminiscent of Euphorbia rigida. The large, rounded flower heads are a subtle, pale mauve, overlaid with a grape-like bloom.

Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ is relatively new on the scene and impresses with reddish-purple foliage and dark red flowers to match, but by far the most striking new release is Sedum ‘Red Cauli’. A dreadful name for a sublime plant, with zingy red flowers, teamed here to mutual enhancement with Euphorbia ‘Fen’s Ruby’.

Finally, I must mention another great favourite of mine, and a sedum with a difference. Sedum populifolium looks like an upright shrublet with dark, almost woody growth, clothed in apple-green pointed, lobed leaves. It looks best in a suitable setting, such as in a gravel bed, surrounded by mat-forming alpines, or pretending to be tree in a miniature landscape trough. The blush-pink flowers are an added bonus.

Sedum 'Red Cauli'

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Let There Be Light


evening light

Light is just as important in a garden as it is in a painting. It goes without saying that all plants need light to survive, flourish and thrive. Some need more. Some need less. But there is more to it than that. Plants need to be positioned to best effect.  The smooth, grey trunks of the common ash look stunning when briefly illuminated by the setting sun. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, always associated with a sunny open position, glows and smoulders when placed in dappled shade or planted against a dark-green background. Just one shaft of light can brighten the darkness beneath trees. In all such situations the gardener needs to lend nature a hand now and again, in her role as assistant lighting engineer.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' in the dark

Much of the old garden is now what could be described as woodland, with narrow paths meandering between shrubs, trees, and shade-tolerant plants. I love the contrast between it and the wide open, sun-lit spaces of the new garden.

morning light in the Kitchen Garden

The old garden’s main flowering season runs from March, even late February, until the beginning of June, when the borders are at first awash with spring bulbs and wood anemones, then all green with stands of blue poppies and a sprinkling of pink cow parsley. Once all the trees are in leaf some of the ground flora has to put up with considerable shade, which suits some of the plants like hostas, ferns, dwarf dicentras and tellimas.

Coming from bright sunlight into a green and mysterious place of ferns, moss-covered tree trunks and dappled shade is always an enchanting experience, especially in the mornings and evenings, during spring and autumn, when the sun sits at the right angle.

moss-covered tree trunks

Come to think of it, with the exception of succulents and other sun worshippers, the glare of the midday sun turns some colours harsh, while it bleaches the life out of others. All plants look better, and their colours gain in vibrancy, during the gentle illumination the beginning and the end of the day bring.

The play of light and shadow can enliven the flattest, dullest plant and planting for a few brief moments. I don’t know how many times this summer I walked past Anthemis tinctoria ‘C.E. Buxton’ and its cheerful cream disks in the long border, noticing it out of the corner of my eye – until the other day, when I found it transformed and enlivened by the falling evening shadows.

Anthemis tinctoria 'E.C. Buxton' - dappled

Once trees get their roots down, it’s astonishing how fast they can grow, even in this climate. Thirty years ago the sycamore was the tree of choice for the Shetland gardener, and I planted many. Most have long since become firewood, but those on the southern and western boundary of the Salad Garden in front of the greenhouse have, for some reason, been left to get on with it.

The place became so heavily shaded that despite copious amounts of garden compost and horse manure dug into the soil every spring, results were meagre and something drastic had to be done.

morning in the New Garden

Where once there was darkness, there is now light. Some extensive crown-lifting – the Americans call it “skirt-lifting” (they would, wouldn’t they?) – has made a colossal difference. Removing a multitude of lower branches and a few large, horizontal sycamore limbs higher up, has transformed my little Salad Garden, and sunlight now floods the once permanently damp and shaded beds.

Even in a woodland garden populated with shade-loving ground flora, it is the gardener’s never-ending task to stop the tree canopy from closing completely and plunging the forest floor into seasonal darkness – more crown or skirt-lifting in the near future.

Just now and again, and I have no idea what brings this about, nature’s illuminations border on the miraculous. Last Friday I stood awestruck and spellbound, as the setting sun bathed the pastures to the north and east in a golden light.

golden pasture

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Midge, itch, scratch

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

buddleja seedling

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

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

red admirals return

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

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

Inula hookeri

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

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

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

Turnip 'Tiny Pal'

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

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

Weigela middendorfiana

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

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

Albertine's new buds

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Better late than never

Better late than never

This is not only my way of – sort of – apologizing for my delay, but also the theme of this week’s offering.

