For non-gardeners, the dark days of February have little to recommend them. But for the gardener, February can be as full of delights as any of the summer months. From our front window my spirits are lifted by clumps of nodding snowdrops, battalions of iris reticulata, a burst of native primroses and winter heather, primula wanda, cyclamen, hellebores, muscari and skimmia. Pushing their way through the soil are the promise of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Here come my delphiniums and the peonies I planted last summer. Things have survived the winter. Things are coming back. February is a positive, happy month for me.
February is also a month for plentiful gardening tasks. My seed-sowing got under way this month. I also turned out my cold frame on a particularly sunny day and scrubbed down the interior of a year’s worth of grub and mould. I took the opportunity to inspect the inhabitants and revive anything drooping with fresh water. I turned the compost heap, pruned the roses and mulched everywhere with manure.
February is also a time for planning. Which plants need moving? Where are the bare patches? As plants I’d forgotten I owned start to reappear, I am reminded of niggles from last year: lysemichia too close to a rose, a salvia half-buried by a fern. I also have a deeper sense of dissatisfaction with the garden: too many little plants dotted about. It’s too fussy. I want swathes of things.
Vita Sackville-West said, “I am sure that it is more effective to plant 12 tulips together rather than plant them in two groups of six.” Well, my garden is full of small divided groups, and VSW is right. It doesn’t look very good. When I look out of the window, I plan which plants I can move about to get the effect I am after.
It’s hard to get a small garden looking great in February, but as I walk past the other front gardens of Edinburgh, the ones I like the best are without a doubt those with the most snowdrops. Though not a bona fide Galanthophile, I do think a garden should be full of snowdrops in February. As you can see from my pictures, my garden certainly does not fulfill this important criterion. The question is, do I have the patience to increase my crop using what I’ve already got, or do I blow £30 on importing some more?
Next to sunshine and warmth, the best thing to help a growing garden along its way is not to constantly watch it, or so I’ve found in the past few weeks as I’ve dashed straight from Derbyshire to Portugal to Cumbria with barely a second to draw breath or do any laundry. In those frantic few hours between destinations I just about managed to water my seedlings, but apart from that, almost three weeks had passed before I was able to spend last weekend in the garden and take a proper look at progress.
And quel progress. The sunshine had been working hard during my absence, and the plants, far from dying pathetically without my unremitting attention, had instead shot up, bloomed, spread, and be-decked themselves with leaves, without any supervision from me at all.
The crocosmia, which I divided up from the large potted specimen in our rented back garden, after a hesitant start, is sprouting healthy green blades from its new position by the hedge and the gate. I am intending it to grow up and over to flop slightly across the edge of the path. Indeed I am hoping for a lot of general plant-flopping over the edge of the path in order to soften the edge somewhat and create a less formal, more casual, romantic look.
The hostas, Devon Green and Patriot, which I despaired of ever seeing, are at last visible. I adore shining, healthy hostas and am so thrilled that mine are both arriving. I can’t wait to see what they will eventually look like. These are both on the shady side of the path where again I hope they will soften the hard line of the edging.
Hurrah for my Primula denticulata, the drumstick primulas! They are the most cheerful thing in the garden, these uplifting, gravity-defying lollipops, and I just adore them for all the healthy, vibrant colour they have supplied throughout this recent time of sparsity when I had little else going on bloom-wise. Imagine: this lot were originally a single plant, which I divided last autumn, and this year I should get another two or three plants from further divisions. Wonderful things.
This hydrangea is weeks behind everyone else’s (I do a great deal of glancing over other people’s front garden fences as I walk along; don’t you?) as it was a rather sickly thing when I bought it on the sale shelf of the garden centre. But it has been persuaded out in to leaf by the recent warm weather and I hope that a year of love and attention will stand it in good stead for lots of future blooms, which I believe will turn out to be bluey-white.
I am very pleased with these fat, healthy muscari, which fade from Delft blue to palest sky at the tips. Not bad for a Homebase impulse buy. You may have noticed from this and all my pictures that each plant is rather lonesome in its area of bare soil. I have plans for the bare patches, in short my white cosmos, delphinium Pacific hybrid, and aubrieta seedlings, and some dark ‘Black Paeony’ poppies which I will sow directly into the soil next weekend.
This odd little ‘Denim’ primula was a novelty Easter gift from my mother last year. It stayed outside all winter, alternately drowning and parching, and I am quite amazed that it has forgiven this treatment so generously by coming back into bloom here at the edge of the path. It is a funny-looking plant, but I am quite fond of it.
