Neolithic Tidyness

Thanks to concerted efforts and the excellent help from Szabi, our Hungarian Wwoofer, the garden has now reached excessive levels of tidiness: even the Thyme Steps are swept clean of debris. It’s almost too much to bear and I feel compelled to leave the odd pile of weeds, a trowel, and a pair of secateurs or a brightly-coloured rubbish bag lying around to regain some of the garden’s lived-in look that is, or rather used to be, my comfort zone.

Thyme Steps

Not that long ago the view from the garden’s east gate to the next gate, which leads onto the land of our neighbour, Jimmy Tait, used to be crowded with ‘work progress’ hacklobash, or paraphernalia as one says in the English language. Now it is tidy, bare, and very long. I love it, especially its central section where two very long and worm-eaten pieces of sea timber hold South Africa in place, provide a 5-seater bench, and a leaning-on spot for my collection of Neolithic tools.

They crop up all over the garden, which has me believe they were manufactured here – probably about 4000 years ago. Their presence gives an edge to any digging or planting. Coming upon a subterranean stone always raises my adrenalin levels, but coming upon an extensive stretch of what I call Neolithic paving can be a real pain in the neck. It impedes drainage, prevents tree and shrub roots from penetrating deeply, and has to be dug up, which is time-consuming and back-breaking.


The Peat Bed is built on such paving, raised up to improve drainage and to create additional soil depth, and it was there I came upon the first ‘turn-up for the books’ last week.

Blackbirds – about forty are residents of the garden – have a very annoying habit. They pull plant labels out of pots, before dropping them wherever they please. Last autumn I planted the bulbous contents of a label-less half-pot and, as is often the case, forgot all about it, until a patch of little ‘lilies’ appeared this spring. One of the seedlings developed a fat, round, reddish bud, which opened into – wow! – Nomocharis mairei. A first for Lea Gardens and without a hint of a doubt the highlight for 2011 – until it was trumped by the first bud on one of my dream plants.

Nomocharis mairei

Philesia magellanica is a little creeping evergreen shrub from southern South America, related to the legendary Lapageria rosea, a climber with large, waxy-textured, pink bells. I managed to raise Philesia from cuttings several times, but all the young plants thus produced failed to get a head of steam and, tried in various locations, eventually faded away.

A vigorous young specimen, purchased from Glendoick Gardens two years ago, is still in its original pot, on my ‘observation ward’ at the north side of house and now graced with a large, delectable pink bud. What bliss.

Philesia magellanica

Coincidentally, I’ve just received an email from Ken Cox of Glendoick, who has identified my mystery rhododendron as R. pachysanthum. He says – modestly – “looks like”, but if he doesn’t know, who does?

There’s been a huge influx of Red Admirals, they are everywhere, but are especially fond of Buddleja globosa – sweetly scented, and Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, an unhappy container specimen – once upon time.

Quite often, plants have languished in pots for years, because I was unsure what to do with them. Roscoeas, members of the ginger family with orchid-like flowers, are a case in point. I only have two, and Roscoea scillifolia ‘Pink Form’ is too anxiety-provoking for words. It rarely appears above ground before mid-summer, starts thinking about flowering in mid July, but only if it feels like it, while the asymmetrical cream flowers of its cousin, R. cautleyoides have been and gone.

Roscoea cautleyoides

In May a dead fish floated in the pond, with about a million tadpoles feeding on it eagerly – there wasn’t a trace left of it the next morning.

Bullying usually happens to the incomers, those that are different, but in the pond it’s the other way around. Two beautiful blue goldfish, spotted red and pink, known as the ‘blue meanies’,  have no manners whatsoever. Not only do they fail to keep a respectful distance from their fellow fish, as is standard pond etiquette, they harass and chase those hatched and grown in the pond to the point of complete exhaustion – or desperation.

In the latter case the poor victim jumps out of the water and more often than not, lands on the marginal predator net – in two or three inches of water, writhing and gasping. I’m sure that’s how the tadpole meal met its end.

When I rescued yet another near casualty I also found its tormentor and there was a split-second, as I held the little blue fish in my hand, that I felt tempted to knock it on the head and give the tadpoles a feast.

I now wish I’d popped it into a large tub of water – the ones we use for plunging plants. These little blighters greatly disturb the tranquillity of the pond. Those peaceful evening cruises are constantly interrupted by the aggressive, hectic behaviour of just two fish.

trouble at'd pond

Bullying of the herbaceous and fruticose variety goes on constantly, but is often overlooked by the gardener. I only realised when looking at last year’s photographs of the Long Border, that a fine stand of Campanula ‘Sarastro’ had been all but squeezed out by its neighbours, Geranium ‘Patricia’ and a vigorous orange Asiatic lily.

In several parts of the garden the tree canopy is closing fast which means high time to lop off a few branches here and there. How fortunate to be married to a man with a chainsaw

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Bone Structure

A garden, just like a human face, needs good bone structure. It’s the hard landscaping, the paths, steps and retaining walls that set off the plants and there has been a bit of progress in that department over the past two weeks.

A first section of edging is in place in South America – a job rather more challenging than at first envisaged. I believe the wonderful man who manufactures ready made edging out of fencing wire and split round posts is called Mr. Mulley. Three sections of his clever product, left over from the construction of the lime and acid landscapes (large raised beds), have been utilised in S.A. but proved insufficient in depth.