“…walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain….” Dear old Van Morrison would’ve been hard pressed to walk, let alone talk in my garden during last Saturday’s deluge. Everything that had been more or less upright the day before was bent or flattened; the broadest walks reduced to bachelor’s paths by arching, dripping herbage and woodage intruding from all sides. In some places, progress was possible only in reptilian fashion, and in single file. I tried, but found it impossible to hold a conversation in such trying circumstances.

calm restored

Things improved, as they usually do in August, dramatically the next day, and we’ve had several days of real summer since.

Calm has been restored to the pond thanks to wise old Trotsky, my oldest and largest fish. At first, he kept a low profile during “the troubles”, but as the bullying continued, he appeared from nowhere and snaked between victim and pursuer with a breath-taking, casual elegance, restoring peace and tranquillity. – late in the day, but highly effective nonetheless. He vanishes as fast as he appears, and has, so far, thwarted all my attempts to capture him in camera.

Small fry, much later than usual, has appeared in the pond. The last time the goldfish bred was in 2009, and all the offspring was a uniform purplish-brown, known as “invisible fish” at Lea Gardens. This year, and rather late in the season, a few pink and blue babies have put in an appearance. I’m trying to fatten them up, to give them a better chance to survive the winter.

making hay

But my time at the pond has been rather limited of late. As July turned into August there was real crofting to be done; hay to be made, sheep to be clipped, cider to be drunk. Even old “Spot”, wise hog (castrated ram) and family pet, submitted willingly to the indignity of being plunked down on his bottom to have his old wool removed. He must be about 16 years old now, and has no teeth left in his mouth. (He looks like a well-groomed teenager since his haircut.)

Falko clipping his first sheep

All the hay is in – hurrah. It’s actually a double hurrah, because most years it has to be –half-cured and/or salted – piled artistically and labour-intensively into picturesque stacks on wooden tripods before it can be stored in the loft. Thanks to Falko, our present wwoofer and his concerted wuffling and turning efforts from dawn to dusk, this nerve-racking stage (some of it invariably gets wet again) could be skipped.

There was soft fruit to be picked; the last of the strawberries – a rather pathetic crop because of the changeable weather, raspberries on the shelpet (sour) side, and black currants the blackbirds had gallantly left for us.

Spot, the hog

It’s the same every year. After all is done we start with the good intentions for next year: we must start much earlier, cut the first hay at the end of June when the days are long and dew falls are light etc., etc.

Another good intention, shelved year after year, was to make some of those delectable liquors out of our garden berries, and this year, for the first time, I have succeeded, and here are my recipes:

Mina’s Raspberry Liquor

500g of fully ripe raspberries

200g sugar, or a little more, if the raspberries are on the sour side during a bad summer

1 litre vodka or similar clear, neutral-tasting spirit

raspberry, vintage 2011

Place the raspberries in a large glass jar with tight-fitting lid, add the sugar and vodka, and leave on a sunny windowsill for 6-8 weeks. Strain, then place the raspberries in muslin cloth and squeeze out every drop of juice. Bottle.

Drink chilled or top up a measure of liquor with Champagne ( if you’re one of those lucky sods who can afford it) or Cava.

Shetland Crème de Cassis

500g fully ripe blackcurrants

1 litre vodka or similar (see above)

250g sugar

125ml water

Place the berries and the vodka into a large glass jar (as above) and infuse on a sunny windowsill for 3-4 weeks. Remove the berries with a slotted spoon and place them with the sugar and water in a saucepan with a tightly fitting lid, seal the lid with parcel tape to prevent the alcohol from escaping,  and bring to the boil briefly, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until berries are soft. Strain through a muslin-lined sieve, then squeeze as much liquid out of the berries as you can, before adding it to the vodka. Bottle, drink chilled on its own or as Kir Royale, topped up with fizz.