Now here is one of my most exciting horticultural treats: a morello cherry tree. One of the things I most wanted was to look out of the front window and see blossom in the spring. This tree, presently about 4′ tall, is planted in the furthest corner of the garden in a position calculated to overcast as little of the precious bed space as possible, the garden being shaded enough by buildings and large trees as it is. The morello cherry is one of the few fruit trees that will tolerate shade, and since the front garden receives only about 4 hours of sunlight in the summer (almost none in the winter), this was an easy choice. I am delighted that blossom is developing on the spindly branches; you can just about see the buds in the lower of the two photographs.
These bearded irises ‘Dusky Challenger’ and ‘Frost and Flame’ were chosen to contrast against one another. They are planted in the sunniest patch just behind the edge of the path.
Hellebore season is somewhat over now that so many other plants have advanced onto the stage, but I should mention this ‘Winter Bells’ of miniature blush-and-coffee flowers that I bought on sale from Crocus and planted near to the cherry tree, where it has settled in very well. It is so cheerful and I am looking forward to seeing its charming blooms next winter when little else is on show in the garden.
Another triumphant, cheerful display here from my Bergenia Eroica, bought at the garden centre at Bodnant Garden in Wales. I have just flicked back through my blog to remind myself of its name, and in doing so saw from the photos I posted in March’s End of Month View how much everything, including this, has grown and spread in just this short space of time. The ability to photographically track these week-to-week developments is one of the many advantages of garden blogging.
And here comes my Acanthus hungaricus, which I bought to compensate for the death of the self-seeded acanthus that was growing out of my mother’s compost heap and which she gave me last summer. I was so taken with her acanthus, with its striking, tall flower heads, that I knew I had to have one of my own. The hungaricus is slightly more delicate in colour and habit than the more usual mollis, I am led to believe.
And is that a tulip ‘Menton’ flower bud just coming through? I am looking forward to seeing these in bloom very much, having planted them in a panic very late in January. Tulips are probably my favourite spring bulb, and the ‘Menton’ should turn out to be the most elegant, pretty apricot pink colour.
Finally my potato bags. I’m afraid I cannot tell you the name of the potatoes I am growing inside these bags because I am typing this 130 miles away in Cumbria instead of in my office at home in Edinburgh where I keep the tags from all the plants I buy, ready to be organised into a file. But they are sprouting well and being earthed up, and watered too (hopefully) by The Brazilian, who is being a good egg at keeping the garden extremely well hydrated in my absence. I have been in Cumbria all this week and weekend, and won’t be home till next weekend, so The B has promised to send photos of the tulips and cherry blossom should they come out while I am away. And I of course will post photos of the garden next weekend for my End of Month View.
When a project becomes an obsession, it consumes your time, your money, your thoughts, your very soul. The front garden of our new flat has been my obsession for the past three months. During this time I have thought of little else, spent money on little else, used my free time for little else than digging, planting, heaving unwieldy loads of concrete, earth, gravel, and armfuls of hedge, from here, to there, to back here again, to the car, to the tip, to hell and back, it sometimes seemed. And it was all in pursuit of an aesthetic vision that was sometimes hazy, sometimes felt unachievable, but drove me on through sleet, rain, sub-zero temperatures and aching muscles…
Do you remember this? This was the garden that we bought in November 2014, with its concrete paving and overgrown shrubs.
And this was the view at the end of January 2015, shrubs gone but privet hedge still very much the boss.
I played around with different garden layouts on quadrant paper. The shed would go in the darkest corner, along with a small compost heap. I wanted a curving path leading from this to the gate, and an area to sit and admire the view, with space for potted plants and a climbing rose. There would be a sunny bed, a shady bed, and a blossom tree in the North West corner where it would not overshadow the beds too much.
What to edge the borders with, and what to tread underfoot? My first edging choice was wood, but I could not find a source of what I considered to be inoffensive wooden edging. Plastic? Eugh! Bricks? Pretty, but my Aunt Kate warned me that they harbour slugs. Everedge? Have you seen the price of that stuff? I am not Rockefeller. On with the search. But search as I might, the only viable option seemed to be Everedge. Bendable, long-lasting, attractive and a piece of cake to install, it was screaming ‘Perfect’ to me. But the price… ouchio.
Fine. Maybe I could find the funds for Everedge. I would turn off the heating and rifle through bins for my lunch. Before long, I convinced myself that three figures for garden edging that would eventually be hidden under clouds of lavender and catmint was entirely reasonable, and soon enough five heavy slabs of dark brown Everedge arrived on my doorstep.
Now for the paths. Having admired the reclaimed brick paths of more than one garden blogger, I think this would have been the option had I had more time, energy and money at this stage. Grass was a no-no (too much upkeep, not enough sun). Flagstones? Ah, sigh. Probably six times the cost of the Everedge. What about gravel? It is inexpensive, quick to lay, free-draining and not wholly unattractive. What’s more, it gives a pleasing crunch underfoot.
On Monday, we took delivery of a package that was too big for the letterbox.
Spreading the gravel was surprisingly fun. Perhaps not the back-breaking part where we shovelled it out of the bag into the wheelbarrow, but definitely the pouring out and combing it smooth with a rake. Ah, that lovely crunch; the satisfying way it smoothed over the sins of the bumpy, muddy, rocky ground below; the contrast of the dark soil, black Everedge outline, pinky-grey paths…
And so here, at last, is my End of Month View: March 2015. Ta-da!
It will look even better once the plants are more than an inch high. So, exactly what plants do we have?
Well, this is Scotland, after all. A wee winter heather…
Leaf buds reluctantly emerging on a hydrangea aspera ‘Macrophylla, which I bought for a song from the garden centre sale shelf.
A yellow honeysuckle for the railings. The honeysuckle is in a race with the weather… I need to paint the railings, but cannot until the temperature reaches 10 degrees on a dry day, by which time the honeysuckle may have begun winding around the railings. Come on, sunshine!
Cyclamen, from Bodnant, to naturalise under the morello cherry tree…
… and a Bergenia Eroica, also from Bodnant, just coming into bloom. The foliage will turn to ruby red in winter.
And my beloved drum primulas, divided from the vigorous specimen I planted in our rented flat’s front garden last spring. This one will be divisible again before long, and is working hard to give my mostly bare garden some delightful spring colour.
And another vigorous primula, again divided from clumps in our rented garden.
Alliums are a garden must, in my opinion. This is one of several that I bought from Bodnant’s inspirational garden centre. It does not appreciate the wind that has been howling through the depleted privet and damaging its long, floppy leaves.
A camellia japonica ‘Mathotiana Rosea’, also from Bodnant. The Brazillian had been sitting an exam in North Wales while I borrowed his car for a blissful morning at Bodnant, and he did raise an eyebrow when I brought his car back to him filled with a jungle of new plants. The camellia is in a pot of ericaceous compost. The soil in Scotland tends to be acidic, but I have not tested ours, so the pot is to be on the safe side.
A garden is not a garden without roses. My darling Granny gave me a generous birthday cheque, and with it I raided David Austin’s virtual shelves for five roses; here are two: a climbing Shropshire Lad for around the sitting room window (joined by a clump of ‘borrowed’ snowdrops from our rented garden), and a yellow Lady Gardener, the latter sprouting famously already…
..while my poor hellebore ‘Double Ellen Red’ is doing rather less famously. It caught a fungus while wrapped in winter fleece, and I am not convinced it will make it back to the land of the living. One lives in hope…
And where is my hosta Devon Green? No where to be seen… yet.
A geranium pokes a cautious head forth through the stony soil. I can’t recall its name.
Two pots… the first contains a lily, whose shoot excitingly appeared yesterday. I transplanted these inherited muscari into the pot to make it look less empty. The second contains dianthus, bugle and stonecrop, all going cheap at Homebase.
And I’ve been busy sowing seeds…
Still to sow: black poppies, white cosmos, apricot foxgloves…
Here is my new compost heap, currently containing privet hedge and leaves, shredded down. Our soil is desperate for some organic matter, though this won’t be ready for a year or two.
And the privet is already growing back! Privets use a lot of nutrition, and if you don’t directly feed them they sap the nutrients from the soil, leaving other plants gasping. I have poured what seems like gallons of liquid feed onto the roots (which are fully cleared of the half-foot of dead leaves), plus generous handfuls of chicken manure pellets and wood ash. All this will help it grow back healthily without depleting the soil.
So, there we have it. Plenty of sweat and toil, and plenty more to do. And I couldn’t have done it without my friends… The Cousin, who uprooted the cotoneaster, then dug over the entire garden without even being asked to, before single-handedly pushing the damaged wall back into place. My friend Fiona, who donated a sunny afternoon to helping me hack back the hedge. And The Brazillian, who kept me company on tip-trips, helped me heave the concrete, spread the gravel and burn the shrubbery as well as supplying constant cheering-on, encouragement, and not a little patience.
End of Month View is hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener. Do visit her blog and find out what she and other garden bloggers have been up to this month.
I used to work with a lady who said that all the time. I think she sort of meant, ‘anywaaaay’, or perhaps it was just her way of reserving space on the crowded verbal airwaves of our department.
Anywaaaay… to say that I’ve been thinking incessantly about our new garden would not be hyperbole. I think about it when I go to sleep. I think about when I wake up. During my lunch break at work, when everyone else is chatting or reading magazines, I design garden layouts on quadrant paper. I spend my weekends hauling cement blocks to the tip, levering root boles out of the ground, hoisting soil and sand and gravel about, in short doing a lot of the type of gardening that constitutes hard labour rather than the pretty sort of gardening that involves dividing, cultivating, deadheading, and planting seeds. That’s why I’m not showing you any photos of the new garden today. It still looks like a building site.
