Jane Moore savours the start of spring and celebrates all the stars of the garden, from dwarf daffodils, irises and hellebores to pulmonaria, Japanese quince and camellias
March is a month of promise and anticipation in the garden. Little things which have been thrusting merrily through the soil undeterred by frost and foul weather will grab a few rays of sunshine to burst forth and flower. Dainty daffodils, tiny irises, primroses and cyclamen all belie their diminutive stature and shine out sturdily cheerful in the mixed bag of weather that March has to offer.
The weather this month often has a somewhat bipolar feel – with the emphasis on the polar! One day can be glorious with sunshine and temperatures that tempt removal of the thermal vest that has been a constant companion for the past few months. But beware the false sense of springtime, as the very next day will find the day dawning with a sharp lurch back to frost and cold which takes plants, birds and gardeners all by surprise.
The best thing to do is to embrace all that this month has to offer. Savour the almost daily arrival of another little slice of spring and fill your days with a mixture of tasks to get the garden as ready as possible before April. Time in April has a tendency to speed up and the month hurtles in with its longer evenings and the frenetic onslaught of grass and weeds, signalling the true arrival of spring.
Tis the season for bulbs galore and there’s nothing more cheery than a cluster of gorgeous little daffodils or irises strategically placed. I’m very partial to potting a handful of things and gathering the pots together on a table just outside my living room window where I can gaze at them bathed in March sunshine. Favourites for pots include any of the dwarf daffodils such as dainty ‘Minnow’ or elegant white ‘Jenny’. Readily available from a garden centre nearby, you will find the ever jaunty ‘Jetfire’ with its bright orange trumpet or the ever faithful ‘Tete a Tete’ which is always such a joy in a battered old terracotta pot.
What is it about the beautiful blues of spring that pulls us? I think it’s that reminder of summer skies to come and some of my favourite bulbs have just that hue. My current favourite of the little irises is ‘Alida’ with its vivid blue flower but there’s also the lovely Scillas and Puschkinias, dainty little bells of cobalt blue flowers. Of these I’d look for Scilla sibirica, a diminutive cobalt-blue spike of four to five bells that only reaches four to five inches in height. This can be left to self seed without fear of it taking over.
I have two utter stars for the March show: hellebores which have been my standby for a good month or so and Pulmonaria, a little bloomer so often overlooked in favour of bigger, blousier blooms. Hellebores you just can’t go wrong with, so do get some. Pulmonarias are so often passed by as if they’re of little consequence and yet I love them so. These little lungworts flower so reliably and so generously that we tend to take them for granted, but they’re good little doers and add a splash of colour when little else except bulbs are around. I especially love their leaves, often silvered and spotted and producing an excellent foil to other plants later in the season. My favourites are ‘Blue Ensign’ with rich blue flowers and green leaves and ‘Opal’ with the palest ice-blue flowers and gloriously spotted leaves. I must confess a huge fondness for the species too with its spotty leaves and pink and blue flowers – one of the first plants I ever remember as a child.
If you want to keep them pure then do deadhead after flowering so they don’t seed and cross pollinate, and cut back the leaves. In May or June new leaves will burst through which look fresh for the summer.
A walk around the garden this month highlights any dull locations that could do with a spot of spring cheer. You can always find a spot for a spring flowering shrub but it has to earn its spot, especially in a smaller garden. The perfect spot is somewhere it can be seen and appreciated from indoors or en route to indoors such as by the front or back door. Ideally it will have two seasons of interest and my first choice fits these criteria.
Chaenomeles or Japanese quince is blessed with beautiful single flowers of rosy red or apple blossom pink dotted with bright yellow stamens in the centre. These appear profusely in March on the bare stems and twigs and are followed by leaves and golden quince lookalike fruits in summer. All in all it’s rather attractive especially when trained against a low wall or fence. Top varieties, with Awards of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society no less, include ‘Moerloosei’, my apple blossom pink favourite; ‘Geisha Girl’ with semi double salmon pink flowers, and ‘Crimson and Gold’ a stand-out stalwart.
“What is it about the beautiful blues of spring that pulls us? I think it’s that reminder of summer skies to come.”
For those with acid soil, take your pick from all the wonderful Rhododendrons and Camellias. Even with a pH8 soil I can exploit the fact that Camellias do nicely in containers. At The Bath Priory we have a very nice little collection of Camellias set under trees in a sheltered spot near the tree ferns and hydrangeas. These flower beautifully year after year with a regular dose of slow release feed and really aren’t any trouble. Good ones for pots include ‘Adolphe Audusson’ my favourite red, and ‘Cornish Snow’ a dainty little white.
A quick mention too for Forsythia, not my favourite spring shrub but reliable. When I’m looking for early flowering yellow shrubs I opt for Mahonia which ticks the two season box with flowers and evergreen foliage.
Finally keep a little notebook with you this month and make lists. My proclivity for list making has stood me in good stead through the years. I list plants, bulbs, little tricks and ideas and I look out for colourful planting schemes I can steal shamelessly. I know everyone just takes photos with their phones these days but the very action of writing something down tends to fix it in my head, cementing a variety or plant name more securely than any photo ever could.
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel.