GARDENING / A present filled with promise: Mary Keen's garden season by season - early spring

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The Independent Culture
ON GOOD DAYS this winter, mornings start misted with frost. A pale sun thaws the air slowly, but by about 10 o'clock the sky has turned blue and it is time for the greenhouse to be visited and the frames opened. Officially, my mornings are for writing and afternoons for gardening, but on a beautiful day it is hard to return indoors; once out, I tell myself it would be a waste not to work in the garden while the weather is so perfect.

In summer, every task seems imperative. In winter, nothing does. Tucking manure round the roots of new box and yew hedges is important, but will not be urgent for another six weeks or so. Cutting dead leaves and stems of herbaceous plants might be better left a little longer. Pruning roses or fruit on a south-facing wall is agreeable and can be spun out for a morning, or a little digging if the ground is not too wet, or some shrub- pruning followed by the luxury of a bonfire. If the weather is really kind, moving snowdrops and aconites to colonise new places is a desirable option.

Sometimes I just potter about in the sun, examining the faces of hellebores or checking that the bullfinches have not started on the pink buds of the Prunus mume outside the back door. It is a time when the garden teems with promise. Although we have had lashings of rain here, I cannot remember when I enjoyed a winter so much. I suppose after two seasons of heavy work involved in making the garden, having the leisure to potter is a thrill.

The Cotswolds are full of snowdrop- fanciers, but although I like the idea of making a collection I find snowdrop varieties hard to tell apart. Friends are generous with bulbs and guilt sets in, but this year I hope I have memorised a few recent presents. Galanthus lagodechianus is Russian, whiter than the rest, and I can see it from the kitchen window. Galanthus atkinsii comes from Gloucestershire and is larger and earlier than most. This is now firmly labelled, and I hope to continue to distinguish it from 'Straffan', 'Magnet', 'Samuel Arnott' and others that I know are here somewhere.

Collectors pinch open the faces of the flowers to count the spots inside and pronounce their names with conviction. For botanists like these, snowdrops are a real source of pleasure, but non-botanists can enjoy them too. The larger forms are three times the size of the common snowdrop and it is possible to admire them without being absolutely certain of their names. Now is the time to acquire the ones that cause you to exclaim over their size, shape or smell.

Generosity round here has not been limited to snowdrops. In the autumn I was asked if I could find room for a quantity of Cyclamen coum, because their owner was moving gardens and the new plot was not yet fit to receive them. They were duly planted in the dry, rooty soil under the limes and I tried to feel detached about these flowers of passage. 'Of course,' I said, 'you will want them back when your new garden is straight.' 'By the time I want them there will be twice as many and you will still have masses left,' he replied.

Cyclamen coum are tiny shocking-pink or sometimes white versions of the florists' plant; they flower throughout January and February. In the past I have had a few - enough to cover perhaps a table 6ft long - after years of waiting. They are expensive to buy - about pounds 3.50 for a decent-sized tuber. The loan collection is spread over a lavish area and, now that they are out, it is increasingly hard to think of them as a temporary feature.

The cyclamen provider, a formidably good grower, recommended a mulch of forest bark in summer (when the plants lose their leaves and start to rest). They can have anything if only they will stay. Minced beech - perhaps mixed with a little pine to remind them of their home in the Crimea - and copious barrows of leaf mould shall be their summer reward.

Everything is being done to make them comfortable and give them more space. The aconites that were seeding themselves in the same area are being moved around the corner, which is just as well because their yellow was competing with the pink. The autumn-flowering

Cyclamen neapolitanum have also been banished from the plot. According to my expert friend, this and the spring coum should never be grown together.

The hellebores, which are almost my favourite flowers, are not often given away in their best forms. At up to pounds 10 a plant they are expensive, and they take a couple of years to settle down. We brought about a dozen sorts with us when we moved to this house and this year I added to their number.

There was a fine display at the January flower show, with desirable forms on offer from Blackthorn Nursery in Hampshire, but for those who missed it I have just found a novel source of plants. Will McLewin, mathematician, mountaineer, fell-runner, French-horn player and winner of the Boardman-Tasker Memorial prize for mountain literature, is also a botanist and plant-collector: if you want hellebores with a provenance and some scholarly notes attached, send a stamped addressed envelope to him at Bunkers Hill, Romiley, Stockport SK6 3DS.

Will describes his nursery as botanical and experimental rather than commercial, and he does not produce large numbers of fashionable named clones. I was tempted by a selection of foetidus forms. 'Foetidus,' he writes, 'is underrated . . . far superior to niger around the turn of the year.' The plants I ordered arrived speedily and in good order and are now in the wild part of the garden, separated from the rest of the hellebores.

The irises have been another excitement, and they too are not difficult to grow. Here they are in a narrow stony border at the base of an outbuilding that faces south-west. Iris unguicularis (stylosa) comes in several forms. 'Mary Barnard' is dark purple and neat. 'Walter Butt' is a large-flowered form and I covet the white one. 'Bob Thompson', which I have not seen, also sounds a must. I keep a jug with some green of Cistus corbariensis as a background for the irises, which last for a couple of days.

Coronilla, mahonia, primula, ribes, crocus, garrya, viburnum, violets, euphorbias, lonicera - there are masses of flowers outside, and from now on more and more will come. Yet one constantly hears people saying that it will be (Photograph omitted)