Gardening: A moment of magnolia magnificence: Anna Pavord really has tried to capture one of spring's unforgettable images in her garden. Unfortunately, she doesn't live in Surbiton . . .

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There are moments in the gardening year when, like Cecil B de Mille, you want to shout 'Hold it]' and freeze the scene, just as it is, in every detail, for a little longer. 'Get a camera, dumbo,' said one of the children, reading this introduction, uninvited, over my shoulder on her way back from yet another interminable conversation on the phone.

'But . . .' I started to protest. But the whirlwind had moved on, to sigh over a spot in the bathroom mirror. What I would have said was that a camera is not the answer. A photograph can provide a visual record of a garden, but it cannot give you the depth, the texture, the immediacy of the real thing.

Anyone with a magnolia must think the same this month, as the vast, waxy blooms finally open after the yearly 'will-there- won't-there be a frost' anguish. I don't have a decent one of my own, but there are two magnolia detours I always try to take in April. One leads through Shepherds Bush in West London, the other past the Chepstow race course in Gwent, where beside a petrol station grows one of the most magnificent magnolias you will ever see.

If you cannot get to Chepstow, try any Thirties suburb. Semi-detached gardens have never looked lovelier than now, when original plantings of cherry and magnolia have grown to maturity. They were the Number One shrubs and trees in the Thirties, popularised by Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram, traveller, botanist, gardener and collector of Japanese plants.

I have tried six magnolias in my own garden. All have keeled over, so I have finally given up buying them. Two of the big-leafed evergreen bull bays (Magnolia grandiflora) were killed in youth by frost, although planted against the most comfortable west-facing billet I could find.

Two Magnolia stellata died in quick succession on the bank. Pining for Surbiton, they did not even wait to take in the view. 'Hang on,' I told them. 'I'm sure you could get to like the place.' But they didn't.

After that I went for Magnolia x soulangeana, the most commonly planted of all magnolias. My Hilliers handbook assured me that it was the best type to use on 'indifferent clay soils'. It managed in its first spring to squeeze out a few leaves of a colour which suggested that it was finding the surrounding soil rather worse than indifferent. Then, with a scarcely audible bleat, it, too, gave up the ghost.

I should have stopped when I killed the M x soulangeana. Of course I should. It is what I would have told anyone else to do. But it is shaming to admit failure with a plant that half of England flaunts. So I tried one last throw, 'Leonard Messel', a chance hybrid that arose in the Messels' garden at Nymans in Sussex.

By this time I had swotted up more on magnolias than I did for any exam in my finals. A reasonable depth of good soil. Can do. Rich living, good drainage, plenty of moisture. Yes, although the last two requirements seem contradictory. Shelter from spring frost and cold winds. More difficult (though generally sheltered, the garden offers few places that are protected from all four directions of the wind).

Shelter from the north and east is the most important. That may be my problem, since the only place where a magnolia can spread its wings is on the bank, which catches a certain amount of wind from the north.

As a race, magnolias are very tolerant of atmospheric pollution. That explains why they are such successful urban survivors. Frost touches them less in town gardens than it does in the country, too, although they would suffer more severely from drought.

Anyway, my 'Leonard Messel' went in the only place on the bank not already tried by the three other suicidal magnolias. It was planted last April with as much tender loving care as happened to be left over on that day, but it was not enough. Though not actually dead, Messel is at that awful, accusatory, struggling stage where you wish the wretched thing would die and stop making you feel like some horticultural Herod.

Fortunately, the cherry is doing all right. 'Tai-haku' is at its peak, the clusters of big white flowers still not so full blown as to suggest the end is near. The foliage is just beginning to unfurl, the leaves a highly polished bronze at this stage, magnificent with the blossom, good too with the bush of golden-leaved philadelphus that grows underneath it. At the back is choisya, which is just coming into bud.

There is an instant at which there is exactly the right amount of bronze leaf to white flower on 'Tai-haku'. It never lasts long enough, but that is the point of cherries. They are fleeting. The less you have of them, the more you look forward to them.

Could you ever long for heather to bloom in quite the same way as you do a cherry? Heather just turns its volume up a few notches, and then sits there telling you the same story over and over for months. Then it fades drearily to background noise. Only on a mountain does it really begin to sing. And on a headland at St Martin's Haven in Pembrokeshire, where you see it as the foreground to the gurgling whirlpools of Jack Sound beyond.

At this time of the year, garden scenarios flash by faster than you can keep up with them. I did not make enough of the aconites when they were around. I remember a while ago seeing the flower stems pushing up like small croquet hoops along the front of the box bushes. Now there are ruffs of green leaves with the seed pods balanced on top like carefully-made little pies on a plate. Where did the time in between go?

Between the big set pieces of the garden - the cherry, the pear blossom, the wisteria, the rambling roses - that mark its progress through the seasons, there are endless smaller tableaux that you tend to forget about until they put themselves on stage. The De Caen anemones did a good turn this year, coming up through and around the species tulips that I had forgotten were already planted in the same area, so that small red and bronze tulips were flowering rather surprisingly on top of the other's ferny, frothy foliage.

The tulips are T. hageri, grown in pots plunged in the bank, then lifted and ripened in the same pots in the cold frame for the summer. It is the only way that they can survive in my soil. The flowers make perfect goblets, wide and rounded at the bottom with the petals all meeting to make a pointed top. The colour is variable, rich red, sometimes overlaid with green and bronze on the outsides of the petals.

The anemones are exactly like the ones you buy as cut flowers, growing on fat, juicy stems, the flowers held up by a frill of greenery under their necks. The corms are the most unprepossessing things you are ever likely to plant in the garden, small misshapen pellets of what looks like dried sheep's dung. As a transformation scene, the anemone beats fairy-tales any day.

From each of these wizened bits of nothing, you can expect up to 20 flowers, over a long succession during April and May. How do they do it? What is going on underground? What wonder protein is packed inside that corm?

The first lot I planted are now in their fourth year and are beginning to dwindle. After their superhuman efforts, I am not surprised. You can get 100 new corms for a fiver, though, so a fresh batch will go in next spring. The double St Brigid anemones are not quite as prolific as the De Caen, but the double blue 'Lord Lieutenant' is very showy, excellent later with the sulphurous flowers of a dwarf spurge.

'Lord Lieutenant' and several other named types of De Caen and St Brigid anemones are available from R V Roger Ltd, The Nurseries, Pickering, North Yorkshire YO18 7HG (0751 472226, catalogue pounds 1).