April Showers

Reading time 11 minutes

Unpredictability is the name of the game when it comes to British weather, but one old proverb certainly promises to ring true in 2019:

March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.’

Whilst the warmth and vitality of May still feel a long way off, March and April are fulfilling their time-honoured roles as bringers of wind and rain. After the set-back of destructive gales in March, my garden’s pent up energy is being released by cool showers, gentle mists and persistent drizzle. If I put my ear to the ground I might hear the earth humming with life as a trillion bacteria, a thousand bugs and a labyrinth of roots get back to work after winter. The speed at which plants will grow over the next six weeks is astonishing; many are already out of the starting blocks, especially those from the Canary Islands and Madeira where winters are mild and spring arrives much earlier than here in England. Ten or more Geranium maderense plants have made it through the winter unscathed, and hundreds more are popping up in pots, borders and between paving slabs. The seeds are unbelievably resilient, remaining viable for many years after they were produced. This is helpful when an entire generation is wiped out by a cold snap.

Geranium maderense from Madeira is a fabulous foliage plants as well as being spectacular in bloom.

Late last summer I planted a very young Sonchus palmensis (La Palma sow-thistle) in the corner of my raised bed. I have no idea how hardy these unusual ‘tree dandelions’ are supposed to be, but it has grown three feet in six months and appears to be happier than ever. Thus far my plant has all the poise and elegance of a weed on a stick. I am reassured by photographs of mature specimens that it will one day rival Geranium maderense for both foliage and flower-power – that is, if I can keep it alive sufficiently long. The image below, showing an explosion of fluffy yellow flowers, is taken from the website of Annie’s Annuals, a fantastic source of rare and interesting seeds if you live in the USA and one of my favourite reference points. The bright yellow profusion of Sonchus palmensis, alongside the scorching pink of Geranium maderense would make quite a spring spectacle.

Sonchus palmensis is endemic to the Canary Island of La Palma where it grows in coastal forests up to 1000m. Photograph: Annie’s Annuals.

Meanwhile I am eager to crack on with painting the Jungle Garden’s perimeter woodwork, including a section that was battered when my magnificent lyonothamnus (Santa Cruz ironwood) was cruelly toppled in March. It’s not a difficult job, but it does require fine weather and ready access, which only come together for a short period in spring before all the plants grow up.

Come June I should have new boundary fencing in the Gin & Tonic Garden. This will require a serious amount of time to decorate before my garden opening in August. Unfortunately my carpenter’s skills do not stretch as far as painting – at least that’s what he tells me – but he will do an excellent job of the carpentry and that’s all that matters. It will be huge relief to have this work completed as the mere sight of the current fencing makes my eyes bleed. Putting up new fencing will be like putting a new frame around a beautiful picture.

The outdoor kitchen has already had a fresh coat of paint.

Pots of bulbs that I started planting in September and that were not completed until the very end of last year are now coming into their own. I have said before that little harm is done by planting bulbs late, although one has to expect that flowering may happen later. By and large I don’t mind that. Just now I have a lot of narcissi to look forward to. In most English gardens they are long gone. Only N. ‘Cornish Chuckles’, grown from a batch of bulbs I purchased in Cornwall on a whim, has come up stunted and blind. Narcissi prefer to get their roots established before winter and so I’d always recommend planting these before any other spring-flowering bulbs. With luck ‘Cornish Chuckles’ will settle down and flower nicely next spring.

Tulips ‘Turkish Delight’, ‘Purissima Design’ and ‘Montreaux’ are among the first to bloom at The Watch House.

Despite spending a fortune on bulbs last summer and then struggling to plant them all – a task achieved only thanks to The Beau – I now wish I had purchased twice as many. This thought occurs to me every spring (my bank manager, if I had one, would wholeheartedly disagree). There is currently a complete absence of narcissi, tulips or hyacinths in the Gin & Tonic Garden since I have used them all up ‘next door’. I’ve suggested to The Beau that he can choose his own colour scheme for that space if he helps me again this autumn, and so far he seems willing.

Hyacinth ‘Gypsy Queen’ has a special place in my heart and pleases my nose no end.

Hyacinths are flowers that I never plant enough of. Although not to everyone’s taste, hyacinths are one of the easiest and earliest bulbs to bloom, pumping out ridiculous amounts of scent. In a small garden like mine, two or three pot-fulls are enough to fill the space with a cloud of heady perfume. This year I have only planted Hyacinth ‘Gypsy Queen’, which has soft-peach flowers suffused with coral-pink. Normally I would have planted H. ‘Woodstock’ alongside, but I resisted the urge when my bulb order went over the spending limit I set myself. Now I regret not being more frivolous.

