Hip hip eastrum!

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I hardly know a plant as forgiving as my hippeastrum. I can treat it as meanly as I please, and yet it will still bear the most beautiful blooms year after year. It’s rather like a pet dog: never a trace of resentment, no matter how cross you are or how much it is ignored. If only all plants were this magnanimous!

After my hippeastrum has flowered, I cut back the stalk and continue to water and feed it, and on the first of June I put it outside into the garden along with all my other houseplants for their summer holiday.

This is where the bad times begin for this poor neglected plant. While my other house plants revel for four months in the warm sun and gentle rain, this poor hippeastrum has a miserable time. Beloved by slugs and snails, the first thing that happens is that all its leaves are instantly eaten off. It then spends a great deal of energy fruitlessly trying to grow new leaves only for them to be attacked as they emerge from the bulb, rather like Banksy’s Girl With Balloon being slowly shredded as it exited the frame. Therefore it has to go in the cold frame, where there are fewer molluscs around, though still enough to do  damage. The cold frame is not in such a sunny position, and it tends to get rather forgotten in there, especially on my watering rounds. By September, when it is supposed to go into its rest period, it is has already been as dry as dust for three months and has no leaves to speak of.

At the end of October, all the houseplants come indoors again. Except that last autumn I forgot to bring the hippeastrum indoors, as it was in the cold frame. I recall that I didn’t bring it indoors until mid-December (gasp). But did it hold a grudge, this tropical beauty? No! It immediately began producing its fresh green strappy leaves, followed a couple of months later by its fabulous bloom.

So my apologies for your rough treatment, dear hippeastrum, and three cheers for your beautiful blooms.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have put in a vase for today. Although this clay pot is most definitely not a vase, I am sure that Cathy will as forgiving as my hippeastrum and allow me to pretend that it is.

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Tulip Review

If you want the best way to bring colour, life, optimism, joy and conviviality to a spring garden, you cannot do without tulips. The variety of colours is unbeatable with something for every taste, from chic and sombre almost-blacks and royal purples through crimson reds and fiery golds to pastel pinks and whites. I have always found it a challenge to choose my bulbs for autumn planting, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this. If selecting the best colours from a choice of literally thousands were not hard enough, the range of shapes, heights and sizes adds another dimension to the challenge. Little wonder how easy it is to either over-order or just give up in despair.

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I originally began this post with a sentence declaring that tulips were the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to add colour to a spring garden, and then I deleted that sentence because tulip bulbs are not cheap when you come to think about it, especially not the ones that disappear after a season, nor the ones that get eaten by squirrels or mice, nor the ones that simply don’t appear for some unknown reason. Unlike other bulbs, tulips are most reluctant to increase their numbers, and only a handful of varieties can be relied on to come back year on year. As for declaring that tulips are ‘easy’ to grow, one has to remember that planting those hundreds of tulip bulbs every autumn can be back-breaking and repetitive; you need to plant so many of them to make a decent impression.

The quality of the bulbs you buy is important. Cheap, puny ones are usually a false economy because so often they come up blind or not at all. Not all bulb suppliers are equal; and even the better quality companies can get things wrong. By the time six months have passed and you are wondering why a patch of ‘Ballerina’ has appeared in your garden while there is not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight, it seems too late to contact your supplier with a complaint. Challenges aside, tulips remain in my mind an essential key to bringing colour and joy to a spring garden, and with some judicious planning (and the wisdom of hindsight) it is possible to minimise the pitfalls and heartache while ensuring yourself a three month stretch of glorious, bouncy, elegant, exuberant tulips.

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Not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight …

One thing I have learned is to take careful notes and lots of photographs during the tulip season, and store them somewhere that can easily be found when the bulb catalogues come out in August. Heaven knows but when you are surrounded by the florid hues of asters and dahlias you won’t be able to remember what spring feels like, much less care. And remembering what spring feels like is key to making insightful choices from the catalogues in order to recreate or even improve upon your garden of the springtime just gone.

Well, my safe storage place for my thoughts and photographs on tulips is the post you are reading at this moment. I’m going to talk about the varieties of tulips that I’ve tried over the past couple few years (successes, failures, surprises) and use it to help me decide what to order in three months’ time.