South-American edging

Underpinning them with securely wedged stones has done the trick but there are twists and bulges where subterranean boulders prevented the posts from being anchored deeply enough or precisely where they were needed. I’m telling myself that the results look interesting rather than shabby and unprofessional.

water steps

But the real transformation has taken place much further south. At long last the pond is nearing completion. James has taken a brief holiday and is finishing the margins, carefully cementing stones to camouflage the ugly black liner.

For the past four years surplus water just ran down a little valley, covered in the above mentioned butyl liner, and I was expecting nothing more than a cover of suitable rocks and stones…

My husband, being a perfectionist, had other ideas, and the water now cascades down a stone staircase, creating wonderful curtains of water and even more wonderful sounds.

Torrential downpours in June are highly undesirable, as they can flatten a glorious border in a few short hours, but the one we had last Monday, was eagerly anticipated. Within a couple of hours it had raised the pond level sufficiently to create stunning cascades of water.

fishy mowing edge

It rained all night and what was highly enjoyable for humans turned out to be life-threatening for the tadpoles, as the pond burst its southern bank. Who would’ve thought that an overabundance of their element could become their undoing?

I have no idea how many had already been washed into the drains and ultimately the sea, when I found thousands of them in tiny puddles and in the matted wet grass below the pond. At first I scooped them up in my hands and threw them back into the water, then used a large glass jar to speed up the process. The more I scooped, the more appeared and in the end I decided more drastic measures were called for.

A series of small temporary “ponds”, hastily dug, now hold them for the time being. Quite a few probably perished during the chaotic construction phase but, what joy, the vast majority of those returned to the calmest part of the pond seem no worse for their ordeal. They instantly fell upon the few mangled corpses I had returned with the living on the “waste not want not principle” – the first time I  have witnessed tadpole cannibalism.

heading for the pond

The place is hopping with minute, newly hatched froglets, some still in the process of absorbing their now superfluous tails. They were dwarfed by a little golden frog – one of last year’s crop – who, disturbed by the building work, hastily negotiated its way up the steps to the shore, than swam to the nearest nymphia to rest on a lily leaf after its exhausting journey.

Water lilies. I bought two, a white and a yellow one – my pond was going to have an air of elegant sophistication.  They flowered in their second year – one pale pink, one dark pink – a little elegance but no sophistication. So I decided to take pot-luck with three “mixed colour” plants from a supermarket chain. Two died instantly, and the third presented me with its first – pink – bloom last year. I am doomed to have a Barbara Cartland pond.


Rhododendron pink is on the wane, apart from Azalea ‘Wombat’ mentioned last week, and there is more pink from other genera, like Rosa rugosa ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’, a strongly-scented single rose, and a broad, low shrub that is capable of standing up to all weathers.

Azalea 'Wombat'

Another good single, red this time, scent-less alas, is the magnificent Chinese species R. moyesii. It is a tall, vigorous rose that would work well trained against a wall as a climber.

Rosa moyesii

The irises are coming into their own just now and I wish I’d kept better records, as the oldest have long since lost their labels.  Iris sibirica and Iris setosa are unmistakable, and the dwarf form of the latter is one of the most charming June plants for the rockery or front of border


Iris sibirica ‘ Silver Lining’ flowers profusely one year, than only produces a few blooms the next, but its size and splendour make up for the lack of numbers. Mine is planted, rather fetchingly, above and behind grey-leaved Salix helvetica.

It’s high time for a Victor update. Since the beginning of June he’s been going to Lämmergarten five days a week. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for him at first. He was bullied mercilessly by some of the bigger ram lambs, but soon made friends with some of girls and now enjoys his twice daily playtime with an appropriate genus. (There’s some severe bullying going on other parts of the garden – more on that next week)

I forgot to explain the term catmogit– it means his belly is a different colour from his back.


He’s a highly intelligent, sturdy little sheep and has rather refined tastes, he is in fact turning into a bit of an ovine gourmet: now weaned of his passion for terrestrial orchids, he’s dining on porridge oats, courgettes, lettuce and carrots most evenings.

Baabin is rather jealous of him and has taken to stealing his place in front of the Rayburn whenever she gets an opportunity, which leaves poor Victor homeless. We’ve now solved the problem by moving Baabin’s basket next to Victor’s little hearth rug, so the wolf can lie with the lamb.

Few things in life are more exciting than the first flowering of a rare and precious plant, and two found in the same week are cause for celebration. Break open the bubbly James.

the wolf lies down with the lamb

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Moments of Glory

I have spent quite a lot of time in South America of late. South America – ironically – lies on the northern fringes of the garden but, being sheltered from all directions, it is a suntrap and even on a cold, blustery day (these have been known to happen in June), it is a pleasure to potter about there.

South America started life as “The Rook Palace”, a large circle of land, fenced with windbreak netting, featuring a dead tree and a variety of avian toys in its centre, all draped in yards of sinfully expensive fruit cage netting, to keep its residents, two rook fledglings, safe from predators.

Bacon and Rasher

Two years ago it became home to the “Schweinchen”, Rasher and Bacon, two adorable, ginger sows who, luckily, did not live up to their names. Instead, because of their enormous size and impressive fatty layers (approximate body mass index 59.7) now lead happy lives, giving birth to litters of piglets in the south of Shetland.

Then, four years ago James and I spent a weekend in Bergen, or to be more precise, at the charming “lace house” right in the middle of Milde Arboretum.

Per Harald Salvesen, the arboretum’s curator, asked what plants I was particularly interested in, and when I said South American, he took me to their S.A. collection  and as soon as I – feeling exceedingly greedy – muttered words such as Chusquea culeou, Nothofagus betuloides, or Embothrium coccineum, the plants in question were dug up and root-balled – ready for their journey to Shetland.

