This April is going to be a cruel month indeed, but for reasons quite different from those T.S. Eliot cited in his masterpiece ‘The Wasteland’. For the first time in over a decade I’m going to be separated from my garden during this crucial time of its annual development.
My inspiration is going to evaporate as my spring plantings will come to an end this Friday. Not being able to see what happens next is almost impossible to contemplate and I have begged James to photograph every new flower as it emerges and expands and to chronicle all that happens in the garden.
Which reminds me to note down three important dates:
29.3. First bumblebee – a splendid specimen of the white-bottomed Bombus magnus – on the wing.
1.4. First fish cruising just below the pond surface ( two orfe and three pink goldfish).
5.4. First wood pigeon call, quite distinct from the collared doves who simply tell the world: “my toe hurts”, while the wood pigeons are a good deal more specific about their audience and say quite clearly: “My toe hurts Betty, my toe hurts Betty…”
It has just occurred to me that my readers, just like myself, are going to miss out on two weeks of spring splendour, which has prompted me to provide a little sneak preview of things to come.
It is not at all unusual for the drumstick primula, Primula denticulata, to show some colour in March. This spectacle always happens at ground level before the scapes gradually elongate, and the white, lavender, mauve or claret heads grow into perfect pompoms.
There was a time when I was the proud owner of a small collection of trilliums. Lacking the skill and knowledge to provide for their specific needs, all but one has vanished over the years. The white wake robin, Trillium grandiflorum, increases slowly but steadily and seems perfectly happy close to the stem and in the shade of an old Japanese larch. Invariably, and much to my chagrin, every year its first open bloom becomes dinner for slugs, while the later ones are left alone.
Pulmonarias are easily pleased and they play a role in nearly every part of the garden, going from strength to strength provided they are lifted and divided every five years or so. They look exciting and filled with promise from the moment their spotted shoots appear above ground.
Lysichiton americanum, the bog arum, is often and mistakenly referred to as skunk cabbage, an epithet that belongs to a close relative, Symplocarpus foetidus, whose flowers mimic the smell of carrion.
There is a faint foxy, astringent odour in the bog arum, which can be discerned at close quarters, as when one tries to get a close-up picture of the newly-emerged yellow spathe, a modified leaf that protects the actual flower, the spadix.
The appearance of these exotic looking flowers gives me a thrill each spring, and the plant is easily pleased in damp or boggy soil, sun or shade. The white form, Lysichiton camtschacensis, is much slower growing in my experience. Both are easily raised from seed.
Greater and lesser celandines revel in the same conditions and easily become a nuisance, their little ‘rice grains’ often unwittingly spread by the gardener during weeding or transplanting. There are numerous named cultivars of Ranunculus ficaria and one of the first to open is the orange flowered, chocolate-leaved cultivar ‘Coppernob’.
Corydalis solida grows from a little tuber and, with its blue-green ferny foliage, looks far too delicate to survive, let alone thrive and flower in the Shetland climate. The flower colour of the species is a pale, almost washed-out mauve that looks best by itself.
The cream-flowered C. malkensis does well and so do the red forms of C. solida, as good as some of the named cultivars and at half the price.
The American trout or fawn lilies rule the roost throughout April and two always flower a little earlier than the rest of the tribe: Erythronium revolutum ‘Johnsonii Group’ has large, clear pink flowers on strong, dark stems over strongly banded foliage. E. tuolumnense has broad, plain green leaves that are so glossy as to look freshly varnished.
The buttercup yellow flowers are produced several to a stem and have a waxy texture.
Small shrubs suitable for the Shetland climate are thin on the ground, but two fit the bill in April: Daphne mezereum opens purple, strongly scented flowers all along its bare branches, while the evergreen Berberis ilicifolia is hung with tiny bright orange tubular bells.
Both are delightful and should be in every garden.
My greenhouse, neglected for months, would be a total disgrace, were it not for the sumptuous flowering of Camellia ‘Debbie’. The shrub nearly reaches the ceiling and a much-needed pruning has been postponed countless times because I can’t bear to do it during its flowering, and afterwards I tend to forget all about it.
This year’s pruning incentive was my friend Pia who’d admired Debbie’s pink blossom and left with an armful of it – a clear case of mutual enhancement.
The weather remains cool and unsettled which, in this instance, is perhaps a blessing. The colder the air the slower the expansion of leaves and flowers and, with a bit of luck, all those treasures I feared to miss out on, might still be in flower when I return to Shetland for Easter.