Achillea Mystery Red

Propagation windows keep opening, or rather more apropriate in my case, yawn, all through the growing season. With the nursery on the backburner, I’d managed to ignore most of them this year, but I rushed out to take some cuttings a couple of days ago: the best of the Dianthus ‘Allwoodii Alpinus’ bunch, delectable clove-scented Dianthus ‘Brympton Red’, all the osteospermums, and last but by no means least, achilleas and anthemis. None live very long in my garden, probably due to excessive winter wet, and their cuttings should’ve been taken while their growth was vigorous in late May or June but, as the heading says, better late than never.

Achillea Flannel Petticoat

Commercially available plants can always be replaced, but in the case of my achilleas, there are two I can’t replace if I lose them: a striking, but sadly name-less crimson one, and Achillea “Flannel Petticoat”. The latter, a pale, subtle salmon pink, turned up as a chance seedling and was initially christened “Pink Undies” by my late, and much missed friend Gunnie Moberg. At present it frolics on a south-facing slope in lime-rich, well-drained soil, but one can never be sure when it comes to the longevity of achilleas in the Shetland climate…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wet, Wet, Wet

Few things in crofting life are more frustrating than watching hay slowly rot away. The last, and only time we had to dump a third of our crop was in 1979, during the wettest summer I can remember. This one, the summer of 2011, started quite hopefully, but deteriorated rapidly towards the end of July, when it turned bitterly cold and the sun only came out for the briefest of spells.


The little hay we have cut so far is safe and dry in the loft, but two large fields still stand and, apart from a pleasant interlude this past Saturday, we’ve had nothing but rain, and heavy rain at that.

Most of our strawberry crop has been lost, the berries turning mouldy before they got a chance to fully ripen. Some of our trees and shrubs have succumbed to an ugly brown leaf-eating fungal infection, and several borders look too sad for words. They have been completely flattened by heavy rain, their inhabitants lying prostrate, and the arch formed across the Kitchen Garden border by a “white” fuchsia and Rosa ‘Albertine’, often described as romantic by visitors, is no such thing anymore. Rather than ducking under it one now has to resort to a sciatica-inducing stoop.

the parent

Is Lea Gardens turning into Cold Comfort Farm, where all is sourness and ruin? Not quite. And largely thanks to our WWOOFERS. The old saying ‘many hands make light work’ is true, especially if the helpers in question are conscientious in carrying out their allocated daily or weekly chores, which gives me a little leeway to ‘play in the garden’, weather permitting.

This always happens in the evenings. As an owl, my creative juices rarely start flowing before three in the afternoon, and are in full spate by about 7pm. These late sessions not only bear rich horticultural fruit, but also bring other rewards. Once the last visitor has left and the garden falls still, birds and their young come out to play – the other night I watched two families, one of Shetland wrens, the other of redpolls – tiny fledglings, tufts of down protruding from their new plumage,  and their anxious mothers on what was perhaps the youngsters’ first outing.

There has been a lot of noisy wing flapping in the Sunk Garden’s cypress for some time. Wood pigeons had built a nest there. At first there were two parents flying in and out, but of late only one adult bird was feeding its squab – a fat little grey thing still without the distinctive white neck marking, waiting patiently on a horizontal willow branch.

Gladiolus cardinalis

As soon as the parent had left, the squab started its flying exercises. It took an inordinate amount of effort and flapping to propel itself from one branch to the next a few inches away. This continued until the parent returned with more food.

After the deluge last Sunday I found the squab walking the path of the Long Border in a bedraggled state. It made two feeble attempts at flying but failed to take off, its tail feathers too sodden to fan out.

Placed in a large cardboard box below the bathroom heater, it dried out quickly and was returned to its branch an hour later.

Gladiolus nanus

South Africa, despite the weather, looks wonderful just now. Gladiolus cardinalis is a splendid creature. It was given me by Tony Schilling a number of years ago, but refused to flower in a container, despite regular potting on and some mild feeding. Released from its confinement, it has never looked back. Its neighbour is a salmon-pink Gladiolus nanus. These little gladioli are of hybrid origin and make a great contribution to the August garden. Given the striking markings on their lower segments, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that G. cardinalis is one of their ancestors.