This spring display is rather tame compared to summer, but I love all the varied textures.

A terracotta pan of Pleione formosana ‘Clare’ has been flowering for weeks. It is neglected for the majority of the year, tucked away somewhere cool and shady. In January I repotted the bulbs (correctly pseudobulbs), being careful to preserve the tiny new ones attached to whisps of dead leaf. I have added to my orchid collection a rust and yellow calanthe (could it be C. bicolour?) and a cypripedium (slipper orchid) which has yet to flower. I am hoping it will be white as the plant was unnamed and could be anything …. although hopefully an orchid! Creating an airy backdrop to my arrangement is Acacia verticillata ‘Riverine Form’, an acacia which impersonates a pine until tiny lozenges of primrose-yellow start appearing along each branch. In its native Australia this large shrub or small tree is called ‘prickly Moses’.

Calanthe orchids

Rain over the last week has freshened everything up. The garden is luminous in the mornings as the sun filters through the trees planted along the eastern edge of the Jungle Garden. It’s so good to have light mornings back. I am getting out of bed even earlier, purely to have five minutes to spend inspecting everything before I head to the station. May, with it’s abundant flowers, will be here soon enough. For now I am content to enjoy all the newly emergent greens and to make plans for the year ahead. TFG.

After the rain

Categories: Bulbs, Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, fragrance, Orchids, Our Coastal Garden, Plants, Small Gardens, Weather

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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46 comments On "April Showers"

    1. Hello Maxime. I keep narcissi only. I throw the tulips and hyacinths away and start again each year. They do not flower reliably from one season to the next if kept in pots. Some might, but it’s not worth the risk. The white flower is Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’. Very easy to grow and lovely when the sun comes out to make the flowers open.

    2. Your garden is all looking beautiful.
      My favourite tulip so far this year is ‘Burnt Sugar’. ‘Guiseppe Verdi’ was very early and a welcome splash of cheerful yellow with red highlights.
      The weather must be a bit topsy-turvy east to west, I had to water my pots today!

  1. So inspiring. I also grow a lot of bulbs in pots due to lack of room to plant them. I don’t have much luck keeping them from year to year though so a lot end up as ‘annuals’. Do you keep yours in the pots or do you have a similar problem?

    1. I only keep narcissi from one year to the next. Everything else is thrown out. Pots do not provide ideal conditions for reflowering unless you are prepared to be very diligent indeed. Treat them as annuals and you’ll get a better result on the whole. Dan

  2. Love the picture of calanthe orchids. Mine in Norfolk have some old chewed leaves (slugs?) but have new shoots about half an inch tall showing through so hopefully some flowers anon.

    1. I hope so! I have not grown calanthes long enough to know if slugs are an issue, but best to keep them away. Have you tried putting grit around them? Or copper tape? (The orchids that is, not the slugs!)

  3. I am just back from almost 3 weeks in Costa Rica. The plants there reminded me of your garden. Everything so lush and such different ‘tropical’ foliage and flowers. Seeing it all inspires me to try to turn my patio into a jungle oasis this summer. Nothing that could rival your garden but I hope to have splashes of color and form inspired by your garden.

    1. Lucky you! Costa Rica is on my bucket list. I’d love to go. My next trip is to Miami so I am hoping to experience the tropics from there. Lots of interesting gardens to visit during my stay. Can’t wait!

      I think it’s a good idea to start with a small space like a patio when creating a jungle at home. You’ll soon find it gets addictive though! Dan

  4. Have you succeeded in finding an ipheion that does not spread? Mine are battling with hyacinthoides and overwhelming all around them. So pretty but so invasive.

    1. Mine are mostly in pots. I have a few that tuck themselves into a narrow border but they don’t make a nuisance of themselves. Perhaps dig them out and replant in a pot or trough where they are contained? They’d look terrific in a zinc planter.

  5. Simply gorgeous Dan. Spring is my favourite season and I am loving seeing all the lovely bulbs appear. You may have already mentioned this somewhere, but I am curious to know who you use to buy your bulbs from.

