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Four Seasons / Four Seasons – Early Spring

Tulipa tarda - all Photos: Lea Gardens

Have you been bending over backwards of late?  Here’s what I was told, in relation to my antique washing machine a number of years ago: “We’ve been bending over backwards to get you that part …”

I’m pretty sure that “they” hadn’t actually been bending over backwards – forwards more like – to remove the faulty part, and to reach for the receiver of their telephone.


If you’re a gardener, you should be bending over backwards – in the literal sense – from the waist, as often as possible, or at least each time you’ve been bending forward, to prevent damage to your back, or, if you have a back problem already, at least to stop it from getting worse.

Even better if you can avoid bending altogether. Fit your tools with longer handles, so you can rake and hoe in an upright position. Use a Shetland spade for digging, rather than a conventional one. Kneel or crouch when weeding or planting.

Due to the recent cold snap, the advance of spring has been slowed down, and there’s still time to plant bare-rooted trees and shrubs. I’m not fond of the term bare-rooted, because it seems to give carte blanche to a whole range of despicable practices, such as keeping them sitting in plastic bags, or in buckets of water for weeks on end. Both methods cause damage, and the latter leads to root death after a short time.

Give the victims of both methods a wide berth should you come across them, and buy trees and shrubs that are kept heeled in or kept in tubs of soil or compost instead.

It goes without saying that trees grown locally have a far higher success rate than those imported, but this is not the only reason for growing them.

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I’m not sure if these are genuine mistakes or if mainland nurseries believe their Shetland customers lack botanical knowledge, but I constantly come across wrongly-named, imported trees in Shetland horticultural outlets such as European larch, which struggles in our climate, labelled Japanese larch, which performs well.

Sudden oak death (Phytophthora ramorum) is spreading like wildfire through the UK and, contrary to its common name, is not host-specific, but has already spread to beech, larch and rhododendron. As far as I know, it hasn’t reached Shetland yet, and we can keep it that way if we stop those imports.

Gardeners are notorious for blaming themselves for plant deaths or unthrifty plants, when more often than not the trees and shrubs were doomed before they were planted. Complain if you’re not satisfied, most suppliers will give you a refund or a replacement.

In more than 30 years, I’ve never seen my garden look quite so bedraggled. The cold snap at the beginning of the month has left a trail of destruction. Pulped and blackened flowers and foliage were caused by a combination of unfortunate circumstances, according to Fair Isle weather man Dave Wheeler. Soil temperature of 8° C at 30cm below the surface (more akin to May than March) had brought everything into premature growth, then plants were soaking wet prior to being exposed to an air temperature of about -3ºC.

All this early spring glory, wiped out in just one night, and the gardener having to wait for a whole year to enjoy it again – hoping that this combination of unfortunate circumstances was a one off.

Tulips have a bit of a chequered history in Shetland gardens with many deteriorating in their second year after planting, before vanishing altogether. Thankfully there are several exceptions to this rule. Tulipa praestans and its cultivars flower in April, are soundly perennial and flower year after year if given a little feeding each spring (I use a mulch of well-rotted horse manure).

Tulipa tarda is the oldest tulip in my garden and tolerant of a wide range of soils. It’s ideal for the rockery or front of border, and delights the gardener with its healthy, glossy foliage and white-tipped yellow stars.

Tulips need reasonably good drainage,  but there is one bulb that revels in damp, even boggy locations – the incomparable snake’s head fritillary. Once established, it increases well, by bulbs and seed, and is great for naturalising in grass.

While all early rhododendron blossom was pulped by the air frost, other blossom was left completely unharmed. The dwarf form of the Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-Mai) is smothered with tiny, notched, blush-white flowers for several weeks, and is compact enough to find a space in the smallest garden.

On a larger scale, Amelanchier canadensis (snowy mespilus) enchants with pure white blossom against coppery young leaves and spectacular autumn tints.

The weather of the previous growing seasons decides the presence or abundance of blossom the following spring, and given the miserable summer we had last year, both cherry and mespilus seem sure winners in the Shetland climate.

Not sure if our early tatties, for once planted early – in mid April – are going to be winners, given the wet and cold. They’ve been given the best possible start in life, the trenches filled with seaweed and a cover of black polythene to warm up the soil a little.

Rosa Steppanova – Lea Gardens

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