Stalwarts of spring

By Tamsin Westhorpe

Herefordshire has spent most of February under water. Fields and gardens are flooded thanks to Storm Dennis and it is now time to survey the damage.

Today I put my wellies on and headed out to the garden with my head hung low. The lawn was sodden, and the garden strewn with fallen branches and twigs. My spirits were soon lifted as at every turn I was met by the cheery colour provided by early spring flowering plants. The bravery of these often-tiny plants is to be celebrated. Muscari, narcissus, hepaticas and violas put on a sunny show and are undeterred by the fact that they have spent much of the last few weeks paddling in a wet soil. February and early March weather is so unpredictable – but what is certain is that these feisty plants will flower come rain, shine or snow. Their timing might be a little different each year thanks to the weather, but they will excel.

I always slightly pity the early flowerers, however. They put on a performance and very few people show up to applaud them. They rarely get the column inches and the congratulations that they deserve. They flower too early to feature at the major RHS shows (some might just about get a look in at RHS Cardiff) and such a large proportion of the population only consider visiting gardens in May and June. My hope is that more people wrap up and head to open gardens whatever the weather to admire these little troopers.

My favourite spring flowering plants (excluding shrubs) are not that unusual. I’m more than happy with common varieties at this time of year. In pots not much beats Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ coupled with muscari. In autumn I delight in tipping out the contents of these pot and dividing the bulbs to fill another. If you divide, you’ll soon see what great value a bag of bulbs can be.

I learnt a very valuable lesson last spring. Having fallen for the double and scented daffodil ‘Sir Winston Churchill’, in autumn I merrily planted the bulbs in fairly shallow pots. As Winston reaches a height of 40cm he flopped and didn’t cope at all well with the shallow planters. This year I’ve planted ‘Winston’ in the borders and he’s much happier. With such unpredictable weather in early spring the lower growing narcissus types such as ‘Minnow’ are my preferred option for pots.

This week I’ve been on my hands and knees weeding out the annual Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress). As I tiptoe amongst the emerging summer flowering plants, I’m noticing yet more little gems in the borders. Corydalis solida with its pink flowers is another plant that needs to be celebrated. Once the flowers have faded in early April the foliage turns yellow and can be easily pulled away. Reaching about 8cm in height and slowly spreading I’d recommend this for a small garden. The dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis), and the bright but pale blue Chinodoxa luciliae also offer flowers that will persuade you to drop to your knees to admire them.

Creating a drift of colour under the Cornus mas is Cardamine quinquefolia. This perennial is a must – it’s fully hardy, enjoys any soil and gradually makes a wonderful spread under deciduous shrubs. The pale lilac flowers are great value as they last from mid-February until early April. In the same border I have a rather handsome gathering of Crocus ‘Ruby Giant’. Why a crocus with Cadbury’s purple coloured flowers is called ‘Ruby Giant’ fails me. I planted 20 bulbs five years ago and the display has tripled.

Hot on the heals of these February flowerers are the wood anemones. Just before the deciduous trees and shrubs come into full leaf, they enjoy the ground under their branches. Anemone nemorosa ‘Westwell Pink’ and the pure white, double ‘Vestal’ are by far my favourites.

Enjoy these stalwarts of spring and make sure you give them the round of applause they deserve before the curtain drops on them for another year.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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