Steffie Shields finds inspiration in February’s garden gems.
By the time you read this you have probably had your fill of snow. Pretty as a Christmas card at first, it soon hampers the smooth running of daily lives, leaving a trail of salty grime on roadside verges. Freezing temperatures bite our extremities as we slip and slide for cover to the warmth of home. Cruel Nature. But linger a moment in the garden, especially when the sunshine is fleeting. Observe how she compensates the dank season, suddenly surprising with zillions of sparkling jewels of frost and snowflake decorating each sculpted, seemingly lifeless twig and tendril.
Last winter, a magical walk in the snow, up a becalmed, country lane, set me thinking about jewellery makers. I paused to photograph glinting, snow crystals clasped by skeletal hogweed and spiny cow parsley seed heads. The creators of late nineteenth century Art Nouveau were inspired by Nature in devising similar pronged settings for diamond cluster rings and brooches. I was surrounded by sprays of diamonds more visually dazzling than those in Aspreys or Tiffanys.
An inscription by Anne Rickets, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, in Prince Charles’s celebrated garden at Highgrove reads: ‘A garden is a reflection of the stars in the sky.’ Was she thinking of snowdrops, I wonder? Of course, this is the month for winter’s gems, glistening like stars when back-lit in low winter sunlight. Did you know that, rather than ‘drop of snow’, this is an old English word for ‘earrings’, those pendants of white stone worn in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? This wee, nodding, fragrant flower has naturalised so many wintry woodlands, especially around monastic settlements and graveyards, when all around seems more than depressingly dormant. Like the single pearl drop earring in Vermeer’s Portrait of a Girl, perfectly pure and snow-white the emerging petals hang, dangling delicately, precariously, by a green stem little more than a hair’s width, yet holding the weight of so much promise and hope. Spring is around the corner.
The proper Latin name, galanthus, or ‘milk flower’, is somehow not quite so romantic. For those ‘galanthophiles’ addicted to this powerful if miniscule herald of new life, there are several opportunities for a seasonal ‘fix’ both within and without the county borders. The Little Ponton Hall charity opening (Sat 12, Sun 13 February 2011) offers intimate winter walks in the gardens that will invigorate and charm, amongst snowdrop multitudes and special hellebores, with amazing drifts of yellow aconites leading towards the little eleventh century Church, St Guthlac’s, and along the River Witham. Further upriver, following a widely acclaimed renaissance, Easton Walled Gardens is celebrating ten years of opening by offering a ‘Snowdrop Spectacular’ (Sat 12 – Sun 20 February 2011, open daily 11-4). Plantswoman Jackie Murray will be on hand every day to give free short talks at 12.30 and 2.30 and there will be an Indoor display of rare and unusual snowdrops, some also for sale. If you live north of Lincoln, check out the websites of Goltho House Gardens and the newly- designed garden at The Garden House, Saxby, for their snowdrop opening dates and times.
Beyond the county line, the famous winter garden at Hodsock Priory, just off the A1 near Blyth, is a must (1st February to 4th March 2011, open daily 10-4). For those living nearer the bottom of Lincolnshire, less than an hour’s drive further south, you will find Anglesey Abbey, the home of Lord Fairhaven, situated between Newmarket and Cambridge. Now in the hands of the National Trust, with a splendid visitor centre, it has been described as a ‘garden to make you gasp’. An easy, flat and winding circuit walk offers a pleasurable surprise around every corner, quite simply the best winter planting I have ever set eyes on: carpets of snowdrops, aconites and ivy-leaved cyclamen amidst stunning stems of fiery red cornus and vibrant yellow willow, then contrasting clusters of contorted hazel, and sentinel cherry trees with copper bark. Groves of ghost-like Betula ‘Jacquemontii’, are especially scrubbed down by Head Gardener and plant enthusiast, Richard Todd. These ‘White Stem Birch Trees’ seem ethereal, as if angels giving praise, set against a backdrop of lush pines and cypress, and fragrant winter blossoming shrubs, delicate pink viburnums and daphnes, wand-like lemon-yellow florets on shiny mahonias and clouds of cream winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima. Be warned – the garden is now so famous that, at peak times, galanthophiles throng the circuit like rush-hour on the M25!
Last year, at Belton, National Trust volunteers were encouraged to help divide and plant snowdrops ‘in the green’ immediately after flowering, the recommended way to plant the tiny bulbs. So this year’s show should be even more spectacular. (Belton Park and Garden, Grantham, opens from Sat 5 Feb – Sun 27 Feb 2011, 12-4.) