It’s not at all unusual for winter to give an unsolicited December-style encore in March. In the past these late spells of frost and snow had me climbing the wall with frustration as they nearly always came hot on the heels of a first taste of spring and the gardener’s horticultural awakening.
These days I welcome such late wintry spells by lighting the wood-burning stove in the Temple (our west-facing conservatory) and enjoying the intense light reflected off the snow as the garden turns white once more. There’s something wonderful about sitting next to a roaring fire, in the middle of a blizzard as it were, with snowflakes whirling all around me.
The snow flurries, hail showers and plummeting temperatures disrupted what I like doing best in March: planting spring bulbs.
It’s the same every year. As soon as I’m convinced that winter is never going to end and my gardener’s sap will never rise again in this lifetime, the annual miracle happens.
The sun comes out and lures me into the garden. Just to have a look. Once there, the creativity neurons in my brain begin to fire up and there’s no going back. I’m out there from dawn to dusk.
Planting small spring bulbs such as crocus, muscari, iris, chionodoxas and anemones in March flies in the face of centuries of perceived bulb wisdom and decades of cultural instruction, but in my experience, there’s nothing like it for the visualisation-challenged like myself.
No matter how hard I try to imagine what they’re going to look like in full flower the following spring, and regardless of how carefully I choose their ideal neighbours, my autumnal combinations invariably produce more clangers and clashes than harmonies and contrasts.
Waiting until spring and planting those small bulbs when they’re in flower or on the verge of flowering means they go exactly where they look best. This brings instant gratification and does wonders for the starved gardener’s psyche after a long, bleak winter.
In order to indulge in this supreme pleasure one must put in a bit of preparatory work the previous autumn and containerise one’s bulbs. Between three and five in a seven or nine centimetre pot is just about right.
The late snow thawed almost as quickly as it had fallen, but it remains bitterly cold. My brother, ‘phoning from northern Bavaria, tells me the landscape is white with sloe blossom, sweet violets are flowering in the hedgerows, the first bees are on the wing, and the temperature is touching 17° Celsius.
That’s when I feel homesick and ask myself why I’m gardening on a freezing, wind-thrashed rock in the Atlantic.
Despite the biting cold and my spell of despondency, there are signs of spring everywhere. A second heron has appeared at the pond, and the first fish have come out of hiding.
All over the garden hellebores have opened their egg-shaped buds and the fat, grey catkins on the Alaskan willows have shed their protective husks.
The early heathers are in full splendid bloom, and swathes of nodding snowdrops carpet the ground underneath the old Japanese larch in the Kitchen Garden. On the Lime Bed three irises defy the weather and dominate the scene. Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’ in pure Cambridge blue – as the name suggests, the reddish purple I. histrioides ‘George’, and – delicate as a butterfly’s wing – I. histrioides ‘Katherine Hodgkin’, duck-egg blue with darker ink spots.
On the last day of winter a pair of Mallards settled briefly on the pond, paddled about for a bit and squawked a lot before flying off. This happens every March, and our neighbour Jimmy tells me the same pair nest in his yard each spring, but have yet to hatch a single duckling. Perhaps 2011 is going to be their year?