All the excitement of looking and planning ahead for a spectacular spring in the garden is with us. Anything to avoid muddy gaps in the border and bare patches! Settle yourself down, one rainy day in autumn (the sooner the better) to think about all the gorgeous plants you might want to fill the gaps to give you colour and scent in spring.
Traditional border in spring
You can compartmentalise it a bit, thinking about shrubs that will give you height and fragrance such as Ribes sanguineum, which is a currant and gives a strong scent, loved by the bees and gives lots of colour in early spring(1). Alternative scented shrubs such as Sarcococca make a lovely edging plant or short hedge or can be left to grow into a shrub with character. The scent from the flowers in the depths of winter will make you catch your breath, it is so sweet and bringing a small sprig into the house is wonderful.
Daphne odora marginata is another beautifully scented shrub which graces any edge of border where you can bury your nose into the flower. It flowers in February – March and can give you height and fragrance in the garden. The shrubs mentioned above can be economically purchased, bare rooted in autumn.
Perennials are plants which return each year in the borders; I rate hellebores which come in a wide range of colours, with stunning leaf markings which enhance the plant when it is not flowering. You can choose from hellebores which start flowering at Christmas time (H. niger) to those which wait until the spring is a little warmer such as Helleborus orientalis. The flowers vary from white through to pink, can be single or double and many have attractive spotting on the inside of the flowers. Sadly, they do not carry any scent.
One of my favourite perennials is pulmonaria, commonly known as lungwort due to the leaves which in shape and their markings have the appearance of lungs. This is one of the earliest flowers in my garden together with snowdrops and early crocuses. The pulmonaria flowers are a mixture of blues and pinks and are enjoyed by the early bees.
We should not forget the lovely primrose in our early spring garden which brings such a lot of colour and joy to the garden. They prefer a little shade but mine are quite happy in a variety of different places in full sun and partial shade.
Bulbs make up the vast number of flowering plants in early spring (January to March), in all shapes, heights, and colours of the rainbow. It is merely a matter of choosing your scheme. Bulbs in general, are not long lived, so if a mistake is made, a couple of years down the track you can choose a different range of colours. This is of course the element of planning the border which we are considering at this point in the year. Bulb companies send out their catalogues in August and bulbs are generally despatched in late September or early October for planting in the autumn and flowering next spring.
Medal winning Harrogate Spring flower show garden
Bulbs with the earliest small, low growing flowers in spring are Anemone blanda types which come from the bulb company as hard, wizened corms which benefit from an overnight soak in water before planting. They come as radiant blue, pink and brazen white and are happy in the shade of hedges and deciduous shrubs. They require little attention and return to delight you each year. They mix well with aconites which are lovely little goblets of butter yellow, which last for several weeks.
Early crocus can come with or even before the snowdrops and are beloved by the pollinators, as there are so few other nectar sources at this time. The crocus that is ahead of its siblings is Crocus tommasinianus which is small and a delicate mauve. It seeds itself happily around and you will be glad of its appearance each year.
Then there are the beautiful weeks of snowdrops. There are many different varieties (actually hundreds), the most common and delightful is the common Galanthus nivalis which in gardens known for their snowdrops, form carpets. Great for a winter walk.(2) They are best planted in spring – when they are ‘in the green’, rather than in autumn. However, they are available in autumn, but do not expect 100% germination from those planted from dry bulbs.
There are many other early spring bulbs to bring colour and joy to your views from the house. They may be the small blue jewels that are Scilla Bifolia (previously named Chionodoxa), which are easy, repeat flowering small bulbs. You could equally choose Muscari or Grape Hyacinths, who like front of the border, dappled shade and can be found in pale blue, white and dark blue mostly flowering at 12cm or so or the largest of the same at 18cm is Valerie Finnis, a pale blue which is best grown in more open conditions.
There are early daffodils such as the beautiful tiny narcissus cyclamineus, flowering bright yellow at 12cm high with swept back petals. They are a very popular variety and always sell out quickly. Other diminutive and early daffodils are the narcissus bulbicodium types, also called hoop petticoat forms (3). They flower in April and can happily naturalise in short grass lawns, and if you can reach down, they are sweetly scented. A special memory I have of these early bulbs is from RHS Wisley Garden where there is a sloping lawn absolutely covered with these tiny early daffodils.
There are of course, also a range of early tulips to contrast with the March and early April daffoldils. I make sure that I plant these in pots so that when they are flowering, I can bring them closer to the kitchen door to enjoy their flowering. Those which I value, particularly for my big pots are the Tulip kaufmanniana forms, which flower at around 30cm high, are the brightest of colours to choose from and often have stripes, both on their leaves and on the outer petals. My favourites of these early tulips are the T. clusianna types which cheer me up every time I see them. There is one named T. peppermintstick which has pink outer petals in bright white inner petals(4). Another called ‘Lady Jane’, which has the same colouring and is a good ‘stayer’- i.e.it returns annually quite reliably.
When choosing your plants you need to consider height, colour, movement and scent. Such fun!
There is of course, much other work to be getting on with in the garden to plan for a spectacular spring such as pepping up the soil, ensuring your tools are in tip-top condition and doing a good pre-winter weed. But the most pleasurable of these tasks is surely the planning of your pots and border colours for next spring.
- Ribes sanguineum (Currant) | J Parker Dutch Bulbs (jparkers.co.uk)
- Buy hellebore or lenten rose Helleborus × hybridus: £8.99 Delivery by Crocus
- Narcissus Oxford Gold | Avon Bulbs
- Buy Tulip ‘Ice Stick’ | Kaufmanniana Tulip Bulbs | Sarah Raven
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