Absence makes the weeds grow faster

Absence not only makes the weeds grow faster, as the late Christopher Lloyd stated in one of his splendid Guardian columns, but it also brings on everything else in leaps and bounds.

The innocent green doilies of hairy bittercress I’d left to be dealt with later before I set off for Germany, greeted me with a foam of white flowers and black seed pods ready to pop, and for the first time, since striding out on the path to organic gardening, I felt tempted to search for the bag of “Ronstar”, a pre-emerging weed killer, to prevent their take take-over bid for my entire garden.

Two days of concentrated hand-weeding have all but eradicated them, saving a few fat rosettes to feature in a wild salad of young sorrel and dandelion leaves.

As I drove off the ferry last week, Lerwick was damp and grey, but as soon as I reached the summit of Weisdale Hill, the sun burst through the sky and Tresta lay sparkling and bathed in morning light.

kitch. b. april 11

A green oasis

Two weeks have transformed the garden from a winter-grey desert to a green oasis. Beech and ash are still in tight bud, while rowan, whitebeam, birch, alder and willow are wreathed in tender spring green.

In the coarse grass beneath some willows, one of Lea Gardens’ strangest spring flowers can be found; they belong to Lathraea clandestina, the parasitic purple toothwort.

L. cland

purple toothwort

The unfolding leaves of Populus trichocarpa waft their bitter-sweet scent and two cherries are in flower, Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-No-Mai’ and P. subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, a cultivar that puts on a repeat performance after the summer. The tree is still in its infancy and smothered in blossom for the first time.

White, cream, pale yellow and blue dominate the woodland areas. Scilla bithynica, the Turkish squill rarely features in the bulb catalogues, and my first plants started life under a magnolia at Great Dixter, a gift from a much-missed friend. It seeds freely – much like the dreadful Spanish bluebell – and ribbons of wedgewood blue meander through the White Garden, growing through carpets of Omphalodes verna and Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’. Single bulbs of the white snakeshead fritillaries have grown into dense clumps, and a tall, sturdy pale yellow tulip, its name lost in the mists of time, triumphs over the spring gales.

Frit. mel. and S. bithynica

White snakesheads and Turkish squill

I needn’t have worried about missing the flowering of the American trout lilies, all are glorious now. .The reflexed flowers of Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’ are cream rather than white, it does not set seed, and all my attempts at splitting and spreading it have failed, as its white fang roots have descended to depths beyond my spade’s reach.

E.c. White B

Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty'

Erythronium revolutum, holds sway underneath a stand of lodgepole pines and has seeded itself into a gravel path, where it thrives and flowers. Here and there, amongst the typical small cyclamen-pink flowers rise sturdier stems holding flowers of a lighter pink and I believe them to be hybrids between E. revolutum and E. californicum, its close neighbour.

Erythronium revolutum ‘Johnsonii Group’, already eulogised earlier this month, is in a league of its own with broad, dramatically banded foliage and flowers of a clear pink from the blue end of the spectrum, held on tall, dark stems.

Erythronium hybrid

Erythronium hybrid

An ancient specimen of Ribes sanguineum, pruned to within an inch of its life in order to save its life three years ago, has made a full recovery and is in glorious bloom.

R. sang. E VII

Ribes sanguineum 'Edward VII'

The plantings around the pond are always the last to rise from their winter sleep, and there is no greater spectacle than the annual rising of Gunnera tinctoria: like a snake sloughing off its old skin, the crumpled, puckered pleated leaves and the lead-red flower cones break through the papery remains of last year’s foliage.

Its leaves and the prickly stems are bend over the frost-tender resting crowns in autumn to keep them from harm.

G. tinct.

Gunnera tinctoria

The pond margins are in constant motion – a writhing mass of black tadpoles creates delicate patterns of tiny air bubbles as they feed on the blanket weed.

In the evenings, three golden orfe cruise leisurely, followed by a little band of goldfish. At the end of last summer I counted over thirty. So far I’ve spotted eighteen, some leaping clear off the water in pursuit of insects, flashing their silver flanks.   

There’s nothing like a long, hot soak after a day’s strenuous gardening, and the view from the bathtub is particularly good at this time of year. My little rhododendron valley is getting into its stride, and the clear apricot bells of the incomparable Rhododendron ‘Alison Johnstone’ glow in the fading light.

a johnstone

Rhododendron 'Alison Johnstone'

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