Achillea and Linaria

The planting has long since lost its geographical purity and looks all the better for it. Achillea ‘Terracotta’ mingles with Linaria purpurea and a pale yellow Anthemis contrasts well with the red tubular bells of Phygelius capensis.

These and the gladioli make the border, but it is two very humble plants, true South Africans, and barely visible amongst their flamboyant neighbours that set my pulse raising. More often than not it is the plants I have difficulty growing that get me excited. Watsonia bulbifera produces strong, evergreen foliage but rarely presents me with more than one or two spikes of its long, apricot flowers.

Dierama 'Blackbird'

Over the years I’ve tried countless Angel’s fishing rods but none have lived for long. One arched stem, hung with buds and the first flared bells dangles above the planting, and moves with every breeze. It belongs to Dierama pulcherrimum ‘Blackbird’, which has survived two winters and looks healthy enough to survive a third.

The forecast for the next two days looks promising and I’m off to rescue some soggy hay.

Watsonia bulbifera


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Absence, as the late, great Christo Lloyd so rightly said, does indeed make the weeds grow faster, and the garden, already neglected for a week before my departure, looked decidedly shabby on my return from my parallel universe. The lawn was in dire need of a cut, and South America had been taken over by carpets of bittercress, hell-bent on shedding their seeds. The path margins, peppered with willow herb seedlings, looked scruffy, and the long grasses flanking the drive, had turned sodden and matted while my back was turned.

Oriental poppies on the lime bed

Late July is always a crucial time in the ornamental garden, but more so this year, as there’s a special charity opening looming. I’d like everything to be ship-shape and looking colourful at the same time, which presents dilemmas. To rejuvenate those horned violets, still in full but increasingly shabby bloom, or to allow them to continue in their blue sprawls? To shear back the clove pinks to resemble green-grey hedgehogs, or to let them open their handful of buds?  To pull up those self-sown Oriental poppies in the lime bed, or to allow them to ripen their seeds? 

Most perch precariously on the lime bed, attempting to smother their tiny alpine neighbours, but they were so beautiful in flower, that I didn’t have the heart to curtail their growing cycle.

too beautiful to curtail

My parallel universe is Edinburgh, and my second home is the flat of my dear friend Lily, “the supreme illustrator”. My stays there are always wonderful, but on this occasion there was additional joy. My goddaughter, one of the most beautiful young women I know, is preparing for her wedding in September, and we spent a most pleasurable evening discussing the details of this important event in her life.

I can’t recall much planning for my own wedding in 1979; friends and kind neighbours took care of it all. My parents came to Shetland for the first time and my mother was particularly taken with my “cauliflower tree”, Olearia x haastii, in full flower. It was an old shrub, growing in the form of a multi-stemmed miniature tree, blown down during the dreadful New Year’s Eve gale of 1991.

White flowering shrubs lend a bridal air to the garden just now. Olearia macrodonta, the New Zealand holly starts off the season in early July with its huge heads of little honey-scented daisies, followed two weeks later by the starry clusters of O. avicennifolia.

Olearia avicennifolia in background

White is the dominant colour of the New Zealand flora, and one of the most beautiful large shrubs, or small trees is the deciduous Hoheria glabrata. It is an extraordinary plant in more than one respect. Cuttings taken at almost any time of year strike with ease. It rejuvenates rapidly following a hard pruning, even if cut back to stumps. Its young wood and petioles are a dark maroon colour and its juvenile, tripartite leaves are handsomely lobed. 

In early July, clusters of tiny cream seed pearls appear in the leaf axils and expand into white blossom over the next three weeks. The individual saucer-shaped flowers have five overlapping petals of the purest white imaginable, accentuated by a central cluster of maroon styles, tipped with glistening white stigma. As soon as the petals are shed, the ground below the Hoheria is white with strewing flowers. A shrub fit for a wedding if ever there was one. If that weren’t beauty enough, the leaves take on striking buttery tints before falling.

Hebe salicifolia

The long, sometimes drooping spikes of Hebe salicifolia sometimes have a faint blue flush in the bud, before turning pure white, set off by glossy green foliage. It is one of the hardiest hebes I know.