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Tulipa turkestanica

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the earliest tulip to appear and one of my most favourite tulips is the species tulip, Tulipa turkestanica, a heavenly little white and yellow burst of petals. For two years in a row I have filled two whole window boxes full of them so that I could enjoy them from indoors through the window, and they lifted my soul every time I looked at them. They would also look good in a pot with Muscari and primroses (pale pink or yellow) and the biggest bulbs can be lifted and stored once the leaves have died back.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’
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‘Golden Apeldoorn’

‘Purissima’ is the best white tulip I have tried so far. A large single white tulip that flowers in April, its generous petals open in sunshine to reveal a splash of egg-yolk yellow at its heart. Like so many tulips it expires with great melodrama, the petals dropping one by one to the ground like enormous tulip teardrops. I thought it far superior to the double white ‘Mount Tacoma’ which I bought to take over from ‘Purissima’ but which was frankly a little dull. ‘Purissima’ looks wonderful in the border with ‘Apricot Beauty’, and would also look good with a yellow tulip such as ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, which flowers at about the same time. Both ‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ made a good return two years in a row; however, I was disappointed that not a single ‘Apricot Beauty’ came back for a second innings. In my opinion, the latter is a lovely enough tulip to be worth the bother and expense of buying afresh every year, and vies with my old favourite, ‘Menton’, for the prize of best apricot tulip.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’
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‘Apricot Beauty’

‘Menton’ is in a class of its own: a generous, peachy head sitting with remarkable poise on its tall, slim stem, a thing of exotic beauty that belies its sturdiness in a strong spring breeze. Such a carefully bred flower so far removed from the species should not be expected to grace us with its presence two years in a row, and yet twice mine returned, becoming one or two fewer each year; but I was so gratified that I forgave its eventual disappearance.

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‘Menton’
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‘Menton’

I was surprised at how much I liked ‘Prinses Irene’ (sometimes spelled Princess), a stocky, vibrant and vivid orange tulip with minky striped markings on the outer petals, which I planted around our circular brick terrace. One of my suppliers was giving her away for free in 2017, and she was even better value for coming back for another innings this year. Such a short-stemmed tulip also looked good in containers with Muscari: you just can’t beat orange with blue.

I adored ‘Bruine Wimpel’, in delicious shades of mink and rust, which I planted in pots, then collected and stored over winter before adding to my chaotic cutting bed with not a hope that something so classy would show up to the party two years in a row. To my enormous surprise, it reappeared this year in good abundance. ‘Bruine Wimpel’ is a good single alternative to the florists’ favourite double ‘La Belle Epoch’, which was everywhere on Instagram last year but can be so hard to get hold of.

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‘La Belle Epoch’
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‘Ballerina’

Given that I do not prefer lily-shaped tulips and certainly hadn’t ordered it, the grace and beauty of ‘Ballerina’ was a pleasant surprise, especially alongside the dark heads of ‘Paul Scherer’, the latter first seen at Shepherd House Gardens where we were reliably informed that it is a good returner – in fact, both ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ returned in excellent spirits this following spring. Although almost-black tulips are extremely striking, it is important to pair them with a worthy background to do them justice. ‘Ballerina’, on the other hand, is the kind of tulip that would look good next to anything, and I can see myself buying more and spreading them around the garden.

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‘Paul Scherer’
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‘Antraciet’

‘Antraciet’ had dusky red double heads and looked old-fashioned and expensive like a well aged wine, and returned beautifully for a second year. At the cheap and jolly end of the tulip spectrum, a Gardener’s World special offer of a ‘Bumper Border Mix’ of tulips for a fiver, thrown haphazardly into a large plastic pot and shoved in a corner, became the prettiest thing in the garden. It was so successful that it made me wonder if I shouldn’t just buy five bags of these at a third of the cost, make up several generous pots of them and sit back to enjoy the show thirty or forty pounds better off.

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‘Antraciet’
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Cheap and cheerful special offer

Tulips that were less to my taste included ‘Brazil’, which I’d bought in the patriotic hope of its being tall and tanned and dark and lovely, but sadly it turned out to be short, swarthy, sallow, and clearly living on a diet of beer and churrasco, though it did return for a second year running and has some interesting hues as it fades. ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Nightclub’ came out so late that the tulip party was pretty much over by the time they did (although ‘Nightclub’ was admittedly worth the wait); neither returned for a second year. ‘Chato’, which incidentally means ‘boring’ in Portuguese, was anything but boring. A remarkable lipstick pink, it is gay and delightful and just a little too flouncy for my tastes, though again returned in the border for a second year (I think about three returned).

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‘Nightclub’
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‘Chato’

Tulipa saxatilis was pretty enough, but did not return and was not a patch on its classier sister, T. turkestanica, while T. humilisOdalisque’ didn’t bother to flower at all. But the biggest disappointment was the non-appearance of ‘Charming Lady’, which I was so looking forward to.