I think about the new garden so much that I have been forgetting that ‘back at the ranch’ I have a perfectly good garden that is doing all the delightful things that gardens do in early spring. So this morning I went out with my camera to pay them homage.
My esteemed hellebore ‘Winter Moonbeam’ is coming into flower. I have cut back the old leathery leaves as one is supposed to do, to allow the new growth to shine forth in all its Neapolitan glory. I planted the hellebore in March 2014 and it has done pretty well in this corner. There are few advantages of having to stay in this flat for an extra few months while the renovation project goes on in the new flat, but one of them is that I may have time to divide this hellebore before we leave so that I can bring it with me.
Now, what on earth is this snapdragon doing out at this time of year? Is this normal? Yes, the garden is sheltered, but we’ve just had two weeks of a steady minus two degrees and there it goes still blooming away like it’s July. I’d like to divide this too, but I’m not sure that’s kosher for an antirrhinum (chime in if you know).
The crocuses are coming up. This north-east-facing front garden doesn’t get a lot of light at this time of year and I recall that last year these didn’t come out until a good few weeks after everyone else’s.
The snowdrops are coming out too, along with new shoots of the rather bossy Spanish bluebells that are simply everywhere in this garden.
Here are more snowdrops together with a charming primrose (and more bossy Spanish bluebells). I have divided this primrose and potted it up for the new garden.
The lobelia goes on and on, although it’s starting to look less sure of itself…
And here is one of my drum primroses stalwartly surviving the cold. I divided and potted these up for the new garden too.
And the roses, which I brutally pruned in Autumn, are also coming freshly in to leaf.
The hydrangea is too.
While watching it from a nearby window is a vaseful of its dried hydrangea flowers.
And the Skimmia japonica ‘Fragrans’ is budding, although the only fragrans I could smell was the laundry powder on the sheets that a girl was hanging out on the back green washing line as I took the photos.
“Hard seeds of hate I planted
That should by now be grown,—
Rough stalks, and from thick stamens
A poisonous pollen blown,
And odors rank, unbreathable,
From dark corollas thrown!
At dawn from my damp garden
I shook the chilly dew;
The thin boughs locked behind me
That sprang to let me through;
The blossoms slept,—I sought a place
Where nothing lovely grew.”
— from Blight by Edna St Vincent Millay
Edna should have come to my garden: plenty of nothing lovely here. The crocuses are over. The snowdrops are long over. The other bulbs are yet to bud, or never will, I can’t tell. Nothing blooms, nothing blossoms, just odors rank, lingering, stagnating, sulking in all the damp corners.
In the South I hear you’re wallowing in 19-degree sunshine. Congratulations. You’re probably gulping mint juleps and dancing like loons among your taxi-yellow daffodils, butterflies and bumblebees swirling and diving and singing all around you. Well, spare a thought for us because Edinburgh is at 8 degrees under a vague, clammy mist and the forecast says it is going to continue like this for at least another week.
Yes, I know we moved here in full knowledge of the facts and that we have to pay our dues for living in what might otherwise be described as Utopia, but this permanent cold front is taking the Michael Fish. It explains why nothing is happening in the garden, for as we all know, plants need 1) light 2) warmth. They also need water but there’s no shortage of that.
I’d have nothing constructive to write whatsoever about today if I hadn’t carpediemed to the garden centre. Not Homebase but the real garden centre at Mortonhall. Oh, hallowed turf of Klondike, where miles upon miles of seeds, shrubs, trees, wooden stakes, pondlife, watering equipment, fertilising equipment, ceramic pots, everything the gardener needed, everything the gardener didn’t know he or she needed (spiky-soled lawn aerating shoes, anyone?) stretches beyond sight, beyond imagination. I was in heaven. I drove there with the sole purpose of buying a hellebore for the Godforsaken Corner. I came back with seeds, a rose bush, a large tub for potato-growing, a lavender plant, a unglazed ceramic pot shaped like a roman wine jar, a small propagator, 8 fibre starter pots, three meconopses (two white, one blue), and a primula.
The salient fact about hellebore, meconopsis and primula is that they will all do fine in a cool or shady spot. The front garden is north-facing and really only gets sunshine first thing in the morning at this time of year (if at all), so I looked for hardy plants that did not require full sun. I am quite proud of the fact that when I got home I planted the hellebore, the rose, the lavender, the meconopses and the primula straight away, even though it was already 6pm and I was starving, as you can’t leave these things hanging around dehydrating in their pots waiting to be stolen by drunk students. Besides, the garden was so miserable and I couldn’t wait to cheer it — and myself — up.