Saturday 20th December 2014
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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the March 2013 issue

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Lately, looking out at my frozen, neglected garden from my cosy study, everything has seemed black and white. Strange how a blanket of snow tidies and simplifies the scene. Crisp snow, lightening the winter gloom, smoothes over tangled detritus, dormant plants and abandoned twigs. It coats the edges of branches and tree trunks, until the scene resembles a black and white woodcut engraving.

One sparkling, bright morning, after a fresh fall of snow during the night, I took my camera to Burghley. By the time I got there, fog had descended on the park. I trudged through a white, otherworldly void, noticing the reverential hush and the lime trees suddenly looming out of the mist. Some towering and elegant veterans date from the late seventeenth century, airily laden with rounded baubles of mistletoe, some haggard and stumpy, having had their ancient heavy branches lopped, or pollarded. As if I had reverted back to black and white film, my digital colour photographs recorded a stark landscape, a surreal white-out imbued with melancholy.

As the days slowly lengthen, even if trees remain dead to the world, a creeping carpet of nodding white snowdrops and shiny yellow aconites appear, as if by magic, lifting spirits. Thankfully, the dismal, mostly monotonous, months are nearly done. Colour and variety is what we crave. Just as children love Smarties, so adults love gay clothes, bright jewels, paintings and butterflies. We are creatures of habit, following each season, the rhythm of nature. The need for colour – especially in our gardens – is in our DNA.

Every now and then someone, or something, creates a stir, wakes or even startles us and makes us change our outlook – even the way we garden. The London 2012 Olympic Park Meadows was one such moment – where visitors and volunteers alike were mesmerized by the contrived wildness of the park, walking amongst acres of vibrant meadows dotted with a patchwork of flowers. Fashion shakes us out of endless torpor; makes us feel fresh, invigorated, renewed, part of the current swim of things. Even town roundabouts are set to change from ordered patterns of bedding to the prevailing style: colourful wildness, grasses and bold and towering perennials threaded with flowering swathes in jewel colours. I confess an element of scepticism. Time will tell if these summer meadows will endure, and prove a cost-effective and ‘easy to manage’ option.

If I have my doubts about this latest craze, may I draw to your attention the spring meadows in many of our gardens, appearing now – the same effect in miniature. Little need for us to do much, other than clear away remnants of decaying leaves and enjoy the spectacle. Save for wispy willow tresses, now a haze of greenish-yellow, the trees may still be bare, but daffodil battalions are on the move. The world is waking, from the ground up; a rainbow mix of low-growing flowers all unfurling effortlessly, in an exciting, woven tapestry of plant matter.

Rather than ‘trooping for colour’, to the garden centre or supermarket, buying short-lived annuals to pot up to brighten your doorstep and patio, why not plant out a few spring treats in your garden? Miniature iris, narcissi, croci, speedwell and blue scillas, hellebores, pink lamium and baby cyclamen, pink and blue lungwort; intermingle them with everyone’s favourite little mounds of pale, lemon-yellow primroses. All will multiply, doubling up bulbs, seeding around or spreading their tuberous roots, and year on year develop into a low-growing multitude, a spring meadow in amongst grass and under the trees and shrubs. Every year they will paint a different picture. Besides a gentle ‘primrose bank’ near the church wall, I have introduced gaily coloured dogwood stems, or Cornus, and lime-green Euphorbia robbiae to frame a ‘wilderness’ on view from our newly-extended kitchen window. We now look out on a feast of multicoloured, growing ‘sweets’, multi-happiness without affecting our waistlines. What’s more, as they propagate freely, we have no real idea where they will travel to next. Random surprises are the best!

Funny how the leaves of so many plants that we love are heart-shaped. Every spring, I am reminded of the first flower I ever really noticed. I remember sitting on the ground, probably not much older than a carefree toddler, studying the shiny buttercup-yellow celandine, a perennial that still makes me smile. Sweet-smelling violets, or ‘Heartsease’, also have heart-shaped leaves, and spread just as wantonly; great ground cover, requiring an occasional short, back and sides in autumn. Their deep purple flowers seem shy to show themselves, but make darling little bunches for children to pick, even toddlers. Have no fear, the entire plant is edible, the flowers rich in vitamins A and C. We inherited Viola odorata ‘Alba’ in shady places in the garden. When the tiny, delicate flowers first appear, the pure white flowers have the faintest tinge of purple and tiny yellow centres to attract pollinators. Bees are now out in force darting from flower to flower to source every speck of pollen, their gentle buzzing adding to the enjoyment. They populate pretty pink and blue flowered lungwort, Pulmonaria, also with attractive clumps of silvery-dotted leaves invaluable later as fillers in borders. The leaves of Pulmonaria rubra are plainer but the dainty, coral-red flowers sit well under red-stemmed dogwoods, otherwise known as Cornus. Ladybirds sneak out from their hiding places to bask on sun-soaked leaves and the odd butterfly flutters by. A world of colour is waking up.

For something different, may I recommend a clump or two of Corydalis ‘George Baker’ with tubular orange-red flowers, as an eyecatching foil for too many sugary-coloured flowers. This will die down and faithfully reappear for next spring’s show. The same goes for Anemone blanda, a Mediterranean flower that is a firm favourite of mine. Sow a couple of handfuls of their tiny black corms in autumn, the more the merrier. You will delight in a show of blue daisies blowing in the wind. They also come in purples, pinks and whites. Visiting a friend’s garden in Folkingham, I spied Ipheion uniflorum, a perennial with white and lilac-tinged star-shaped flowers. I must add that to my shopping list. Yes, here in black and white, I admit to plantaholic tendencies, there’s so much colour to choose from. Beware March madness!

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