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So my strategy for ordering this autumn will look something like this:

  1. Buy the best quality I can afford
  2. Order early
  3. Store the bulbs correctly until planting time (after the first frost)
  4. Don’t spend too long agonising over flowering times. Just ensure that any chosen as partners will flower at the same time.
  5. Keep to tried and tested favourites that return: ‘Purissima’, ‘Menton’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, and the non-returner ‘Apricot Beauty’.
  6. Try at least one new cultivar.
  7. For bulk planting in pots, buy special-offer tulips.

I would love to find out what your favourite tulips are. Which cultivars do you buy year after year or which in your experience perennate reliably? Which have you never tried before but are planning to buy this autumn? Or have you given up on the fuss and bother of tulips in favour of less needy bulbs such as daffodils and muscari?

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Quince Charming: a fairy tale

It seems that some malevolent witch or wizard has decreed that it shall be winter forever. We have not had a frost-free week since November (I’m keeping count: it’s how long I’ve been waiting to finish cementing my maze), and this weekend saw the garden buried by blizzards once again. It was as though the wicked Beast from the East had given one last flick of his spiny tail as he departed for mythical lands. I stubbornly tried not to let the weather stop me from gardening. I put on all my clothes, all of them, went outside, watered a few pots, and gave up, my fingers frozen beneath two pairs of gloves after just ten minutes. This weekend was made for reading gardening books (or indeed fairy tales, whatever took the fancy).

Several loose branches of the Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) had been burnt to cinders by the previous freeze, its leaves shrivelled and brown on the blackened stems. However, a few charming (and some might say optimistic) little pink buds could be seen dotted here and there on some of the lower, more sheltered stems, and I decided to rescue them from the approaching storm by bringing them inside. Since spring is so late this year and I have been desperately short of anything decent to put in a vase for Cathy’s In a Vase on Monday for several weeks now, you could just as easily say that it was the quince that rescued me.

The bottle once contained some noxious Chinese alcoholic spirit, which I shared with new friends on a night train to Xian many moons ago. The topiary is a fairy tale about my future garden that I tell myself at night when falling asleep.

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The forgiveness of a garden

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I have been revising solidly for weeks. The weather has been most kind: too rainy to go for walks, too frozen to plant my new Sorbus cashmiriana, which has been waiting patiently in its pot, propped back against the wall with a sack of potting compost (or ‘growing media’, if the RHS insists.) Thanks to the weather, there has been almost no temptation to leave my desk for the entirety of January. I have been surrounded by piles of notes and endless labelled diagrams of plant cells and transverse sections of root, stem and dicotyledonous flowers for months, with the rain and snow lashing down and the garden ignored below a blanket of mud and leaves.

I am studying for the RHS Level 2 exams, and the first four exams are today. This semester’s topics have been Botany, Soil, Pests and Diseases, and Propagation, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed each one, spellbound by the enthusiasm of our tutors, the arresting facts, and the ‘Oh, that’s why…’ revelations.

Yesterday I finally reached that blissful stage of revision I like to call the ‘Whatever will be will be’ stage, where you are reluctantly hopeful you can pass and you are ready to stop revising and just get it over. I looked up from the past-paper I had just completed, and saw through the window a fat ray of sunlight hitting our front garden, beckoning me to come and inspect the emerging shoots and buds of early spring. Having vowed to revise all day, guiltily I put down my pen, donned a coat and bobble hat, and wandered outside.

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The front garden was, at first glance, sparse of life. This was unsurprising, since during the autumn every single plant from the front garden was dug up, heeled in and replanted for the Great Maze Reshuffle (I promise to update you on the maze in due course). Similarly in the back garden, most of the refugees that no longer had a home in the front garden are still finding their (frozen) feet. It’s been a cold winter, colder than any I’ve yet experienced here in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, on closer inspection there were signs of spring everywhere. Green tips abounded: the beginnings of tulips, snowdrops, muscari, iris, alliums, crocosmia (rather too many of those) and some brave gladioli. Primroses and snowdrops were out in the window boxes, and tiny new shoots were appearing on the roses. In the front garden maze, my Iris ‘George’, which I divided and replanted beneath the cherry tree (also replanted) were up and almost out. In fact, two blooms had already made their showy attempts, only to be knocked down by rain, cat or other tragedy. I fetched scissors and rescued them, along with a snowdrop, a fading Helleborus niger flower, some variegated ivy and a sprig of wonderful smelling Sarcococca confusa that is flowering beautifully despite being heeled up in a temporary sack of earth.