    1. Since I have been buying more and more I’ve had to go ‘wholesale’. All this means is buying a minimum of 25 per variety normally, which is the minimum I plant in one pot anyway. It’s a much cheaper way to buy bulbs and I use J Parker’s. Never had a problem with them. You always get one or two dodgy bulbs whoever you use. Before that I bought from Sarah Raven, but I can only afford to look there for inspiration now. Dan

      1. SR bulbs are lovely and I usually treat myself to one of her collections, but I also used J Parker this year and they have been fine. I bought several other bulbs from them and they have all been excellent. I plant around 15 bulbs to a pot, but my pots aren’t huge as I struggle to lift them!

  6. Such evocative descriptions of being in the garden in early spring: the awakening of the earth, the emerging foliage all around, the earlier morning light filtering through the trees and getting up earlier to catch it before heading off. You capture the feeling so beautifully. Even the usually utilitarian item, the fence, is elevated – from a chore to repair and stain to a ‘frame around a beautiful picture’. I will view the fence through rose-coloured glasses now 🙂

    1. Thanks you Simonne. You are kind! I do think edges define a garden. By that I don’t mean they must be sharp edges, but a neat fence, a cleanly-edged lawn or a smart path will elevate a garden even if the bits in between are permitted to get a little ‘billowy’. I favour exuberance and abundance, but if every element is allowed to go wild the overall effect can be rather blurry and difficult to read.

      Someone will now present me with an example that proves me horribly wrong, but some structure is my personal preference and very few gardens succeed without any. Dan

      1. I couldn’t agree more! Though I tend to let things go wild much more than I should, I once read a garden article with the headline ‘profusion and formality’ and I have never forgotten that title. It kind of sums up my ideal garden and it’s always on my mind as I putter and dream and design. That, and Christopher Lloyd’s admonitions about ‘whiskery edges’!

  7. Oh my gosh look at all those fabulous flowers!!! Nothing blooming here yet, although the lilacs buds are swelling and should leaf out soon. We are in zone 5a on the mountain top – you must be in a much warmer zone? And of course, an enclosed garden also creates a micro-climate that would help with all those tropicals as well. Gorgeous garden!

    1. Hi Debbie! Not long now. Spring will be with you soon.

      We don’t typically use the USDA zones here, although I think they are very useful. Technically the Isle of Thanet where I live is 9a. Because I am close to the sea and have a microclimate I would say I was 9b, going on 10a. Nowhere in the UK is 5a – the lowest we go is 7a in the Scottish Highlands. Hence I am not surprised there isn’t much happening there yet! Dan

  8. I love the sonchus. I saw one in the glasshouse at Cambridge Botanical Garden last week, I didn’t realise it is hardy. My Geranium maderense is flowering for the first time in the greenhouse this year which is a great treat. I am jealous of those gorgeous calanthe orchids.

    1. I don’t know for sure that sonchus are hardy, but I am going to assume mine is. I have no space to bring it indoors anyway, so it must take its chances. Looks like S. palmensis can be grown from seed as well. As you know, I love to experiment. It’s more fun than extreme sports and less likely to kill me!

  9. Am so looking forward to visiting your garden this year on the NGS open day. I love your blog Thankyou, you are such an inspiration x

    1. Thank you Marjorie. That’s kind of you. I just do what I do and am glad if people find it interesting. I’m anticipating that the garden opening might be quite busy this year, but do come and say hello if you can find me among the foliage. Dan

  10. Another beautiful and inspiring blog Dan. Reading it when having a bad day …and I can’t tell you how much it has lifted my spirits. Your bulb theatre is superb. Hyacinth Gypsy queen and Geranium Mandrenese Alba now on my 2019 shopping list ..along with Canna Musifolia and anything else you may have yet to write about ! Go easy on any new recommendations will you ? xx😀.

      1. Oh, how sad. I do not grow tulips because they do not do so well here after their first bloom. The best option here is to discard them after bloom. I prefer to grow perennials that are more sustainable.

  11. Your blogs are always inspiring and I keep rereading them and admiring the photos of your garden! I have now become obssessed with trying new spring bulbs that I havent tried before and stopped feeling guilty about only keeping narcissus. My tulips are just starting to flower, hopefully they wont be damaged by the strong winds. I look forward to reading your next blog. Thanks for the pleasure you give.

    1. Thank you. It’s always lovely to hear when someone enjoys a post. I try to keep them interesting. Experimentation is vital in a garden. You very quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. The secret is knowing when to move on!

      I hope your tulips look marvellous when they’re out in full. Dan

    1. They are so lush at the moment. Mine seem undecided about whether to flower this year or not. I suspect not as it’s getting rather late now. This means I have another 12 months to enjoy the foliage, but I run the gauntlet of a cold winter which could finish them off.

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