Add colour to a spring garden
In the garden something is beginning to stir. There's an air of expectancy, some milder weather and an increase in daylight hours. All this tells plants the long winter months are behind and the early days of spring have arrived.
Their sap begins to rise, slowly at first, and gradually the buds begin to unfurl to reveal the beginnings of a beautiful spring display.
The timing for this varies each year and is very much dependent on – yes you've guessed it – the weather!
On the grass verges where I live in Brixton, near Plymouth, clumps of brave daffodils that have been in flower since early December continue to bloom. Taking a look around the village gardens, I can see the result of careful planning and planting of spring-flowering bulbs last autumn. Among the many bulbs giving a good show are the blues and purples of dwarf iris reticulata Clairette, George and Harmony. The purple and white stripes of crocus Pickwick and the golden yellow of narcissus Tete a Tete all combine beautifully with helleborus Anna's Red and helleborus lividus.
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I'm also enjoying early sighting of the bright blue flowers of pulmonaria Blue Ensign and the creamy yellow of our own native primroses. Gradually through the next few weeks more species will open and reveal their colourful display. Yes, spring is well and truly on its way.
I would have expected to see a few more of the early flowering ornamental cherries in bloom by now. The cold snap has held some of them back. But the flowering cherry prunus Okame is in bud and will be out soon. Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis has flowered once during the autumn, had its winter break and resumed flowering. Autumnalis is a pretty tree whose pinkish white flowers are fairly small, but the branches will be covered in them for the next few weeks.
Despite the earliness of the season, there are many plants which will give you a lively and colourful show in your garden at this time of year. Let me pick out just a few to try...
At this time of year skimmia rubella becomes a showy evergreen. In time it will reach just 1-1.25m in height. It's a male form of skimmia and, unlike the female forms, will not have berries. So instead, throughout the winter its terminal panicles of red buds have been held above the glossy green foliage.
Now as they begin to open, the white flowers fill the garden with a sweet fragrance. On warm days the open flowers of skimmia come alive attracting a "buzzle" of hungry bees.
Chaenomeles are more often called japonica or Japanese quince. These are one of the easiest early spring- flowering shrubs to grow, happy in an open border or against a wall. Pink Lady and Knaphill Scarlet are two popular forms. The saucer-shaped flowers in pink, red, apricot or white cover bare stems during spring for several weeks. If the flowers are to be pollinated, large yellow quinces will follow, ripening in the autumn.
When grown as wall shrubs, they should be pruned immediately after flowering to keep them within their bounds.
Sarcococca are native to Asia, but are well and truly at home in many Westcountry gardens these days. They are dwarf, evergreen, shade-tolerant shrubs with glossy green leaves which prefer fertile soil. The creamy flowers are small, but always plentiful and fragrant. Sarcocca hookeriana purple stem flowers a little later. It's a very attractive form with young stems flushed purple.
In my opinion, every early spring garden should include a camellia or two. Unfortunately, some gardeners shy away from growing them because they fear their soil isn't suitable.
While it is true that camellias are not overly happy on alkaline soil, they are more lime-tolerant than rhododendrons and can cope with a neutral-to-acid peaty soil. A simple ph test from a garden centre is all you need to determine the ph of your soil. If necessary, you can lower the ph chemically to make your soil more acidic. Alternatively, camellias can be grown in good-sized pots, filled with ericaceous (lime-free) compost.
A woodland site with light overhead shade is an ideal position for camellias but is not crucial. A north or north-west site is fine, but often a sunnier west-facing one will produce more flowers. East-facing areas should be avoided, however, as early morning sun after a frost will damage open blooms.
I'm a fan of the camellia Volunteer, which was raised in New Zealand. Its distinctive anemone-formed flowers are just beginning to open now. At first they are soft pink with white edging, deepening to dark pink or even red later in the season. Wonderful.
Some varieties of hamamelis, or witch hazel, have been in flower for a few weeks already, but hamamelis Arnold's Promise is one of the later-flowering varieties. Medium-sized spidery yellow flowers adorn its branches at this time of year. During its formative years, this witch hazel stays quite compact, but can to grow into a wide-spreading shrub.
Corylus avellana Contorta is more commonly known as the corkscrew hazel. It has curiously twisted branches, which are currently impressively draped with the long yellow lamb's tails or catkins associated with nut bushes in springtime. Salix caprea Pendula is a dwarf weeping pussy willow which is just beginning to reveal its yellow studded silvery catkins on its pendant branches now.
I'm also convinced that no spring garden would be complete without daphne. Daphne odora is probably the best-known of the evergreen varieties. They can be a little slow to grow but your patience will be rewarded when the highly scented reddish-purple flowers appear during early spring. Pick a little flowering sprig, pop into a vase, place on the dining room table and allow its wonderful fragrance to fill the room.
All these plants I have suggested will bring their rewards in springtime for years to come. But if you need help right now with a garden that's looking dull and lacking in colour, there is an easy solution which will give an instant effect. Spring-flowering bedding plants such as pansies, primroses and polyanthus can be planted either in your borders, around shrubs in pots on the patio or even in hanging baskets. The end result will be a bright and cheerful garden and a happy gardener.
Rose Clark has worked at Otter Nurseries for more than 30 years. To find your local branch of this leading South West garden centre chain, visit www.otternurseries.co.uk.