Born survivors: Anna Pavord salutes the harbingers of spring that made it through a chilly winter

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The Independent Online

We had a particularly cruel dump of heavy, wet snow in March and it did far more damage than anything else that has happened this winter. The problem was the weight, not the coldness. The snow stuck to branches, particularly those of evergreens, and tore them jaggedly from their moorings. A beautiful daphne, planted three years ago and in flower for the first time, splayed out from the middle, its poor arms wrenched off. The saddest victim was a big evergreen Magnolia delavayi, the best thing in the garden. The snow reduced a tree more than 12 feet high to a broken stump, the branches with their big, leathery leaves wrenched off and lying on the ground.

The snow dropped at night and by the early morning, it was already too late to shake or brush or do any of the other things that could have reduced the load. It was a low moment for me. But gardening, by its nature, teaches you to look forward rather than wallow in gloom. The blackened spurges (too much frost), the holes where the iris should have been (too much wet), the gnawed-off pinks (too many rabbits) create gaps, yes. But a gap is an opportunity, a chance to try something different.

The unusually chilly winter tested some plants to their limits, but others have bounced back this spring looking invincible. Invincible is what I need and Easter is a good time to wander about and take stock of the garden, plan a few nursery forays with particular targets in mind. I'm after plants that do more than just flower. The garden needs bulk and that means lots of leaf, though not necessarily things labelled "foliage plants". When I planted monkshoods, for instance, I was certainly thinking of their dark, mysterious hooded flowers – and their capacity to fill gaps late in the season, when the midsummer show begins to tail off. But the foliage comes through early, bright leaves, deeply cut, so that each of the five leaflets subdivides like the antlers of a stag. Now, among the carnage, they look lush and healthy, unlike the leaves of many of the hellebores, which have been badly affected by black spot. Another disappointment.

Monkshoods are famously poisonous, which must be why nothing nibbles them. Even virus-carrying aphids seem to leave them alone. I've already got some of the tall Wilsonii Group monkshoods, including 'Kelmscott' which flowers in September and October in a rich lavender blue. Growing among deschampsias is 'Bressingham Spire', shorter and slightly earlier, a good, sturdy plant (about 1m) that does not need staking.

All the monkshoods I've put in over the past couple of years are still there, which is a comfort. It is a good reason to get more, to combine perhaps with molinia and Iris sibirica in some equally dark and velvety colour. 'Tropic Night' would do the job. The leaves of the iris would contrast well with the monkshoods, tall thin swords between the ferny clumps. The iris flowers of course would come earlier, June rather than August and September, but that is an advantage. I like the relay-race principle of planting, each plant in a group handing on to its neighbour, so you get a long succession of interest. But for that system to work, the neighbours themselves mustn't be disintegrating into a foul heap. Both the monkshoods and the iris behave well.

Iris sibirica does not have such showy flowers as the tall bearded iris that flower in late May and June. Those are spectacular – not an adjective you'd ever use about the Siberians. But the bearded iris don't like sharing space with other plants. Their rhizomes need a good baking in summer, which they don't get if other foliage is flopping over them. In mixed plantings, the Siberians are easier and more accommodating. The foliage is cleaner too. Leaves of bearded iris are horribly prone to rust.

So already there are pictures building up in my mind of new groups, different effects, but all the plants I'm thinking of are equipped to pay rent over a long season in the garden. Even aquilegias, which are always talked about in terms of their flowers, make excellent clumps of grey-green foliage early in the year, long before they think of flowering. If you remember to shear down the plants after they've bloomed, the foliage clumps up again, quietly filling spaces that would otherwise be bare.

Once you've got the common columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) in the garden, it will self-seed with gorgeous abandon. And if you have more than one kind, they will start producing some surprising children. The bizarre green-tinged 'Nora Barlow' is famously promiscuous and once she's in a garden, you'll have more columbines than you know what to do with. But now and again, it's worth adding some fresh ingredients to the columbine stock pot: Aquilegia alpina perhaps, which comes earlier than Aquilegia vulgaris with flowers in a gorgeous, intense blue. It's relatively short, too, usually not much more than 30cm, so you can use it at the front of a border, mixed perhaps with clumps of pinks, such as 'Hidcote'.

'Nora Barlow' (named after the woman – Charles Darwin's grand daughter – who first found the plant in her Cambridgeshire garden) is a double and starry, many-petalled aquilegias have become increasingly common in garden centres. Sometimes they are called "clematis-flowered" and among them I'll be looking for 'Black Barlow' and 'Ruby Port', the first a rich, dark purple, the second deep maroon, both of them dark, saturated colours, wonderful with blues, hideous with white.

Deep blues, purples and maroons thrown together need some leavening, even when there is plenty of foliage between them and for this job my first thought is usually a spurge. The flowers are a vivid greenish-yellow ("chartreuse" if you are being posh), and work with pretty well any other colour, blue, pink, red, or purple. But several of the spurges in our garden have been set back by the kind of winter we haven't seen for a while.

From a distance, the huge spires of Euphorbia characias in the garden look passable, close-to, not so good. I'm beginning to think of this as a rather short-lived perennial. Our old plants have got very leggy, with too much naked stem under the flowerheads. 'Portuguese Velvet' which I planted only 18 months ago, is already looking stringy and unpleasant. The gorgeous velvety foliage, mounded so lushly on new plants, now hangs round only at the top of the stems. And worse, no new shoots are springing from the bottom. This is usually the saving grace of the semi-shrubby spurges. The old stems get straggly but you can cut them out and let the new, young, shorter ones take their place. 'Portuguese Velvet' likes full sun (which it has got) and well-drained soil (which it has also got). What is it waiting for? Caviar?

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