Plants from other parts of the globe also add to the garden’s bridal air. Philadelphus x lemoinei is smothered in sweet-scented cream, blossom and is arguably the most reliable mock orange for Shetland gardens.  

One is planted next to the swing in the Back Yard, where I also planted a Davidia involucrata many years ago, and forgot all about it until earlier this summer, when I cleared the surrounding jungle and found it not only still alive, but reaching for the sky. Who knows, one of these days it might present me with flowers and those delectable large white bracts.

Philadelphus x lemoinei

Last, but by no means least, I must mention the common elder, too well known to merit description; it carries one of my favourite flowers. The subtle scent on a sunny day is out of this world.

Two weddings in one year – how fabulous, and that yurt bridal chamber mentioned last week was the epitome of luxury compared to mine all those years ago: a mattress on the floor in a loft with creaking floorboards, sheltered – only just – by a badly leaking tarred felt roof.

A friend of mine suggested a renewal of vowels for my husband and myself, but I am of the firm belief they – after thirty odd years –  still sound pretty good .

Hoheria glabrata

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Scent, Sails, and Sleep Deprivation

What is your favourite time of year in the garden? What is your favourite plant? What is your favourite scent? I’m sure my answers to all these questions come as something of a disappointment to the garden visitors who pose them. They’re never definite, all change with the seasons.

An all-year-round favourite scent is that of washing, dried outdoors and best enjoyed in bed – fresh linen, straight off the line. Those of the garden change with the seasons, honeyed snowdrops in February, the bitter-sweet smell of the balsam poplars as they unfurl their leaves in May.

clove-scented pinks flank the thyme steps

In July the garden is filled with floral scents. The Asian cowslip (Primula florindae) wafts its warm vanilla perfume across the pond. Shetland thyme (Thymus serpyllum), when crushed under foot, exudes a spicy aroma that mingles with the clove pinks flanking the steps to the Sorbus walk.

 Then there are the old roses – old as opposed to modern. Unlike many modern shrub roses, all are scented.  Albas, with their handsome grey-green foliage and exuberant growth do particularly well in the Shetland climate, and there are three in my garden.

First, the great white rose, R. alba maxima, which has been in the garden for as long as I can remember. Planted far too close to its neighbours – an escallonia to the west, a flowering currant to the north, and a golden-leaved whitebeam (earmarked for moving home) to the south, – it used to just about hold its own. Supplied with copious amounts of horse manure for the past half decade or so, it now towers – in the most charming way possible.

Rosa alba maxima

Its close relative, Rosa alba ‘Celeste’ resides in the north-facing Kitchen Border and mingles fetchingly with its neighbour, bog-standard Weigela florida. For a description I can do no better to than to hand over to the great, late, Graham Stuart Thomas: “I know of no rose of such exquisite charm when unfurling its petals. The bland clarity of tone in the flowers is unparalleled among pink roses. They are semi-double, of a pure, soft uniform pink, shewing rich tones in the depths of the bud. As if this were not attraction enough the plant has leaves of a particular grey tint, the perfect foil to its floral colour, and the bush itself is strong and upstanding. The flowers are enhanced by a circlect of golden stamens.”

Rosa alba 'Celeste' bud

The blooms of Rosa alba ‘Maiden’s Blush’ have the same informality as those of R. alba maxima and are borne in great abundance. They are a soft, warm pink, fading to cream-pink, as the petals reflex, but always retain their (maiden’s) blush in the centre of the bloom.

I have already mentioned one of my bourbon roses, R. ‘Bourbon Queen’, which is trained as a short climber against a byre wall. Its large, semi-double flowers are produced in generous clusters, magenta on first opening, changing to a bluish pink. It is probably the most floriferous old rose in my garden, and dominates the scene for two or three weeks from early July onwards.

Sadly, our pristine island air is the queen’s undoing and disfigures her with blackspot every now and again. There’s nothing for it, but to prune her within an inch of her life, and mulch the ground below her feet with copious amounts of horse dung, topped up each spring. This usually keeps the fungus at bay for up to five years.

Rosa alba 'Celeste'

The other, R. ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’ is in a league of its own. Its double, quartered flowers are packed with petals of a glowing, intense rose-madder, ( I counted 92 in just one bloom the other day) and have a powerful scent. It needs rich feeding and a place in full sun to give its best.