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I was humbled by the forgiveness of a garden that, though bare earth six weeks ago, already offering up flowers for the house. Everywhere were signs of neglect, but I knew that the garden would keep on keeping on until I had time to pay it the attention it needed. A potted Skimmia japonica with raging chlorosis blooms relentlessly away in a corner. Seeds are as yet unplanted but they’ll catch up. That Sorbus will be just fine in its pot for one more week. And with any luck the weather will continue its kindness until next weekend so that I can enjoy my first gardening session of 2018 in fat rays of sunshine rather than snow and rain.

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In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and if you follow this link you can visit her page to see what this weekly challenge is all about, as well as find links to vases of flowers and foliage grown in the gardens of many other garden bloggers across the world.

Many of the photos on this blog post also appear on my Instagram page, where you will find a great deal more of my garden photography and regular tiny snippets of gardening life.

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Summer stalwarts: a few flowers I can’t live without

My brother-in-law and his partner came to visit us this weekend, which meant the usual dash to convert domestic chaos into an illusion of homely perfection. Our spare room doubles as my husband’s man cave, so the task was formidable and involved a degree of brutality, rehoming of bikes, and a lot of dusting.

The final touch was a jug of my summer stalwarts, the flowers that always see me safely through from April to November: Euphorbia oblongata, osteospermum, borage, cerinthe, geraniums. I grow these reliable flowers every year, and couldn’t live without them. The euphorbia, borage, and cerinthe self-seed gently and helpfully about, so I rarely have to resow them. A quick whizz round the garden with a pair of scissors, and I’d had this vase done in no time at all.

With the jug of beautiful flowers in place and the wooden floorboards mopped and shining anew, the ugly man-cave was transformed miraculously into the best looking room in the flat.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page to see hers and links to all the vases made by garden bloggers across the world today.

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Final tulips

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Tulips go through several stages in a vase, from pert and perfect through louche and fainting to paisleys of rich, concentrated colour in wisps of dried petal that land one by one on the table. I am not sure which my favourite stage is, but I can tell you that our previous vase of tulips discarded its coloured wisps onto the table long after the decent thing should have been done.

So, time for a fresh vase, and the last of the fresh tulips from the garden: ‘Nightclub’, ‘Queen of the Night’, and the anonymous red tulip that popped up among the white ‘Mount Tacoma’, with backing vocals by euphorbia, cerinthe and osteospermum that will probably be the soundtrack of my summer. A little dash of red campion finishes the vase off.

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Meanwhile, those paisley wisps looked good in a white bowl with some paisley scarves, until I came to my senses and threw them out.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend looking at her page to see hers and links to other vases filled with garden flowers around the world today.

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May Day Tulips

Posies of flowers are traditionally gathered on May Day and given to friends. I’d be hard-pressed to part with these tulips, one of each picked from the best of those flowering in the garden. Perhaps I can pretend they’re for my husband, and suggest that he places them on a shelf in our sitting room.

IMG_2313I am so behind with my posts. I owe you views of my garden for both March and April, plus a book review that I’ve had in the pipeline for weeks. I also usually do a round-up of my tulips at about this time, and have all the photos ready for it, except the final one that is left to flower, the shocking pink and multi-headed ‘Nightclub’, a party-piece that I am waiting for with great anticipation. All shall be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, in this vase we have my old favourite ‘Menton’, which I did not plant any of this autumn but which came back most gratifyingly in several spots that I do not remember putting it in. (Thanks, squirrels). Also we have ‘Brazil’, a large and flashy bronzed beauty, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, my new favourite this year, a bronze single tulip with streaks of pinky, minky brown, ‘Paul Schoerer’, the lovely dark tulip, and ‘Belle Epoque’, which is everywhere on Instagram and is fast becoming a tulip cliché. I have a whole patch of what look like ‘Ballerina’, which I am sure I never ordered but they look good among my ‘Chato’ (pictured last week but now past their best) and some unexpected red tulips that came up among the ‘Mount Tacoma’, which is the double white. Red and white should never be seen except on Red Cross flags, so I whipped them out straight away and added them to the vase.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling In the Garden. She also showcases tulips this week, and I do recommend visiting her page and taking a look, as well as following links to all the other garden bloggers around the world who have taken part today.

