Today was a glorious day to be a professional gardener. I was working in the (mostly) walled garden of a stunning, mid-19th century terraced house in Norwich. The garden backs on to the original coach house, which is shaded by an unusual white mulberry tree. This back area is where I had my tea break this morning, and where I watched the frogs getting busy in the pond. A contorted hazel frames the path into the main garden, which is filled with mature, clipped box and yew spheres that give the garden year-round structure. My clients only moved here last year, and this is their first spring in the garden.
It’s a good idea, when you first move into a new house and garden, to wait and watch your garden for a year, before making any big plans. If you’re lucky, there will be surprises and delights, as plants, that you had no idea were there, start to emerge as the season progresses. This garden was an NGS garden for many years, and although the previous owners took two lorry loads of plants away with them, leaving gaps that are longing to be filled, the garden retains a wonderful structure and atmosphere.
It’s a garden that I’m always keen to go back to, to see what’s come out, work out what jobs need doing, and consider how I can help to nurture and develop it.
This month, the red shoots of herbaceous peonies are just pushing up through the soil, and promise a stunning bounty of plumptious petals this summer. The tree peonies are uncurling soft, rusty-red new growth. Roses are leafing up and seem to be magically appearing out of nowhere through the tangle of climbers and overgrown wall shrubs along the boundaries. Every time I visit, I find a new rose! Ferns, with last year’s fronds just cut back, have become little time bombs of potential, their new fronds all brown and curled up tightly, waiting to unfurl when the weather warms up. And a Japanese quince, possibly Chaemomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, which I had failed to identify on my last visit, is now covered in pale, creamy blossom.
I planted lots of new tulips and alliums last autumn, but there are more bulbs appearing that were obviously hidden deep in the soil when I last visited, like lovely subterranean secrets. There are hyacinth flowers, still green, tucked deep into their leaves, like small bunches of grapes. Pink and red-tinged, blue-green tulip leaves are appearing everywhere, as well as lots of other strappy green bulb leaves of who knows what else. Tiny, pointed, not yet open, purple flowers of wood anemomes, Anemome blanda, with their delicate fern-like leaves, are dotted amongst the ferns and old growth of Japanese anemomes in the shade border.
There is still a lot of work to do to get this garden back to its former glory. Last November, I spent hours pruning huge, overgrown, climbing roses that had invaded tree canopies so their flowers were lost to sight, and had scars on my arms to show for it! There was ground elder throughout one border, but there is great satisfaction to be had in carefully rooting out and disposing of all of their rhizomatous white stems. It has reappeared in a few places but if I keep on top of it, I’m confident that it can be kept at bay. The bindweed I cleared out of the same border has not yet returned, but I fully expect to see it again when the soil is warmer, and relish the battle to come!
The stars of the garden this month are the hellebores, or Lenten Rose, Helleborus x hybridus. These flowers nod their heads downwards, and need to be gently tilted up to be seen properly. At their centres is a boss of yellow stamens, surrounded by a cup of single petals. To really appreciate the flowers, you can cut a few blooms to float in a bowl of water. In the garden, the flowers are a great source of nectar for bees early in the year, and today, our first really warm, sunny day of spring, I did see a few small bees coming to the flowers.
Hellebore hybrids are quite promiscuous, and parent plants can produce seedlings with a range of flower colours, from deep, plum purples, to dusky pinks, the palest of creams, and even green or yellow. Some have speckles, others are like shades of water-colour paint. Because they reproduce readily, once you have some established plants, you’ll get lots of free babies.
If you want to grow hellebores, be sure to plant them in partial shade (east-facing is fine, as they don’t mind some sun), in good, fairly moist soil. They work well in a border, mixed in with ferns and woodland bulbs, such as anemones, snow drops and Dog’s Tooth violets (erythroniums). Their leaves are attractive, divided, glossy and dark green, arching up from the ground around the flowering stems. Sadly, hellebores are very prone to Leaf Spot, a fungal disease that causes unsightly, dark splotches on the leaves, so I like to remove and destroy the leaves when the plants start to flower in early spring, as the ugly, old leaves detract from the beautiful flowers. This also helps to reduce reinfection when the new leaves start to come in.