It often seems to me that spring is very much about ‘firsts’ – first tulip, bumble bee, wood anemone, blossom on the old plum tree by the gate, first – not good, this one – scarlet lily beetle. Perhaps, as winter finally leaves, we are so starved of softness and warmth that we clutch at signs that the ground is warming up at last. Unless you live in Scotland and still have snow, in which case I send you my sympathies from here in the soft South…
Head-down in a border last week, I was musing that perhaps every spring is beautiful and that it only seems that they become more heart-rendingly lovely as we grow older because we actually have more leisure to watch petals opening, and become aware of hedges turning green? When we were all out there, building careers, being superman/woman, hopping on and off planes, we might have noticed at weekends how the weeds had tripled in size and suddenly there was colour where there wasn’t the last time we looked, and spring was simply the prelude to getting the garden furniture out. Now, we have that luxury of a little time and oh, how I am enjoying it.
Here in Sussex we have a small area at the front of the house which holds two huge willow trees, a Spanish chestnut and a maple – suffice to say, the space was not designed by me and there are TPOs on the trees so we are stuck with them. Backed by a beech hedge this has always been a woodland garden and we have planted it to maximise interest throughout the year. Last summer we took the decision to drop the height of the hedge by a good two feet and it has made an enormous difference to the amount of light and air reaching the borders. These are just passing their best now as the leaves start to appear on the trees above but they have been beautiful, filled with drifts of Crown Imperials, double Hellebores, Trilliums, and snowdrops. Right now I can see the rosettes of lilies pushing through, Dicentra nod their curved flower heads and I really must remember to split the Erythroniums this year because they have bulked up and are crowding out their more dainty neighbours. The ground dries out later due to the trees and the south-facing aspect and then the irises and day lilies come into their own.
If you were to ask me for five good plants for a spring woodland garden, I’d advise you to plant Hellebores – at least two colours so that you get some interesting cross-pollination and potentially attractive offspring, violets for ground cover, Fritillaries in as many types as your pocket will allow, Anemone nemorosa or blanda in white to contrast with all your other purchases, and Epimediums with their beautiful heart-shaped leaves and unusual flowers. Depending on the weather when they bloom they might last and last, or rush up and out and over in unexpected heat.
And maybe this is the real essence of spring – its total unpredictability. One day is cold rain and a nasty wind which threatens our treasures, the next is one of gentle warmth, coaxing buds to open and shoots to emerge. Whatever you do over the coming bank holiday, and if the weather does allow, take some of that precious time to sit back, look and listen to the beauty of your garden waking up and stretching as it greets the sun.