Old-fashioned

IMG_2212A quick and rather old-fashioned vase of tulips, forget-me-nots, cerinthe and euphorbia, and a pink drumstick primula. The pink double tulip is called ‘Chato’, which is funny to me as chato is Portuguese for boring or annoying. I am sure the breeders couldn’t have known that when they were naming this cheerful, charming beauty.

The cerinthe is all self-seeded from last year’s plants. I do have some tiny newly hand-sown seedlings coming on too, but the self-sown ones get cracking so much earlier, and are already buzzing with bees.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page to see her vase and links to those of other garden bloggers across the world today. And why not join in with this fun challenge if you haven’t already?

 

Spring has sprung

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The range of flowers blooming in my garden this week is thrilling: hellebores, forget-me-nots, daffodils, anemones, cyclamen, primroses, primulas and muscari are jostling for space in the front borders. So I brought some of the spring indoors, and here they are, while the useful inkpots are just the right size for the tiny blooms of spring. Other signs of spring abound in the garden: tiny hedgerow birds have built a nest in our privet hedge for the second year running, and today I was greeted by the sight of an enormous fat bee adventuring itself out of the stone wall.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, who has been blogging for five years and is celebrating with a very special vase, so do visit her page where you will also find links to all the other vases filled by garden bloggers across the world today.

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Galanthophilia (and other charms of spring) at Shepherd House, Inveresk

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Are you a galanthophile? For me, a relatively new gardener, things could go either way: there’s still for me to develop the urge to collect rare, expensive snowdrop bulbs; or else galanthophilia may never take hold and I will be content to enjoy plain old G. nivalis dotting its pretty, native head around my borders for the rest of my life.

In fact, I am thrilled by any snowdrop, including nivalis, and I am not yet prepared to spend up to fifty pounds on a rare snowdrop that varies in tiny, almost indistinguishable ways. I say ‘not yet’, because it is just the sort of bandwagon I could see myself hopping on in later life.

Therefore it didn’t seem like too bad an idea to cultivate some prior knowledge by visiting a galanthophile’s garden, Shepherd House Garden, for their snowdrop weekend as part of the National Gardens Scheme. Shepherd House Gardens is a private garden of about one acre containing more than 70 different varieties of snowdrop, each one carefully labelled with name and distinguishing feature. [For a previous visit to Shepherd House Garden in early summer 2016, click here]

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I studiously and obediently observed the snowdrops, trying to distinguish the minute differences between them. Some were obvious straight away: the yellow of the aptly named ‘Primrose Warburg’, for example; others less so: I tried in vain to see the scissors of ‘Daphne’s Scissors’, lifting the delicate heads and peering inside to no avail. It was only when I got home and started processing my photos that the scissors suddenly jumped out at me.

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G. ‘Primrose Warburg’

But for many of the varieties, the name was just a name. I couldn’t understand what had caused someone to notice that a snowdrop seedling found in a garden was a different variety from those snowdrops that surrounded it. It would take an avid galanthophile, studying each snowdrop that appeared, to spot the differences. It made me wonder about all the new snowdrop varieties popping up in the gardens of non-galanthophiles that go unnoticed. I mean, could I be unwittingly harbouring any rare snowdrops among my plain ordinary nivalis? There is one patch of snowdrops down by my Sarcococca that is slightly taller and came out much earlier than their compatriotsIs it a new variety, or just nivalis doing better in a more advantageous environment? I would have to compare it with about 1000 other varieties, using a magnifying glass. And in the end, even if it were a new variety, would the tiny variations matter to anyone except a collector of names?

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I suppose these unappreciative questions mean that I am not, yet, a galanthophile, or possibly even one in the making. I am not much of a ‘details’ person, rather someone who appreciates the aesthetics of the bigger picture, a mass of snowdrops among winter aconites, or spreading under a tree whose leaves are bathed in pale sunlight, and in such idyllic vignettes the variety hardly matters, as long as the snowdrops spread wildly and enthusiastically.

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Elsewhere in the garden, spring was making herself known. Crocuses, anemones, hellebores and dwarf irises made well placed spots and carpets of colour. A crab-apple hedge was bright with red crab-apples against the blue fence posts, cheerful urns of violas made unexpected appearances in shady corners, and early white blossom stood out against an ochre wall.

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Shepherd House Garden remains one of my favourite retreats from the city. It maintains a feel of a private, family garden whilst elevating itself above the ordinary by the wit, art and imagination of its owners, the Frasers, who can usually be spied pottering about the garden among the visitors. It is open for charity at various times of year, as well as on Tuesdays and Thursdays during spring and early summer (see website for details of this year’s opening days).

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