And this is all I have time for this week. The Tall Ship race, combined with the wedding of a friend, and the ensuing sleep deprivation, has taken its toll. The weather has been nothing short of appalling up here these past few days – a return to winter with bitter-cold northerly winds and heavy rain at times –failed to dampen the enjoyment. Shetland gained an additional 7000 inhabitants over the weekend, the ships looked splendid, as did the sailors, and the wedding was one of the most magical events I’ve ever attended.

The ceremony took place on the site of the old Norse parliament – the first official one since 1600. The bride, wearing a grey silk parachute dress arrived like a galleon in full sail, and the bridal chamber, a yurt, beautifully furnished and decorated, was a like a setting from the Arabian nights.

Rosa 'Madame Isaac Pereire'

Ps. There is still no answer from husband regarding the timing of the arboreal retreat.

Tried to contact husband today, but doesn’t seem to be at home.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Warm Spectrum

Just as I was going to re-start my sun-bathing routine – abandoned 2 decades ago – the sky changed from blue to grey, and the temperature dropped from pleasant to “I think I’d better put some socks on”.

Alstroemeria aurea

Even South America, the warmest part of the garden, has cooled down considerably. At present, the planting there consists primarily of trees and shrubs. Two Solanum tuberosum cultivars, the early ‘Duke of York’ and the late salad potato ‘Pink Fir Apple’ have found a seasonal and appropriate home, and three young plants of the “Scottish flame flower”, Tropaeoleum speciosum, have held their own in the face of drought and slug-attacks.

I’ve also planted a form of the “Peruvian lily”, which came to me from Michael Wickenden. The writing on the label has long since been washed off, but I believe it to be Alstroemeria aurea ‘Cally Apricot’.

The species was one of the first inhabitants of my garden, established in 1977 and removed two decades later. During twenty years it had galloped through all the shaded beds in the Kitchen Garden, and when it started pushing shoots through the paved paths and into the raised beds opposite I took out my fork.

There was a plan to replant at least some of the tubers somewhere else, a safe place where the plant could romp to its heart’s content, but they were never realised.

When I first made the acquaintance of the “golden lily of the Incas” it was known as Alstroemeria aurantiaca and when its replacement, naturalised in a meadow, started to flower two years ago, I was wondering if it was a different species, as its flowers are a rich maize yellow, rather than the definite orange of its predecessor.

Papaver rupifragum plenum

They’re one and the same of course, and it comes as no surprise that a plant with such a wide distribution in the wild (Chile and Argentina) also has a wide chromatic range.

It is a floppy old thing, and even when supported by tall grasses, needs staking. It makes a wonderful sunny splash, especially when grown in shade, and I value it as a cut flower. It lasts for ages in a vase, provided its thirst is quenched on a daily basis.

Sedum reflexum

The genus has about 50 species and there are countless hybrids and cultivars, but to date I’ve only drawn blanks with any of the others. Grown in pots, their fleshy rhizomes froze to the pulp; grown in the open, winter wet or those pesky little black subterranean slugs got the better of them.

Yellow, orange and red  – the warm spectrum of the colour wheel – bring sunshine into the garden, even on a cloudy day. Sedum reflexum is a sprawling mat of yellow stars, and Papaver rupifragum plenum carries tissue-paper-thin double apricot flowers on long, wiry stems. Geum ‘Mrs. Bradshaw’ shines in the Long Border, and a mysterious red double potentilla smoulders in South Africa. I can’t recall planting it and it bears no resemblance to any of the other potentilla cultivars in the garden.

'South Africa' potentilla

Primula florindae

Now the candelabra primulas are going over, their cousin, vanilla-scented Primula florindae has started its long season. Primrose yellow predominates, but apricot, orange, and the occasional zingy red also get a look-in.

Telekia speciosa is one of the most stately plants in my garden – it would have been called “architectural” when that term was in vogue – and looks good from the moment the long, heart-shaped leaves form a large overlapping clump to the moment I cut down the dark-stemmed silver skeletons. Overlap is the operative word for this plant, as the overlapping sharply-pointed calyx segments are a feature by themselves, long before the fine-rayed yellow “daisies” start to unfurl anti-clock-wise.

