Anticipating the moment when spring bursts to life can be a bit like waiting for a bus running to its own timetable, but I am always amazed how nature knows exactly when to start showing life again.
The snowdrops are fading, just holding on to their snake-green leaves, and spring bulbs are on the brink of bursting. Early narcissi such as paperwhites are spilling out across the meadow, and wallflowers are filling up the beds. Spring is on the way, and with it comes one of the busiest times in the garden.
I’m a great believer in “do it yourself if you want it done properly”. Gardens lose all their charm and their romance as soon as the person who is creating the space leaves somebody else in charge. Nobody can design a garden that gives you more pleasure than the one that you plan for yourself. It will be an ongoing, ever changing project, but perhaps you will reach paradise one day, as I dream of doing here at home.
On bright spring mornings I love the crisp air and the moisture on the grass, the sun rising behind the church and the sound of birdsong, or of the hunt riding through the village. The days are slowly stretching out now, tulips are waiting for their moment to open, the glossy leaves of Fritillaria imperialis are shining in the sun and there are hints of pale-pink apple blossom. In the verges the cow parsley and the secret woodland plants have only just started to wake.
I adore this time of the year, when there are drifts of daffodils in the meadow and rows of cutting flowers are standing to attention in the vegetable garden. A carpet of primroses is filling the sunny bank where they have naturalised, and the crocuses are opening to the sun. My neatly pruned roses are showing signs of life, and will bloom in blowsy ice cream tones in the summer. Foxgloves are happily shooting through the tiny cracks in the flagstones on the terrace.
The sweet peas are well on their way, sitting in a large, south-facing bay window in the dining room. I’m about to pinch them out to encourage stronger shoots in order to produce the greatest show of flowers over the months to come. Other seeds, including the cosmos and some special plants (Paeonia japonica, Anemone flaccida and Anemonopsis flora plena) that I’m nurturing for the border are filling up three large trestle tables.
However, one very special seed has pride of place. The meadow is being devoted to my giant pumpkin this season. I felt very lucky when, back in January, I received a special seed – from a secret source – from the largest pumpkin that has ever been grown in the UK. This is as close to gold as a gardener can get.
Spring mornings and evenings are now spent picking buckets of early tulips, narcissi, anemones and ranunculus (grown under cloches), both to fill our house and to be sold in London. The Icelandic poppy “Champagne Bubbles”, also planted under glass, is relishing the warmer and longer days.
As spring slips away I’m most excited for the aristocrats of the early summer, bearded irises. Last autumn I planted a new border filled with more than 200 irises, massed together to make ribbon of blues, pinks and yellows. The smell of these delicate flowers will fill the early summer air – one exciting change for 2017.
My inspiration for the coming year is the Fifties. To me, this was a golden age of the gardening world, a time when many people’s gardens were shrinking, but – as a result – when plants were treasured individually. Gardens were filled with one-offs, all with meaning and a story, special seeds that were given to you or collected from afar. The plantsmen (a term that was used for both men and women) of this time nurtured and loved every plant.
I can’t think of a better way to start this spring than by looking back on the gardens and gardeners of the Fifties. The thought has inspired me to join garden societies – the Sweet Pea Society, the Dahlia Society and the Rhododendron Society, to name but a few. This is the best way to connect with like-minded people who are interested in plants and gardens. They are always open and wanting to pass on information and plant treasures to us. A friend of ours is the secretary of the Alpine Garden Society. Can it get any better than that?
This week a huge shipment of new dahlia tubers arrived, along with large paper bags of lilies, gladioli and boxes of roses, something exciting for the months to come. All of a sudden the bleak and wintry March rain clouds roll in, and I’m briefly back inside, planning the shows I will be entering this year. While the rain is here it’s good to be dreaming of garden moments just around the corner, and of the promise to come.