Gardening: Full of the joys of early spring

Hyacinths, primroses, tulips... the garden is awash with great splurges of flowers, and now's the time to plan ahead for more.
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The Independent Online
I do not see why we should not enjoy a mild winter and an early spring from time to time without supposing that the end of the world is nigh. It may yet all end in tears, with a hideous April, but March has been good in our garden. Bulbs have been flowering with reckless abandon - deep magenta Tulipa pulchella, almost smothered by spotty lungwort, and bright yellow T grengiolensis, with the backs of their petals washed over with a complicated bronzy green. There are hyacinths everywhere.

Each year, when the bowls of forced hyacinths have finished in the house, I plant them out, more because it seems murderous to throw living things away than because I expect much from them. But this spring there have been 40 or 50 in bloom in the garden, growing even better than they do in bowls. In the house, I grow the bulbs in compost rather than fibre, and fancy (though I have no proof) that the sustenance they get from the compost makes it easier for them to pick up their socks in subsequent seasons. They have to expend a lot of their own capital if they are grown in fibre.

One group of blue and white hyacinths is clustered round a variegated brunnera (creamy leaves, forget-me-not flowers), the whole ensemble looking ridiculously like a piece of willow pattern china. Dark blue hyacinths grow amongst the low, pale, ferny foliage of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) with clumps of a white Barnhaven primula, one of the few varieties that I got round to splitting last year. In another group, the colours are reversed, with white hyacinths, a stray bit of Euphorbia robbiae which absent-mindedly wandered off from the place in which it was put, and dark, almost navy blue cowichan primulas, also grown from Barnhaven seed.

I could get very interested in primroses, but I'm trying not to. Since I am already besotted with tulips and have more than a passing interest in aquilegias, our garden is in danger of screeching to a sudden, awful halt at the end of June. If I'm to fall in love, it must be with something that peaks in August or September. Sunflowers? Fun, but not complicated enough. Salvias? Too complicated by half. Penstemons? Yawn, yawn. Well, there are always pears. Pears are riveting.

Over the years, the primroses cross with each other, and drift into muddy mauves, but originally I had a mixture called 'Butterscotch' - copper, bronze, apricot and yellow - another mixture called 'Valentine Victorians' - rich, crimson pinks - and one called 'Rustic Reds' in the colours of tawny wallflowers.

Now is the time to be sowing more to flower next spring. They like cool conditions, so the seed is best sown thinly on the surface of compost in a 5-in pot, covered with a pane of glass and then left outside in a north-facing position. Primula seed dawdles towards germination, so it may be six weeks before you know whether you are to be a proud parent.

When happy, the primulas seed round with abandon. Out on what we unimaginatively call The Bank, a semicircular sweep of sloping ground around the south and west of the house, Barnhaven 'Muted Victorians' and 'Striped Victorians' are flowering fit to bust, in weird shades of dirty pink and blue. The paths up the bank are dressed each year with crushed bark. This is evidently an ideal medium for self-seeding as there are far more seedlings here, where there is no competition, than ever appear on the bank itself. It slightly defeats the purpose of the path, of course, to have it covered with plants, but it seems churlish not to acknowledge the bounty. I dig up seedlings in trowelfuls - polyanthus, double daisies, verbascums, foxgloves, verbena, lychnis, polemonium - and press them on anyone who calls. The milkman scarcely dares come any more, but it keeps the path more or less open to traffic.

'Cantata', my tulips of the year two seasons ago, were planted out when they had finished their spectacular display, close to a young plant of Euphorbia characias wulfenii. The euphorbia has now reached its zenith, but unfortunately the tulips have dwindled. I like the brilliant red of the tulip with the acid green of the spurge. The equally bright T eichleri has more staying power and has good foliage of a very pale, glaucous grey. Next autumn, I'm going to plant masses more of them close to the spurges.

The big spurges, such as Euphorbia characias, usually peak in late spring but have brought forward their act this year and are flowering with the purple-pink magnolia 'Leonard Messel'. They have blue brunnera as a companion. The spurges self-seed, too, and there is an extraordinary measure of variation in the seedlings' foliage and flowers. The ones I like most have bluish leaves and very bright lime flowers, without the dark eye.

Unfortunately, they hate being moved and they sulk for ages if you try. I find it best to cut down most of the tall stems and wait for new growth to sprout from the bottom. But generally, this is a good time to shift herbaceous perennials, before there is too much top growth to get damaged in the move. The difficulty lies in remembering what you said last summer you were going to do this spring. I was going to shift some day-lilies, but have forgotten where I thought they ought to go. Resolution: take better notes.

The most evil sight in the garden is the narcissus 'Texas', with yellow petals and harsh orange trumpets, underneath the last pink blossoms of the viburnum 'Dawn'. For a long time, when the children wanted flowers to take to school in spring, 'Texas' was the sacrificial victim, which solved two problems at once. Having survived these onslaughts, the flowers now leer horribly every time I look out of the bedroom window. Perhaps the milkman may be the answer here, too.

Old-fashioned Barnhaven primroses are available from Sonia Wright Plants, Westfield Farmhouse, West Street, Aldbourne, Wiltshire SN8 2BS (01672 540995). The nursery is open from 10am to dusk, Monday to Saturday, all year round.

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