Welcome to the garden party

Anna Pavord celebrates Spring with a guest-list that brooks no shrinking violets
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By May, I'll be panting furiously in the garden's wake shouting, "Wait for me! Wait for me!" But now in April, I can just about keep up with it. Wandering round the garden this month is like being at a party where people that you haven't seen for ages suddenly loom into view. You can put a name to them but you've forgotten exactly what they look like and how they talk. Meeting them again gives you a pleasurable sense of rediscovery. You remember why you liked their company. Or not. The equivalent of the party pooper here is the ground elder, pushing in round a juicy peony where it's not wanted and leering at the verbena close by.

Hyacinths, daffodils, early tulips and scillas are flowering better than I have ever seen them before. Perhaps this has something to do with the baking they got last summer. A good bake is certainly what tulips need - and too rarely get in this country. Tulipa eichleri is stunning this year, brilliant crimson scarlet flowers, the petals nipping in slightly at the waist and finishing in needle-sharp points. The backs of the outer petals are washed over in greeny buff, so in bud it looks very sober. Then it flings open its petals and reveals itself as the wildly sexy flower it is, set off against leaves that are an elegant greyish green. I am nuts about it.

It is growing among clumps of columbines, not yet in flower, of course, but the foliage is good on its own at this time of the year, greyish like the tulip's and finely cut. It is not so bossy that it gets in the way of the bulbs, but sets them off well, as does the quite different bronze foliage of early peonies such as Paeonia cambessedesii.

The leaves of this peony are much finer than those of the usual kind of garden peony, most of which have been bred from P. lactiflora. They are more pointed, glossier and finished on the undersides with a sumptuous red. The flower isn't as showy as you would expect from a garden hybrid, but it is worth waiting for, emerging as a deep pink.

Most of the plant groups that give me pleasure at the moment seem to depend on the borrowed foliage of other plants that have yet to flower. Or, in the case of Cyclamen hederifolium, that already have flowered. These cyclamen make a broad ribbon along the front of a very shady bed under a yew tree. Without their intricately veined leaves in the background, the blue scillas among them would be much less telling. In general, bulbs rarely have good foliage and benefit enormously when grown among borrowed leaves.

Each year when the bowls of early hyacinths have finished flowering in the house, the bulbs get planted outside. I use compost rather than bulb fibre in the bowls and feed the plants when they are coming up into flower. Consequently the bulbs are not totally exhausted when they go out; they quickly build up to fighting strength and are usually in bloom again outside by the following year.

There are about a hundred of them in flower now, all of them blue or white. The pink ones seem to me as odd as a red delphinium. White hyacinths grow among white flowered variegated honesty, blue and white ones among clumps of brunnera, just brushed over now with the hazy blue of their emerging flowers.

Hyacinth white is a stark, uncompromising colour - a killer with creamy narcissus. But with green or blue the startling chalkiness of the flower is an asset. It works, too, with the clear yellow of narcissi such as `February Gold' (way past its sell-by date this cold, late season) and `Quail', a beautifully scented jonquil with several flowers to a stem. The stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, gives the kind of bulk needed to fill out between a planting of these two bulbs.

Spurges also provide good backgrounds for bulbs, for the sulphurous, greeny-yellow flowers work well with a surprisingly wide range of other colours. I have tried both pink and red tulips in front of a giant spurge, Euphorbia wulfenii. This year `Rose Emperor', a Fosteriana tulip described as "cerise" filled the spot. `Cantate', also a Fosteriana, was better - a clear zinging red.

If only the arms of the hellebore H. corsicus were keener on staying upright, I'd use that as a background for tulips, too, but although the foliage is handsome and the ghostly, pale green flowerheads unselfishly willing to play a supporting role behind more flamboyant flowers, the mature stems have a fatal tendency to crash suddenly to the ground as the new growth erupts from the centre. I have used ground hugging blue Anemone blanda round them instead. When crashed on, they philosophically push flowers out either side of the obstruction, unfazed, unfussy.

The foliage of ground-covering geraniums hasn't developed enough yet to be of much help, but the thalictrum is good and has the same greyish tones as the leaves of the aquilegia. There are some pale, greyish-pink primroses growing among the thalictrums. It's a pleasant enough combination, but too twinset and pearls for my taste. A few clumps of a much darker red-purple primrose growing further up the bank would help, as a brilliant slash of lipstick might wake up a sleepy set of clothes.

The ground-covering bugle won't flower until June, but the dark, glossy bronze foliage of the variety `Atropurpurea' has been usefully setting off the blue flowers of some dwarf iris, Iris reticulata `Joyce', next to it. Having lulled me into thinking it is a Good Thing, it will now try and strangle the iris. A little bugle goes a long way. While the thin, grassy iris foliage remains above ground, staking a claim to its own lebensraum, I may remember to keep the bugle clear of it. But when the iris foliage sinks under the surface of the soil, the bugle will be over its head in an instant.

Pulmonarias are excellent foliage plants, but at the moment they are concentrating on flowering. The best leaves come later, when the flowers have finished. Pale blue `Fruhlingshimmel' does not earn its keep half as well as the much more richly coloured `Lewis Palmer' which, besides being a better colour, has more vigorous, upright growth. It goes well with the leathery growths of Mrs Robb's Bonnet, the spurge, Euphorbia robbiae. Both grow well in shade, provided it is not too dry.

The forget-me-not `Royal Blue Improved' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.09) is just starting to flower, excellent deep blue flowers with tiny white eyes. "Sufficient seed to raise approx 100+ plants," says the seed packet. Sufficient perhaps, if you don't have a mole playing silly games under your seedbed, as I did last summer. Seed was sown on 24 June and the plants set out in early October. They are growing with a crazed dwarf narcissus called `Rip van Winkle', also flowering later this year than it should. This does entirely without trumpets and produces a wild double head of two- tone yellow, more like a dandelion with attitude than a daffodil. It is mad, but doesn't realise it.

Also mad, but elegantly so, are the two-tone grape hyacinths, Muscari latifolium, that I had forgotten I planted last autumn. Instead of the grassy foliage that accompanies the normal grape hyacinths, these emerged with a single broad leaf wrapped round a navy-blue flower, finished off unexpectedly with a pale-blue topknot. They are growing with the buff double primrose `Sue Jarvis', backed by Helleborus x sternii: marbled foliage, purple stems, greeny pink flowers and far too much disfiguring leaf spot. This year I'll spray them with fungicide. Except that I won't. There are always too many more interesting jobs to do in the garden.