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Cornucopia - Spring in our garden

Spring in our garden
Keith Thompson

I thought I would put down my thoughts on our garden as it travels slowly through the winter and spring of the year to paint a picture of all the flowers, trees and shrubs that play their part. The only way we can survive the winter is for us to try keeping scented shrubs! Those that flower early in the year are essential for lifting our spirits.

One of the first to bloom is Lonicera fragrantissima and as I write it has still the odd blossom on it after flowering its heart out since January or sometimes December. We did buy another shrub Lonicera x purpusii which we still have - thinking it would be different. Well you have to be a real expert to tell the difference! This too blooms through the same period but is not quite so vigorous and so needs little trimming to keep it under control.

Chimonanthus praecox begins to flower a little later also on its bare twigs - the leaves appear later. Our version has pale petals with a slight maroon marking. We were interested to see a brighter yellow variation in the one at RHS Wisley. It almost looked to be a different variety until the blossoms were open. No markings either although clearly labelled as the same shrub.

A very slow growing shrub we have came from a cutting given by a Mrs Dallas (her husband was a descendant of the family that gave the name to the city in Texas). This lady gave me old copies of the HPS magazine and these led me to become a member. The shrub is only now two feet tall and has a scent that catches you suddenly after you have passed by. Sarcococca confusa (we think) has tiny flowers that produce masses of black berries that last quite a long time.

This is about the time that the daphnes will have started to bloom. One of the earliest is our Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'. Ours is now over four feet tall and semi-columnar. (Hilliers were selling them at a special price some years ago. They had about thirty shrubs at our local branch.) The scent is fantastic and can be encountered at 15-20 feet away on a still day. A little later, and without such profuse quantities of flowers, follows D. odora 'Aureomarginata'. The scent is not quite so strong as the D. bholua but still pretty powerful. I am always quite confused as father-in-law told me that the agave he gave me (with gold edges to the leaves) was tender and so it proved. The above daphne is however hardy whereas the green form is a bit touchy I understand.

More daphnes follow including D. mezereum but these are a bit shorter lived and not as very strongly scented. We had a huge deep mauve form that I transplanted from the house of mother-in-law. It lasted another 12 or so years but sadly succumbed two winters ago. We have other smaller ones but none so deep a colour. Our white D. mezereum looks creamier but does quite well. One treasure though is a white daphne that has grown to about three feet in a habit similar to Jacqueline. Heavily scented it looks a bit sick at present but we hope it will recover.

Just now (January-February) the Hamamelis 'Orange Beauty' opens its spidery flowers with their delicate heady scent. We bought it maybe 30 years ago and it never ceases to remind us of the coming spring.

Then come the snowdrops of course – we do not do very well with these but they clump quite well in some places. Our biggest issue is that we garden on Bagshot sand and so they find it very dry. I cannot tell you which we have except for Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii. We had a yellow tipped form from Bill Baker but I did not look for it this year or for the few that we bought from Bill out of his garage. Of course I could not name them anyway.

Along with these we have quite a number of clumps of Leucojum vernum. Some of these came from plant fairs originally but recently we have seen (and bought) pots of tall L. vernum, in Waitrose of all places, quite a surprise. A small clump that never seems to spread is the yellow form L. vernum var. carpathicum. This was one of Bill Baker’s plants - probably at a meeting – that I had wrongly remembered as caucasicus until I checked today!

The scent begins to die away after this for a bit. The tiny Crocus tommasinianus shows itself now. From a few they have seeded all over the moss that passes for our lawn. There are hundreds in every bed too – some darker than usual but all a delight that ‘switch on’ as the sun comes round flicking open as if someone has pressed a switch only to close again when the afternoon shadows appear. We do have other crocus that follow on - Crocus 'Snow Bunting' always appear first but do not increase much. The purple ones in the lawn clump but do not spread out and just beat the few Narcissus that we have planted in the lawn.

Throughout this part of the year the primroses that were here when we came here 37 years ago keep on blooming and spreading slowly. Not too many but here and there - even in a scrap of grass near the back of the house. This is where the cowslips will appear shortly - bought from John Chambers they were planted in a little border and promptly seeded into the grass. Let them stay. We have just replaced our lost ‘paper bush’ Edgeworthia chrysantha. With tiny cowslip like flower heads it has a very delicate scent.

Both of us have always favoured single flowers as these allow any bee clear access to the pollen. All of our various cherries around the garden are single, almost all white and are in bloom right now all round the place. Don’t let anyone tell you that Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai' remains tiny! We had to move it out of the gravel bed as it got too big. It now corners a bed and stands 3 - 4 feet tall. Currently a picture it contrasts well with P. incisa 'The Bride' that grows nearby. We drove down to Coolings nursery in Kent for that. Nearly as mad as the drive to Cullompton (Thornhayes) for another one, P. hirtipes. This must be the earliest and while the others are still in full bloom this has been finished for weeks and is nearly in full leaf.

I have to say that our pride and joy has to be the Clematis armandii that has been in bloom for about two weeks and is at its peak. The garden is awash with the scent from the pure white blooms. I actually managed to get a piece to root successfully – very difficult so I was very pleased. (Nearly as pleased as I was with the Arbutus unedo from a cutting that now towers over the bed where the fritillaries grow. I know, it is not spring fruiting). We do quite well with Fritillaria meleagris that increase slightly, both white and chequered. Our first plants died but had seeded into an old wooden sink and still go on there from year to year.

Through this whole month a small slow growing rhododendron blooms. It has been known to start in December or January but this year was March. It is pale pink and came from a big house that is no longer standing - I transplanted it in 1985-ish and it is just 6 feet high. Together with a tiny white rhododendron they signal late spring and early summer. We know we have reached this point when the Erythronium 'Pagoda' flowers hang gracefully like tiny lanterns.

First published in the Berkshire Group Newsletter, April 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: Keith Thompson

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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