Rosa xanthina

This collection of trees and shrubs spent almost four years in limbo – heeled in or cramped into large pots – until this May. Freed from their tight corsets, they’ve put on an enormous amount of growth already.

They needed wide spacing, which meant a lot of bare ground in between, and what better, and more appropriate, than to fill the gaps with potatoes? Solanum tuberosum ‘Duke of York’ is ready to be earthed up, while the incomparable, late and highly blight-susceptible S. tuberosum ‘Pink Fir Apple’ is just beginning to fill out.

A stone’s throw south of South America two of my favourite shrubs are in flower. Rosa xanthina from Korea has foliage similar to that of the Scots briar and is laden with large, single, pale yellow blooms. Their perfume carries on the air.

Syringa x josiflexa 'Bellicent'

Its near neighbour, Syringa x josiflexa ‘Bellicent’ is classed as a “medium” shrub in Hillier’s Manual, but is about to reach tree size. Its arching branches hold large sprays of clear pink flowers with a strong lilac scent.

Once upon a time I used to have a wonderful lupin border, all Russel hybrids, but they eventually dwindled away, and their replacements were short-lived. Now I only grow the Alaskan lupin, Lupinus nootkatensis, with downy grey-green foliage, and slim blue and mauve inflorescences followed by mouse-fur seedpods.

Lupinus nootkatense

With all this floral colour, the garden’s superb foliage plants are often overlooked. Hostas have featured prominently for years and Hosta fortunei ‘Albopicta’ remains a firm favourite.

Hosta fortunei 'Albopicta'

June is such a forgiving month. My little Sunk Garden has been earmarked for a taking-apart and re-planting for goodness knows how long, but just now it has its moment of glory and the planned make-over doesn’t seem urgent at all.

The weather still leaves much to be desired, but there are moments, such as when the setting sun illuminates the shady kitchen garden, when days of rain and wind don’t seem to matter.

evening light in the 'Kitchen Border'

In the peat bed, as the primulas and dodecatheons are going over, the evergreen azaleas are coming into their own. Most belong to the Glendoick small mammal series with pink ‘Wombat’ stealing the show just now.

candelabra primulas

The candelabra primulas at the eastern margin of the pond are like a magnet to Lea Gardens visitors and completely eclipse my rare treasures opposite. It’s been ages since notholirions have been in flower here. Tall, glaucous stems are set at regular intervals with ravishingly beautiful wide purple bells.

I’m not certain which species I have, probably N. campanulatum, but I know that the plant is monocarpic. It dies after flowering and germinating, and bringing seedlings to a state of flowering takes about five years – well worth the wait.

Notholirion species

There’s nothing photogenic about South America as yet, but it has one essential feature: a bench to rest on and to enjoy the view, which could be almost majestic, if weren’t for all the trees that spoil it (help! I’m going native).

South America still looks a shambles with heaps of black-mulch polythene here and there, an assortment of plunging tubs, piles of stones destined to become path edgings, but for once I’ve remembered to take a “before”, or rather an almost before photograph.

South-American shambles

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Sailing into Summer

hosta sport

Even by Shetland standards, the weather in the last two weeks of May has been nothing short of atrocious. The garden’s been thrashed by gales from all sides, but thanks to the extensive shelter it now affords, only the trees on the frontline have suffered any serious damage. A few plants in the eastern extension will need staking, but all looks surprisingly good despite the weather.

The paths were littered with this year’s twigs and leaves, but it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good; much of the old foliage of evergreens, usually shed over a period of weeks, has come down in one fell swoop, ready to be swept up.

Sadly the storm has also dislodged a few Meconopsis petals, but M. betonicifolia ‘Gote Svanholm’, a cultivar new to me, is sailing through it all in enchanting sky blue.

Meconopsis 'Gote Svanholm'

At present the paths, strewn with the confetti of cream rowan petals, look festive.

The heavy downpours of the past weeks have filled the pond to the brim, putting short shrift to my plans for its margin which involves working with cement.

Every bed and border is squelching underfoot, necessitating a return to the gumboot, footwear usually put into summer storage by now.

Trollius, a genus known as butterballs in Shetland, is most appreciated in its deep orange forms, but my favourite, difficult to establish in ordinary garden soil, is Trollius ‘Alabaster’, which revels in the damp beds around the pond.

Trollius 'Alabaster'

Terrestrial orchids, northern marsh and heath spotted, plentiful one year in the wild flower meadow, and inexplicably rare in another, have become my favourite weed. They seed themselves everywhere and, free from competing turf, grow into giants, reaching a foot or more in height and adding a touch of glamour to the most mundane plantings.

my favourite weed

June brings aquilegias, irises, geraniums and herbaceous peonies. I’ve never been successful with all those delectable cultivars of Paeonia chinensis, but have a small selection of species which are doing well. Paeonia veitchii and its compact pink form P. v. woodwardii have been in the garden for several decades and are going from strength to strength, as does P. officinalis, which is more often than not encountered in its double form P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’, arguably the most sumptuous plant on the June planet.

Paeonia officinalis

I have a very soft spot for this ancient plant and its heavy, double flowers, filled to the brim with crowded petals. During wet weather the sturdy stems tend to bend under weight of the blooms and need a little discreet support.

Paeonia officinalis 'Rubra Plena'

I’ve already mentioned tree peonies last week, and there is one I can highly recommend for the smaller garden. Paeonia potaninii rarely grows taller than a metre, branches from the base and enchants with deep red single flowers. There are also white, yellow and orange forms.

