SNP - Tom Wills

Four Seasons / Four Seasons – Late Autumn

Hippeastrum charisma - all photos: Lea Gardens

Do you know that feeling when your joy at having just thought of something unique and profound is instantly replaced with a feeling of despondency and nagging doubt? I’m almost sure now that my revelation is in actuality plagiarism.

My husband and I have a strange habit of travelling almost the full length of this country in lieu of a proper holiday, clocking up a just over fifteen-hundred miles in less than a
fortnight.

Driving from Aberdeen to the south of England is like travelling through several different climate zones, arriving eventually in something comparable to the tropics. And that’s where the revelation happened: They have a climate down there, while we, up here, are having weather.

On our return the weather in Shetland, biting cold and decidedly wintry, put short shrift to my garden and nursery plans, such as harvesting all the Swiss chard before the frost gets it, lifting and potting chicory for forcing, and lifting and potting up conifers for the Christmas market.

There is a plus side to an early cold snap. Frost improves the flavour and texture of all brassicas. Curly kale, whether green, black, or red is almost inedible without a little sub-zero tenderising, and red cabbage, a trifle tough and stringy in early November, now cooks to a meltingly tender texture with a brief stewing.

...that most beautiful cabbage...

Red cabbage goes well with pork and all roast birds and it makes a good Christmas alternative to the ubiquitous sprout, but can also be cooked in advance to save valuable time on the day, and actually improves on re-heating.

Pork, goose and duck fat are ideal for that most beautiful of all cabbages, but cooking oil will do. Sautee your shredded cabbage in oil or fat for a few minutes, then add a small, peeled onion, spiked with a few cloves and a cup of red wine or water with a good dash of dark balsamic vinegar. While the cabbage simmers away gently, peel and cut a dessert apple into chunks, add to the cabbage and cook until the apple is soft. Remove the onion, season with salt and pepper and a teaspoon or more of brown sugar.

Root vegetables really come into their own now and most Shetland gardeners, who have traditionally left their carrots, beetroot and parsnips in the ground, have learned their lesson from the past two winters when prolonged spells of frost and snow have made it impossible to lift roots as required. Dig up a good supply during clement spells of weather and store it in boxes of damp peat or sand.

Celeriac is a relative newcomer to the Shetland garden, but a highly versatile one that can be braised, roasted, baked or eaten raw in salads. Combined with bacon and brown lentils it makes a great accompaniment for that festive bird. Fry some chopped, streaky bacon until all fat is rendered, add the washed lentils and while they soften to an al-dente state, peel and cube your celeriac. Add to the lentils, cook until tender, and season to taste with black pepper and balsamic vinegar.

schlumbergera truncata

Christmas wouldn’t be complete without at least one seasonal houseplant. Those below all hail from South America, are easy to grow and, given a modicum of care, are capable of outliving their owner. Hippeastrum bulbs, better, but erroneously known as amaryllis have come a long way in recent years, as some delightfully spider-blossomed species have been added to the wide range of trumpet-flowered hybrids.

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata group) thrives on neglect. My ancient starved and pot-bound specimens, kept outdoors during the summer months, still flower their hearts out every year. This cactus hails from the tropical forests of eastern Brazil where it ekes out a frugal existence in a scraping of moss or leaf mould in the forks of trees.

Euphorbia pulcherrima

Euphorbia pulcherrima, better known as Poinsettia or Christmas star, is usually chucked on the compost heap after Christmas, because instructions for re-flowering are complex and complicated. If you can’t be bothered with weekly feeds and restricted light, simply re-pot yours in rich garden compost in spring, reduce its stems by two thirds, then place it in your greenhouse at the beginning of September. Shetland’s rapid reduction in daylight hours will do the rest. Bring it back into the house once the stunning red bracts have formed. It probably won’t look quite as spectacular as a brand-new specimen, but this repeat flowering brings with it a great sense of achievement for the gardener.

We might not have a climate up here, but at least we still get seasons. While the gardeners of England are complaining about unnaturally warm and dry weather, we not only have a most natural chill up here but are bound to get a touch of Christmassy deep and crisp and even….

Rosa Steppanova (www.leagardens.co.uk)

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