Wake up you hedgehogs: There is work to be done. Slugs have eaten the snowdrops, the daffodils have begun to bloom. Anna Pavord hears the first lawn mowers of spring

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The Independent Online
I HAVE never had daffodils and roses blooming together before. Pink roses; brilliant yellow daffodils. These unforeseen collisions make a nonsense of planned plantings. Just as well, too. We can take ourselves far too seriously in that respect. The snowdrops finished in the first week of February. So did the aconites, planted to surround a low bush of Coronilla glauca, which has not stopped flowering all winter.

An undernourished postman could vanish for ever in the waving prairie of the front lawn. That is the bad side of a mild, wet winter. I hate to have to rush a lawn mower out of hibernation, though plenty of people have already done so this winter, as the recent exchange of letters in our letters' columns showed. As a spectator sport, spotting the first lawn mower of spring (1 January this year) has easily overtaken the cuckoo.

If I could find a hedgehog, I'd be shaking it awake, though. There is much work to be done. Slugs took a great fancy to the snowdrops and nibbled off hundreds of flowers. That is not a problem I have been conscious of before this year - aesthete slugs] Why doesn't someone breed butch slugs that will take on the weeds instead? I can see the advertising slogan now: 'Macho munchers for noxious nettles.'

Disease, too, seems to be more prevalent this season. I had previously thought of the marbled Arum italicum 'Pictum' as completely trouble-free. The leaves should be at their best now: dark, pointed, shiny, traced over with an intricate network of silver veins. But half of them are collapsing in an orange, pudding-like mess.

I noticed the same thing in Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter in Sussex this week. He said he had sent some of his arum leaves off to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley for an opinion. The society said it could detect no pathogen causing the problem and suggested that the soggy weather was to blame. That saved me wasting fungicide on the foliage.

On the other hand, the snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) have never done better. I generally think of this as a padding plant. This year it has turned itself into a star. Superficially, it looks like a stretched snowdrop, growing on a stem about 18in long. When you really look at it, though, you can begin to see the differences.

Snowdrops have three long outside petals that hang down over three shorter inner ones. The snowflake has six petals all of the same length, each with a bright-green spot on the end. And, of course, the plant is much taller than a snowdrop. Nor does the foliage have the greyish quality of a snowdrop's. It is bright green and the flower stems are flattened. Each stem has two or three flowers, and they are still coming out. The show has lasted for a month already.

If they were not so tall, I would think my plants were Leucojum vernum, which flowers naturally in February and March.

L aestivum is not supposed to come out until April and May. That in my garden is always early and always tall, but this is a naturally variable species. Mine came from an old rectory in the neighbouring village, where it grows in great quantity through a rather dark shrubbery. Its ability to thrive in shade is one of its great assets.

Leucojums look good planted between hellebores or lightening the sombre foliage of Euphorbia robbiae. Blue pulmonarias are their companions in my garden, but I can also imagine them striding behind bergenias or leaping out of mounds of pale, variegated ivy.

You could use them between ferns, which enjoy the same kind of cool, moist conditions.

The ferns will not necessarily be there to set them off in winter, but this does not matter. Clumps of fern lie like small animals on the ground now, covered in tawny ginger fur. You can see the tightly curled points where the new fronds will emerge.

The best time to move leucojums is just after they have flowered. If this is not possible, buy dry bulbs and plant them in autumn. Dig leafmould or compost into dry, sandy soils to make them more moisture-retentive, and plant the bulbs about 4in deep.

You can also plant this species in damp grassland, which is how it grows in the wild. It favours heavy clay soils.

There is a miniature snowflake, Leucojum nicaaense, that needs different treatment. It is only about 4in high and has one pure-white flower at the end of the stem. The flower looks slightly too large for the plant, but the effect is endearing rather than offputting. It has the quality of a child in grown-up's clothing.

A well-drained alpine bed or trough would be the place to put this species. In the wild it grows on rocky hillsides in southern France and Monaco. It would not enjoy my damp, heavy garden.

You feel happier as a gardener in the company of plants that make the most of prevailing conditions. I made the mistake when I first started buying daffodils and narcissi of going for Tazetta types such as 'Cheerfulness'. This is an outstanding narcissus, creamy white and richly scented. But in the wild, Narcissus tazetta favours well-drained rocky places in the central and western Mediterranean, where it gets very well baked in summer.

In my garden, this never happens and 'Cheerfulness' - which bloomed cheerfully enough in its first season - now pushes up only a few leaves each spring.

It can evidently cope with occasional floods, as John Blanchard makes clear in Narcissus: A Guide to Wild Daffodils (Alpine Garden Society, pounds 22). He describes it growing on the high-tide line of some Greek islands. In times of exceptional spring tides, it gets soused, but it does not like being permanently damp.

I have been much more successful with daffodils of the Cyclamineus type. These derive from a species, Narcissus cyclamineus, which grows in moist alpine meadows in Portugal and Spain. The family includes several very early flowering kinds such as 'Tete-a-Tete', 'February Gold', 'Jumblie' and 'Jack Snipe'.

'Tete-a-Tete' is a marvel, a bossy little daffodil no more than 9in high, with brilliant buttercup-coloured flowers. Occasionally it has two flowers to a stem. It has been out for the past fortnight. The first lot that I planted on the bank now have eight flower stems coming from each of the original bulbs.

Last autumn I planted more around some deep-blue cowichan primulas with yellow eyes. The effect is too much like my old school uniform to be entirely pleasing. The cowichans have a habit of crossing and self-seeding, so I will leave the group alone for the moment and see whether the primulas adapt their colours slightly next season.

The odd thing is that 'Tete-a-Tete' has Narcissus tazetta as its other parent. That is where its multi-flowered habit comes from. However, it evidently does not mind damp feet. And all the Cyclamineus daffofils have the swept- back petals characteristic of the wild species. The small ones look good growing with soft blue Anemone blanda.

'February Gold', which was introduced in the Twenties, increases with equal recklessness. It is taller than 'Tete-a-Tete' at about 12in and has clear golden-yellow flowers. This is the first time I have seen its flowers in February; usually it does not bloom until early March.

This is a good daffodil to use for naturalising in grass. It looks much more natural than wobbly monsters such as 'King Alfred' or 'Golden Harvest'.

The other daffodil blooming now is the Tenby daffodil, Narcissus obvallaris. I planted it for patriotic reasons, but it is a good plant and would probably behave as well even in an Englishman's garden. It grows about 12in high on stiff stems and has trumpets and petals of bright golden yellow.

Until the middle of the 19th century it grew in vast quantities around Tenby in what was then Pembrokeshire and is now Dyfed.

Then an agent from Covent Garden appeared on the scene and encouraged local collectors to bring him bulbs, which he sent by the truckload to London. One farmer, Rees of Holloway Farm, sold every wild bulb in his fields for pounds 80. What is now happening in Turkey happened here first.

The whole story is told in David Jones's little book The Tenby Daffodil, which is available ( pounds 2) from Tenby Museum, Castle Hill, Tenby, Dyfed SA70 7BP (0834 842809).

(Photograph omitted)