Telekia speciosa

Admiring them the other day pricked my conscience.

When had I last seen the flowers of Inula magnifica, indeed the most magnificent of yellow daisies? It was still there, but a sad shadow of its former self. Its once bright and airy home, now overhung by horizontal branches of sycamore, wych elm and shore pine, had become a place of gloom.

Its buds, just three – well above head height – were still tightly closed and the flowers would’ve gone unnoticed without some timely intervention. A clear case for getting out the pruning saw, a tool whose mere mention strikes terror into my husband’s heart.

Telekia speciosa bud

I love the garden’s shady places, the north-facing Kitchen Border, the ferny-green Round Garden, but in the West Border of the Backyard, where the magnificent Inula resides, the canopy of trees, originally planted for shelter, has now all but closed, leaving the ground flora to struggle.

Ideally I would like to remove all the trees, apart from a double-row of willows (in need of pollarding) to provide protection from the elements, but know I won’t get away with it. 

Darling I must protest. Only a few blogs ago, you were waxing lyrically about being married to a man with a chainsaw. Now you declare that he runs away from a small hand tool, when in fact he readily and bravely – some would say foolhardily – took up arms and risked life and two fingers to prune some sun-obscuring sycamore branches only a week or so ago.

Is this fair I ask you, or does poetic licence hold sway over mortal weakness?

I say let the Inula thrive: the forest shall retreat!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Hour of Bliss

There is a tradition in my Bohemian family I rather like. For every decade of life, a whole day’s celebration – the older one gets the more drawn-out the festivities. So far I’ve had five days, a party in Germany in April, followed by one in Edinburgh, followed by an intimate one at home, followed by the official party at the end of June, followed by an impromptu one last Sunday. It was a bit of a whirlwind weekend, with scores of visitors, including our much-missed “Chinese” friends, a session with Shetland conservation volunteers (more on that in August), several bottles of bubbly (must book myself into the Priory) and a highly eclectic impromptu dinner, proof that many cooks improve and significantly speed up the broth, rather than spoil it.

fern-leaved elder

Our fabulous supper ended with elderflower pancakes, and here’s how to make them: pick lots of fully-open flower heads. Make a pancake batter, dip the flower heads into it, one at a time, place them into a hot, lightly oiled frying pan then quickly snip off the hard stalks (leave the little tender ones) and cover with a thin layer of batter. Turn the pancake and serve immediately with a sprinkling of sugar and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

We’ve had a week of glorious summer weather up here and I have a new friend – a young frog that lies, well-camouflaged, in wait for insects a stone’s throw from my pond bench, where I watch my three-channel (fish, bird, frog) al-fresco television.

spot my new friend

There I sat the other morning – everything was wonderful, the hum of the lawnmower in the distance – our volunteer was cutting the grass – woodpigeons calling from the shelterbelt: “my toe hurts, Betty, my toe hurts, Betty…”, a pair of rain geese (red-throated divers) heading north beneath a blue sky, siskins feeding on the grasses, two fish kissing amongst the water lilies, a blackbird bathing in the shallows and my little frog on full, tense alert as soon as a fly landed nearby. He hurled himself vertically up into the air, fell back to the ground and smacked his lips twice, as he swallowed his prey. Within an hour he made six attempts, two of them successful. An hour of pure bliss as I watched and wished I had wide-angle eyes.

pond bed north

There was the odd moment when I wondered why that lawn mower hadn’t come any closer, as the path from the car park to the pond isn’t all that long. But then, it hadn’t been cut for some time – no mowing while the tiny frogs emigrate – perhaps our helper was making a very thorough job of it?

Later that morning, I selected some shrubs from the nursery to be planted alongside the drive, when I heard the noise of the mower again, coming – seemingly – from roughly the same direction, and went to investigate. Instead of mowing the path, our volunteer ( a child of the city)  had cut (or rather minced) an entire hay meadow with the lawnmower, and was about to start on the second one. I’m sure this must be some kind of record and, a possible business opportunity: premium hay for geriatric (toothless) sheep – no chewing necessary.