Nothing can beat the appearance of something completely new. Hosta fortunei, faithful retainer in the South Border for more than two decades, has decided to present me with a sport – a yellow leaf with a little green in the margin. New hosta cultivars are two a penny, but as this is a first for Lea Gardens I shall label it and separate it from its parent this autumn.

Three days of dry and sunny weather have made up for all that went before. The first tiny froglets have emerged from the pond. All the trees are in full leaf, and suddenly all is lushness and delight.


Have I mentioned that Victor is very advanced for his age? He managed to ascend as well as descend all manner of stairs at the tender age of just 5 days. His father Bruno, a caddy last year, could get up stairs, but needed help to get down until he was three weeks old.

Victor is turning out to be a gourmet sheep. At present he is specialising in decapitating anything that flowers – my garden has become his salad bowl. Last Saturday James bought him a handsome black collar so he can be tethered, which he doesn’t like – yet. He still revels in the comfort of the house, and some days there are some three species gatherings on the sofa late at night.

three species sofa

Our first Wwoof volunteer ( I have learned not to call them woofters) has arrived, and it never ceases to amaze me what a difference an extra pair of hands can make.


The garden looks decidedly smart, with all the grass cropped short, beds and borders weeded, and all the vegetables planted and sown at long last.

More often than not it’s the garden’s stalwarts – its unsung heroes – that become beacons and landmarks. Every morning, as I venture out, trowel and secateurs in hand, I am greeted from afar by the white foam of Saxifraga trifuricata, flowering its heart out in nothing but hardcore and gravel on the garden’s eastern boundary.

Saxifraga trifuricata

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Pink – mostly

According to a fellow Shetland grower of perennial plants, red is the colour of choice for island gardeners, closely followed by orange and pink. Blue is sought after by some, and white sells reasonably well, especially if the plant bearing it is short and bushy, while yellow tends to sit on the shelf.

Do you know its name?

When I first felt a desire to grow rhododendrons, the old hardy hybrids were recommended as the only option for 60° North. At the time I didn’t realise that the term hardy is all but irrelevant in the context of maritime gardening. My hardy hybrids were capable of sailing through the winters of Vladivostok, but ill equipped to survive an average equinoctial gale in Shetland. The only survivor is Rhododendron ‘Unique’, planted away from sea breezes on the sheltered eastern front.

Rhodoedendron 'Hydon Dawn'

 Twenty years later I was growing rhododendrons in an exposed field for my plant nursery. All, without exception, were yakushimanum hybrids, and all, without fail, sailed through the Shetland winters.

Their, in some cases distant, ancestor R. yakushimanum hails from a windswept Japanese island and is an exceptionally handsome shrub. The undersides of the dark green leathery leaves are covered in a thick fawn indumentum. The dense trusses of clear-pink flowers open from raspberry red buds and gradually fade to white as they age.

''Ken Janek' turning white

R. ‘Ken Janek’ was one of the first crosses and, apart from its larger size, is virtually identical to the species.

There must be hundreds of yak hybrids around to day, with many containing no more than a drop of the original blood. For exposed gardens it is advisable to avoid those with thin foliage, devoid of indumentum.

Yak hybrids tend to be pink; as soon as they come out, parts of the garden tend to look a bit like a Barbara Cartland style boudoir and it comes as a relief when they begin to fade to bridal white. R. ‘Hydon Dawn’ was my first yak love and remains a firm favourite to this day.

There are a few notable exceptions. ‘Golden Torch’ and ‘Nancy Evans’ open a pale, luminous yellow from peach or apricot tinted buds, ‘Dopey’, from the Seven Dwarfs series, is a good cherry red, while ‘Sleepy’ is washed with lavender.

The garden’s yak glory doesn’t end as the trusses shed their cups. A week or so later another great spectacle takes place as the cream or silver felted foliage unfurls. But this is surpassed by an un-named rhododendron where the contrast between new and old leaves is a good deal more exciting than its beautiful white flowers. If you recognise the plant from the photograph, I’d love to know its name.

Another long-term survivor is a so-called woodland hybrid, Rhododendron ‘Winsome’, with loose trusses of bell-shaped flowers in a warm, deep pink.

Rhododendron 'Winsome'

There’s always an abundance of white and blue as May gives way to June, but reds and oranges are somewhat thin on the ground. There’s the orange version of the Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica; the single form being far superior to the blowsy doubles, and the little tawny pea flowers of Lathyrus aureus.

The large, beefy candelabra primulas around the pond are only just beginning to elongate their scapes, but their minute cousin, Primula cockburniana, already glows pure scarlet in the peat bed. It is a charming plant, its buds covered in silver farina, but it is short-lived and must be renewed from seed every two or three years.

Primula cockburniana

Tree peonies are easily raised from seed, and I have a particularly fine form of the dragon’s blood red Paeonia delavayi. It is a glorious sight just now.

I feel just a trifle sorry for all those Shetland gardeners who can’t abide yellow, for they deprive themselves of many treasures.

Paeonia lutea is arguably one of the best foliage plants we can grow in a temperate climate. The clear yellow, waxy textured flowers are charming but fleeting.

Paeonia lutea behind 'the seat of tranquility'

Paeonia delavayi

The maize yellow blossom of the deciduous Rhododendron luteum is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose, as the spidery flowers waft a strong perfume, reminiscent of Oriental lilies.

The Spanish gorse, Genista hispanica, is a perfect shrub for Shetland. Fiercely spiky, it grows into a low dome, much wider than high, and is smothered in clear yellow for weeks on end – a patch of sunshine on the drichtest day.

Genista hispanica

Victor, now two weeks old, is growing into a sturdy little sheep with no less than three mothers, James and myself taking care of feeding, education and socialisation, while Baabin, our border collie, is in charge of the nappy side of things. Victor is particularly fond of Mr. Gentleman, our black and white tom, and follows him everywhere. Incidentally, Victor is “catmogit” – more on that subject next week.

Victor and Mr. Gentleman


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Slugs, Scents, and Soakings

Pimus contorta in flower

The weather seems to be a month behind. We’re now in April. Cold. Wet. Windy. Now and again the clouds break and a bit of watery sunshine filters through. Moluscs have taken over the garden. A batch of brassica seedlings potted up last week has been stripped to skeletons. Weather for slugs.

Meconopsis 'Lingholm'

Several jobs, half-done, sit abandoned, waiting for more clement weather – if it ever comes. I’ve known too many Shetland summers where one Atlantic front simply replaces another, then another and another.

The garden progresses regardless of the constant soakings it receives. All the blue poppies are out and the members of “fertile blue group 2” look particularly stunning after the rain. Meconopsis ’Lingholm’ is the most stately with peacock blue lampshades opening from violet-stained buds. The short stature of M. ‘Willie Duncan’ makes it an ideal candidate for windy gardens; its enormous flowers look like blue satellite dishes.

Meconopsis 'Willie Duncan'

Lodgepole pines, Pinus contorta, feature large in the shelterbelts and and are laden with tawny male flowers, the red females just starting to expand on the tips of the new growth.

When the wind drops, the whole garden is still filled with the scent of balsam poplars. The bitter-sweet perfume carries on the air and whenever visitors ask about its origin they are disappointed when I lead them to a mundane tree rather than some spectacular flower.

Near the steps that lead from the front door to the Temple Terrace, there’s a more intimate scent, one that sends me straight back to my childhood, when my sister and I used to pick large bunches of lily-of-the-valley in the forests of northern Bavaria.

Convallaria majalis is gradually taking charge of the raised beds alongside the steps. Now and again, if there’s a good crop, I pick a sprig or two to keep in a small vase on my bedside table, but more often than not, I just sit on the steps, bend closely into the flowers and inhale deeply.

Another favourite scent for May is that of Narcissus poeticus, the pheasant’s eye, the last of the tribe to flower and a bulb that revels in damp, cool conditions.

Enkianthus campanulatus has no scent, but its little striped bells are reminiscent of   Convallaria majalis. The cultivar ‘Red Bells’ is particularly showy and there is also a charming white form, E. campanulatus ‘Albiflorus’, but I’m never sure if this is a garden cultivar or a natural variation.

This ericaceous Japanese shrub needs warm summers to ripen its wood for flowering the following spring, and the Shetland climate doesn’t always oblige. It is best planted in full sun, and even if the flowers are sparse some years, there’s always the compensation of spectacular autumn colour.

It is relatively slow growing and makes a perfect subject for a large pot. I’m not sure whether it is the root restriction or the extra warmth provided by the container, but there is freedom of flowering, regardless.

Enkianthus campanulatus 'Red Bells'

Coming across a mystery plant is always exciting. According to my – somewhat shambolic – records, Dicentra macrantha came from Beth Chatto five years ago and vanished without trace the following winter.

It’s a miracle how it survived a complete dismantling and replanting of its bed last year, but here it is, complete with two large dangling flowers. Thrilling

Last Sunday the most extraordinary thing happened. A tiny lamb kept calling for its mother. A ewe eventually answered and came towards it, but each time the lamb approached her she butted it and knocked it to the ground

James went to investigate and found the lamb had only just been born. It was still covered in blood and membrane, and despite extensive searching no mother could be found.

“Oh no, not another caddie lamb” (we reared one last year), was my initial reaction, followed by a firm resolution to advertise him on Radio Shetland’s lamb bank.

Two hours later, rubbed down and settled with a belly-full of milk in front of the Rayburn, I was wondering what to call the little woolly creature with dark legs, smoky eye make-up and a black chevron on the crown of its head, when our friend Victor walked through the door. He doesn’t mind having a sheep named after him.

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What’s the rush?

the first blue poppy

What a crazy spring this is turning out to be. I’ve never known a season quite like it. Plants that usually flower in early June, but have never, ever before opened a bud before the end of May are shedding their sepals. The first blue poppies are in flower, ferns are unfurling their new fronds, and Matteucia struthiopteris looks particularly good just now, filling the Round Garden with tender green. All is green – a thousand different shades of green.

shuttlecock ferns

Not only the flora is in a hurry, the fauna is joining in as well. Our first blackbird fledgling was on the wing during the last day of April, accompanied by its anxious mother. The pond fish, rarely fully active until well into May, already find the water warm enough for extensive evening cruising. The goldfish tally has risen to twenty-three and there have been quite a few feeding frenzies, whenever I find the time and don’t feel too cold on the “eastern front” to throw in a handful of pellets before I head for the house and my late evening meal.

Apart from the upright white ‘Mount Everest’, which always puts on a show in May, often repeated in September, shrubby potentillas never start flowering before July. All have put on several inches of new growth already and are beginning to open their first buds.

berberis and euphorbia

Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean fire bush, glows vermilion high up in its branches, a colour echoed in the Entrance Bed, where Berberis thunbergii artropurpurea forms the backdrop to a particularly good form of Euphorbia griffithii,  darker leaved and more compact than ‘Fireglow’ or ‘Dixter’.

On The Ship, a long pile of sand, held in place by maritime rope and adorned with masts and sails, Rhodiola rosea, the native rose root is the star of the season, enhanced by a supporting cast of Tulipa batalinii ‘Bright Gem’.

Star of The Ship

The earliest yak hybrid rhododendrons are going over and that lovely species, Rhododendron oreotrephes is the epitome of spring freshness just now, its pale lilac trusses accompanied by new blue-green foliage.

Rhododendron oreotrephes

Weigela middendorfiana is excelling itself this year. Sometimes flowering can be a little sparse, but this May every branch is wreathed in large cream foxglove flowers, beautifully marked with red inside.

Weigela middendorfiana

My accumulated winter fat – caused by too many winter evenings spent on the sofa, watching movies, eating chocolates and drinking red wine – has melted as rapidly as the last snow and I had to buy a belt to stop my trousers from heading south.

The new part of the garden is now beginning to come into its own and I love to spend a few minutes standing by the gate of an evening, drinking it all in. Both the lime and acidic landscapes are filled with colour.

The decision to concentrate on the garden this year and to leave the nursery to its own devices was the right one. Springs, as far back as I can remember, were always one big rush and extremely stressful. Everywhere plants were crying out to be propagated, potted up, and shortly after, when they had outgrown their pots, begged to be potted on – all to “keep the customers satisfied”.

lime bed may 2011

coming into its own

 Potting on continues all the same. My “ladies-in-waiting”, large gatherings of containerised plants neglected for years, are getting a make-over. Quite a few have been smothered by self-sown seedlings of Jacob’s ladder or Geranium macrorrhizum, which meant pulling a few corpses as well as long-forgotten treasures from the undergrowth.

Re-potted in a mixture of loam, well-rotted horse manure and top-dressed with coarse grit, they look very smart indeed, but I’m fast running out of handsome pots.

No garden is complete without some spring-flowering clematis. C. macropetala is smothering the porch, while C. macropetala ‘Markham’s Pink’ is taking charge of a north-facing byre roof.  C. alpina  ‘Francis Rivis’ is a particularly beautiful form with long, blue tepals.

Clematis alpina 'Francis Rivis'

There’s been an influx of red admiral butterflies, also earlier than usual. Yet there’s one species at Lea Gardens which is bucking the trend. Our ewes were expected to start lambing at the beginning of the month, and concern had been raised regarding Bruno being up to the job, based on his unusually high voice for a ram. He came to us as a caddy (orphan) lamb a year ago, and had his first season with the ladies six months later.

Yesterday evening, at long last, the first bleating of not one, but two lambs, black twins, one with white ears. Somehow, since Bruno has become a father, his voice sounds just a tad deeper.

Bruno one year ago




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The wild primrose, Primula vulgaris, is known as Mayflooer in Shetland. While many primroses in my garden start their season in March or earlier, the majority are at their best in late April and early May.

When I started out in gardening I soon amassed a large collection, named singles and doubles, amongst them cultivars no longer in this world, as well as the full range of the delectable Barnhaven primroses and polyanthus… Google Roy Genders’ Primrose Catalogue for a glimpse of what there used to be: ‘Prince Silverwings’, ‘Chocolate Soldier’, ‘Blue Horizon’, ‘The Pilgrim’, ‘Sunset Glow; there were even named cultivars of Primula denticulata with names such as ‘Bengal Rose’ – vanished in the mists of time.

Primula 'Wanda'

All but a very few of my first collection succumbed to the Shetland winters. What is moist, water-retentive soil (recommended for the tribe) elsewhere, is bog in Shetland. My acid, and then unimproved, peaty soil became waterlogged and my treasures dwindled away. Then came the dreaded vine and other weevils to polish off what winter had spared.

Primroses prefer neutral or alkaline ground, and peat ash, applied liberally in early spring, makes a perfect soil sweetener.

The season starts with the pale lavender Primula juliae  It is stoloniferous and increases rapidly. The well-known purple P. ‘Wanda’ is hot on its heels and the next to come into bloom is the charming, pale yellow miniature polyanthus ‘Lady Greer’. This has a long flowering period, as its stems elongate and the petals take on a pinkish tinge.

All three are vigorous growers and from a few little well-rooted pieces, carpets of colour can be achieved in just a year or two.

‘Kinlough Beauty’ mentioned last week, falls into the same category.

‘White Wanda’ is as delightful as its purple cousin, but for some reason, tends to dwindle with me. In a garden, west from here, it grows lustily in a gravel path, a hint perhaps that it needs sharper drainage.

Primula 'Wanda Tomato Red'

Primula ‘Wanda Tomato Red’ took a couple of years to adjust to the climate, but has started to perform well in a raised bed, top-dressed with coarse sand.

Florence Bellis bred the Cowichan polyanthus at the turn of the last century and Barnhaven Primroses grows a delectable range of them. The large yellow eye has been reduced to a tiny central star, making them solid pools of one colour. Their strain ‘Venetian Reds’ is the most successful and vigorous and has of late been taken over by the big boys of horticulture, which I find rather distasteful.

Barnhaven Cowichan Polyanthus

Years of breeding and selecting, somebody’s life’s work, snapped up like that and now marketed as “Venetian Red” As you can see, I’m refusing to honour it with the single quotation marks for a cultivar.

The beauty of the Barnhaven strain lies in its slight variations of colours and flower size, with some blooms showing more orange in their chromatic make-up than others.

Double primroses are quite irresistible, and Barnhaven offers seed of such plants – for gamblers only. Sometimes a packet will yield a dozen or more of the desired plants, sometimes all will be single.

My latest attempt produced a crop of stunning, vigorous but compact reds – all single, a delightful blue single, a cream one attempting to be a double, and a rather unusual orange seedling with small flowers and a rather interesting petal arrangement.

Barnhaven “mystery packets” are hard to resist, cost little and always yield a surprise or two. They consist of seed spilled during packing – the barn sweepings as it were.

Doubles, more so than singles, need regular dividing and replanting in new soil to keep them in good heart. Cell culture has saved the lives of many old named ones, but the plants are never quite as vigorous as those grown by division.

Primula 'Ken Dearman'

Here are a few favourites: ‘Dawn Ansell’ is a double white Jack-in-the-Green, where the flowers nestle in a ruff of tiny green leaves. ‘Miss Indigo’ and ‘Eugenie’ are superb blues. All three thrive in a well-drained, shady spot. Good old Primula lilacina plena, also known as quaker’s bonnet, increases rapidly with me and don’t mind its floppy stems. The petals of mauve ‘Marie Cruise’ are edged with a fine line of silver, while ‘Val Horncastle’ is a delightful primrose yellow. .

‘Captain Blood’ is a dark crimson and ‘Ken Dearman’ a highly floriferous mottled orange.

All primroses, like their single ancestors who grow in meadows, don’t mind being overlaid by other plants later in the season, as long as the gardener doesn’t forget about them. Rare and precious ones should be divided and replanted in a new location at least every two years. August or September is the recommended time, but I prefer to tackle mine as soon after flowering as possible. This gives them a good head start for the following season and guarantees a repeat performance in the autumn.

They also make very successful pot plants, but are far better grown in loam-based rather than peat or coir compost which can dry out rapidly during the summer and soon lose their nutrients.

At Lea Gardens we compost stripped turf, stacked green-on-green, brown-on-brown, and covered in black polythene to stop weeds seeding into it. After two years it is transformed into the best potting medium I know. For primroses I add a bit of lime or peat ash, and a handful of old, well-rotted horse manure.  

Primula 'Garryarde Guinevere'


Now and again, a deviant can be found amongst a patch of wild Primula vulgaris. The late Peggy Ramsay dug up a pink-flowered seedling not far from her home in Cunningsburgh and presented me with a division. It has the vigour of its wild ancestors and its colour is a rather indeterminate, chalky pink close-up. Viewed from a distance it shines and glows and reminds me of my much missed gardening friend each May.

Some of my original collection has now been restored, and the first to be replaced was  dark-leaved ‘Garryarde Guinevere’.

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Marriages made in Heaven

There’s one talent every good gardener should have, and that’s in the department of match-making. It always gives me a thrill when two plants  tie the knot, with a little help from the gardener, and their marriage turns out to be a blissfully happy one.

Countless books have been written on the subject of plant combinations, and that’s where I envy the southern gardener, for few, if any, work well in the Shetland context. While one plant thrives in the conditions provided, its partner will barely hang on to life.

Moving the pair to a new location sometimes does the trick, but more often than not, their

fortunes reverse: the vigorous one dwindles away, while the weakling gains strength.

Some couples get on great, and grow away happily, but year in year out they miss their wedding day, with the bride just bursting into blossom when the groom has shed his final petal.

Colour, how to use and combine it, is a very personal choice, and tends to reflect the gardener’s personality. Some gardens are filled exclusively with soft pastels, while others use hot colours and sometimes strongly contrasting compositions. To my mind, the best gardens contain elements of both.

Ribes 'White Icicle and "black" hellebore

Here are a few successful ones from my own plot. Pulmonarias feature prominently in April, but over the years, probably due to neglecting the recommended splitting and replanting, named cultivars have given way to self-sown seedlings, as good or in some instances better than their parents and showing great vigour and staying power.

I love interplanting them with the paler lavender and lilac forms of Primula denticulata, probably causing Gertrude Jekyll, mother of the herbaceous border, to turn in her grave, as she couldn’t abide seeing “true blues” in close juxtaposition with “non-true blues” she may well have approved of planting blue Pulmonarias in front of Dicentra eximia ‘Alba’

Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle’ has lately taken up with a stunning “black” hellebore. The dark disks of the Lenten rose beneath the dangling cream panicles of the flowering currant being a definite case of mutual enhancement.

Patience has never been my strong point, and just now and again, there has to be a shotgun wedding in the garden. This, more often than not, is triggered by “blind” bulb planting in the autumn.

pr. kinl. b.

engaged to.....

The deep cerise goblets of Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ are pure delight when the sun opens them and reveals their dark anthers and inky black basal stains. A stones throw from it Primula ‘Kinlough Beauty’ has formed a dense green bolster, sprinkled with clear pink. The two of them are crying out to lie in each others arm. I arranged an engagement on the spot, and make sure they tie the knot as soon as we get our first good downpour.

T. little b. married

That’s where Shetland’s cool, damp springs come up trumps. Bulbs in full flower can be lifted and shifted with impunity and are none the worse for their experience.

Last spring, one of the best combinations on the Peat Bed was a nameless, upright, small-leaved rhododendron with large, pale amethyst blue flowers and a supporting cast of dark-flowered dwarf dicentra (also nameless).

One year on, the dicentra is a green widow. The rhododendron is all-green; not a single one of those fluttering pale blooms in sight, – in all likelihood due to 2010’s cold, wet summer. I trust this is only a trial separation and the relationship will be full on again a year from now.

Not far from this pair, Salix helvetica and Primula sino-purpurea have been in a happy relationship for several seasons, but the willow also has a bit on the side. It greatly enhances a patch of dark magenta Erica carnea with its pale grey foliage.

Primula sino-purpurea and Salix helvetica

Phyto-geographic plantings are a challenge in this climate, and my patch of South-Africa used to look bare well into June, as all its inhabitants, kniphofias, watsonias, crocosmias, agapanthus and nerines, are late risers, and even later performers. What good is geographical purity if it presents the gardener with a desert for months on end?

The well-drained raised bed now sports a host of spring bulbs, especially small tulips, Their contribution is fleeting, but  purple heucheras are going to look stunning amongst carpets of Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’, once the latter has made a bit more headway with its bottle-brushes of dark, red-tipped foliage and lime-green inflorescences.

Some plants are perfect solo performers, and Podophyllum hexandrum is one of them. Its cup-shaped warm pink flowers sit on top of dark mottled fleshy leaves. Last year I tried it with the pale lavender Jeffersonia dubia, but the combination proved too sugary for my liking.

Podophyllum hexandrum

Perhaps something airy, foamy and white might do the trick? And what could be more appropriate for a spring wedding?

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Absence makes the weeds grow faster

Absence not only makes the weeds grow faster, as the late Christopher Lloyd stated in one of his splendid Guardian columns, but it also brings on everything else in leaps and bounds.

The innocent green doilies of hairy bittercress I’d left to be dealt with later before I set off for Germany, greeted me with a foam of white flowers and black seed pods ready to pop, and for the first time, since striding out on the path to organic gardening, I felt tempted to search for the bag of “Ronstar”, a pre-emerging weed killer, to prevent their take take-over bid for my entire garden.

Two days of concentrated hand-weeding have all but eradicated them, saving a few fat rosettes to feature in a wild salad of young sorrel and dandelion leaves.

As I drove off the ferry last week, Lerwick was damp and grey, but as soon as I reached the summit of Weisdale Hill, the sun burst through the sky and Tresta lay sparkling and bathed in morning light.

kitch. b. april 11

A green oasis

Two weeks have transformed the garden from a winter-grey desert to a green oasis. Beech and ash are still in tight bud, while rowan, whitebeam, birch, alder and willow are wreathed in tender spring green.

In the coarse grass beneath some willows, one of Lea Gardens’ strangest spring flowers can be found; they belong to Lathraea clandestina, the parasitic purple toothwort.

L. cland

purple toothwort

The unfolding leaves of Populus trichocarpa waft their bitter-sweet scent and two cherries are in flower, Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-No-Mai’ and P. subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, a cultivar that puts on a repeat performance after the summer. The tree is still in its infancy and smothered in blossom for the first time.

White, cream, pale yellow and blue dominate the woodland areas. Scilla bithynica, the Turkish squill rarely features in the bulb catalogues, and my first plants started life under a magnolia at Great Dixter, a gift from a much-missed friend. It seeds freely – much like the dreadful Spanish bluebell – and ribbons of wedgewood blue meander through the White Garden, growing through carpets of Omphalodes verna and Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’. Single bulbs of the white snakeshead fritillaries have grown into dense clumps, and a tall, sturdy pale yellow tulip, its name lost in the mists of time, triumphs over the spring gales.

Frit. mel. and S. bithynica

White snakesheads and Turkish squill

I needn’t have worried about missing the flowering of the American trout lilies, all are glorious now. .The reflexed flowers of Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’ are cream rather than white, it does not set seed, and all my attempts at splitting and spreading it have failed, as its white fang roots have descended to depths beyond my spade’s reach.

E.c. White B

Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty'

Erythronium revolutum, holds sway underneath a stand of lodgepole pines and has seeded itself into a gravel path, where it thrives and flowers. Here and there, amongst the typical small cyclamen-pink flowers rise sturdier stems holding flowers of a lighter pink and I believe them to be hybrids between E. revolutum and E. californicum, its close neighbour.

Erythronium revolutum ‘Johnsonii Group’, already eulogised earlier this month, is in a league of its own with broad, dramatically banded foliage and flowers of a clear pink from the blue end of the spectrum, held on tall, dark stems.

Erythronium hybrid

Erythronium hybrid

An ancient specimen of Ribes sanguineum, pruned to within an inch of its life in order to save its life three years ago, has made a full recovery and is in glorious bloom.

R. sang. E VII

Ribes sanguineum 'Edward VII'

The plantings around the pond are always the last to rise from their winter sleep, and there is no greater spectacle than the annual rising of Gunnera tinctoria: like a snake sloughing off its old skin, the crumpled, puckered pleated leaves and the lead-red flower cones break through the papery remains of last year’s foliage.

Its leaves and the prickly stems are bend over the frost-tender resting crowns in autumn to keep them from harm.

G. tinct.

Gunnera tinctoria

The pond margins are in constant motion – a writhing mass of black tadpoles creates delicate patterns of tiny air bubbles as they feed on the blanket weed.

In the evenings, three golden orfe cruise leisurely, followed by a little band of goldfish. At the end of last summer I counted over thirty. So far I’ve spotted eighteen, some leaping clear off the water in pursuit of insects, flashing their silver flanks.   

There’s nothing like a long, hot soak after a day’s strenuous gardening, and the view from the bathtub is particularly good at this time of year. My little rhododendron valley is getting into its stride, and the clear apricot bells of the incomparable Rhododendron ‘Alison Johnstone’ glow in the fading light.

a johnstone

Rhododendron 'Alison Johnstone'

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