In the garden

The hungry gap yawns wide at Lea Gardens this year, as the rabbits gnawed most brassicas down to rotting stumps. These stumps, if left alone, put out an abundance of new shoots – a supply of spring greens that lasts through much of May. There’s nothing for it but to fall back on frozen supplies and to speed up the new crops.

The early tatties are in, and we’ve sown carrots and turnips in cold frames for an early harvest. Lettuce and herbs planted out a week ago are growing away nicely, still protected by cloches from slugs and the weather. We also planted some early lettuce in a greenhouse border and sowed a mixture of salad leaves and radishes in a large correx box, to be stood outside on the temple terrace.

The sheltered, sunny niche just outside the kitchen door would have been a better location, but that spot has been claimed as a play area by our new puppies. While I have been known to indulge in the hair of the dog in my younger days, I do not fancy dog hair in my digestive system.

I’m particularly pleased with this compact, portable little salad garden – a great way for those without gardens to produce something fresh and crunchy. Two or three such boxes, sown in rotation at three or four week intervals, could keep the supply going into autumn. Such a box would also make a great present, much longer lasting than a bunch of flowers. The theme could be expanded to include Swiss chard in pots, especially the cultivar Bright Lights with different coloured stems. Quick maturing spring cabbage would thrive with the same treatment, especially if planted in compost enriched with a good handful of well-rotted manure.

Horse manure is particularly pleasant to handle and rots down into crumbly “soil” within a couple of years. It played a major part in the re-planting of a north-facing border the other day. A greedy Japanese larch hedge had all but depleted the soil in that bed, and my blue poppies, usually large and leafy by now and studded with prominent buds, had faded to wan, miserable creatures. There won’t be many of those fabulous blue lampshades this May, but the plants, now well fed, have a whole season to build up their strength for next year’s show.

Auriculas are said to thrive on a mixture of light, alkaline loam and old cow manure. Go very easy on the latter, as few things in the garden look worse than overfed auriculas. Too rich a diet makes their leaves grow over-large and causes their stems to flop, a terrible fate for one of the most charming and intriguing of all spring flowers.

My early personal relationships with Primula auricular were all based on the bittersweet experience of unrequited love. I simply adore them, but they would have nothing to do with the prevailing peaty, acidic soil of my garden. A few ancient plants ironically thrive in pots in peat-based compost, with a little additional lime. A new compost formula, based on sterilised loam, mixed with sharp grit, alkaline sand and a mere hint of well-rotted horse dung seems to hit the spot. Auriculas have also been thriving in an open field where the soil has been sweetened with some lime for a number of years now, and that’s where we’ve been growing on our special Tresta selection.

Auriculas are easily raised from seed but, unless you hand pollinate your plants, you always end up with a rather motley crew. Some are good, a few are outstanding and the rest are run of the mill. The best of our seed-raised bunch is lined out every year, then split and grown on for a further two years before they are ready to be offered in the nursery. This way every plant gets a chance to prove its worth, but there’s one drawback. The field is rather out of the way and during periods of inclement weather, of which there are all too many for my liking, I have to kneel in the mud in order to pay homage.

Auriculas used to be displayed in so-called theatres – think audience and stepped seating rather than stage – so each individual could be seen clearly. When it comes to displaying a modest collection, a stepladder works a treat, but only in a very sheltered spot. In my own case, the new candidates are now displayed on a large cable drum table in the Round garden. So far we’ve only named one. “Moon God”, is a plant with large and perfectly circular flowers in cool clear lavender with a cream centre. The others carry descriptive labels: lavender grey, medium; small dark purple with striped corolla tube; biscuit with no distinct eye; tiny dark red, velvet texture; tawny orange with red petal base; and so on.

I also have a few show auriculas and “edged fancies”. They are exquisite creatures, and perfectly capable of surviving outdoors. Alas their perfect flowers, covered in a pale mealy substance known as farina, all too often get spoiled by the rain, which means they give their annual performance in the Temple, safe from the weather.

Then there are the doubles, easily raised from seed and with a higher percentage of full-petalled beauties than the double strains of Primula vulgaris. The colour range includes some wonderful browns, from rusty metal to tan leather, and seed is available from Barnhaven Primroses. Auriculas, if left to their own devices for too long, tend to grow leggy and unproductive before eventually dying out altogether. Split your plants every three or four years, remove some of the old hard rhizomes and re-plant the still vigorous portions, preferably in a new location. If your soil isn’t suitable, grow them in pots – they make a wonderful display.

Primula hyacinthine is easily mistaken for an auricula unless one examines its foliage, which is handsomely serrated. The flowers, carried in substantial heads, open a red-tinged mauve and fade to clear lavender. It comes from the Him­alayas and is a long-lived, easy to grow and highly rewarding perennial.

Despite the cold, our rhododen­drons have started their season over a week early compared to last year. Rhododendron campanulatum is a large species with impressive foliage and huge trusses of an opalescent pale lilac, opening from purple-carmine buds. The yakushimanum hybrids have started to show a little colour in their still closed buds with ‘Looking Glass’ ahead of the game and already in full, bright pink flow. It flowers extremely freely.

Gardens never stand still: what was a windy corner half a decade ago is now a sheltered shady spot, sometimes a little too shady. While some rhododendrons not only tolerate, but actually like shade, others do not, and respond to a lack of light with a leggy habit and sparse flowers.

We moved two large specimens, planted in too much shade, last weekend, one of them Rhododendron orbiculare, a clear, luminous pink, and one of the best shrubs for foliage effect with large rounded, blue-green leaves. It took two of us to carry the shrub complete with massive root ball to its new, south-facing home on a large piece of sacking. Luckily, all rhododendrons have compact, fibrous root systems and can, within reason, be moved at almost any time of year. Given a daily overhead watering, they’re usually none the worse for the experience. Should the move be followed by a dry and windy spell, we wrap them in sheets of thin, white polythene, known as propa­gation film in the horticultural trade.

Drying, salt-laden wind is the enemy of many plants; Euphorbia characias is an evergreen perennial with thick, almost woody, reddish stems, glauceous narrow foliage and cylindrical inflorescences of the most electrifying lime-green imagin­able. It will put up with a good deal of exposure, but tends to look rather worse for wear at the end of April, which detracts from its flowers – if any are produced at all. Planted in a sheltered spot, it puts on a tremen­dous show, enhanced by suitable companions such as lavender drum­stick primulas or the violet purple spring pea, Lathyrus vernus.

The garden is really coming back to life now, with something new in flower every day. Before the rhodo­dendrons steal the show, there are two areas of great spring splendour. One in the Round Garden, where drifts of Narcissus ‘Jenny’ rise from carpets of powder blue Omphalodes nitida, and mingle with pink wood anemones and the yellow cyclamen flowers of Erythronium tuolumnense.

The other is one of the beds in the White Garden: fritillaries, pulmon­arias, drumstick primulas, Scilla bythina and pale lemon tulips create a picture of perfect spring freshness. A little later in the year white martagon lilies and tall white campanulas rise from the back of the border. I’m very pleased with both creations, but the most enjoyable aspects by far just now are 40 shades of green in the shelterbelts, and bitter-sweet scent of the balsam poplars.

Rosa Steppanova


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