Osteospermum jucundum

A well-cut lawn does set off borders and beds, and every bit of grass (apart from the hay meadows minced or virginal) looks smooth and very green. A job finished just as the much longed-for (I speak for my plants rather than myself) rain set in. There are no manicured lawns at Lea Gardens, and no weed killers are used to eliminate white clover, creeping buttercup, and other undesirables from the turf. It was strange, and rather anxiety provoking, to find several large frogs the mower hat gone over completely unharmed. The place was hopping with tiny froglets, all thankfully still with four legs and a head once all the grass had been cut.

Asiatic lilies and Primula viallii

Trimming edges is a tedious job, but very little of that goes on at Lea Gardens since we started using thick, maritime ropes to stop the grass from creeping into beds and borders. It’s a pain, and a strain on one’s back to first remove and then replace them in their exact positions, but they leave a perfect mowing groove, just wide enough for a front and back wheel to fit. They do a great job and the little edging left to be done where the mower has flattened rather than cut some long grass, I take care of with a sturdy pair of kitchen scissors.

All is in bloom, the first old roses are out, the osteospermums are excelling themselves, clove-scented pinks flank the thyme steps, the lime bed is a blaze of colour, and rather than going on about the individuals or groups that catch my eye at present, I’ll just download their pictures.

garden party

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Out of the Garden

Two new toys arrived in the post the other day and rather than getting on with urgent tasks – the garden had been sadly neglected during the run-up, the event, and aftermath of my “official” birthday party – I spent a whole morning playing with them.

Rosa 'Bourbon Queen'

 Both are useful, but one is particularly so, as it saved me a lot of money. It was a toss-up between it and a helicopter.

How does one view, let alone photograph, those flowers high above the ground, the spidery Embothrium blossom nine feet up, the climbers that are making their way over the roofs or flinging their limbs through the lofty heights old larch trees? One gets into one’s helicopter. But helicopters, if used frequently, are bad for your health: they impair your hearing and shake the reflexes out of your body – I have this on good authority.

 A zoom lens brings distant subjects close, and as far as I can ascertain, its use leaves one without lasting side effects. At last I have a close-up of Rosa ‘Bourbon Queen’.

The other toy, a macro lens, is difficult to use during windy weather, so I’ll be rushing out on calm days to snap some intimate floral detail, such as the silver-dusted flowers of Primula capitata.

Priumula capitata

Just now and again its good to leave ones own plot and have a look at a few others, those created by gardeners or by Mother Nature.

It’s years since I have been to Westerwick and fragments of its charms, still lingering somewhere in the dark, intracranial recesses of my mind, have become complete once more. The natural rock gardens, where plants cling onto the bare stones of the hilltops are far better than anything I could conjure up – and need no maintenance.

The 'Ship' at Westerwick

A pair of ravens nesting there now and again swooped low over our party to remind us of our trespassers’ status.

 As you climb up to the right from the turning place you’ll enjoy majestic views over the ‘ship’: a steep, long spine of pink granite, that juts out into the sea, like the hull of a huge vessel, and behind it, a deep, still, dark-green pool.

There were more gardens on the shore, sea-smoothed and polished stone adorned with moss-green filigree seaweed – perfect in their simplicity and restraint.

seaweed garden

It’s been a year or more since I visited Magnie’s garden at Crogran, Culswick, and it looked the best I’d ever seen. Its clever layout makes it seem much larger than it is, as the narrow, beautifully mown grass paths lead the visitor through a meander of willows, past small ponds, down to the marshes with their impressive stands of Senecio smithii, the Magellan ragwort, in full, glorious bloom.

Near the house, a red Asiatic lily had found its perfect partner in a feathery stand of purple fennel, but there is one plant combination I’m particularly fond of: Geranium ibericum, interwoven with the foam of Alchemilla mollis, at the foot of Crogran’s large rockery.

Magnie's Garden

South Africa is coming into its own now: the pineapple lilies, believed lost to frost, are now above ground, there are fat buds on the gladioli, and cape daisies flower their hearts out. They look fabulous sprawling on the gravel, and wonderful when mingling intimately with their neighbours.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment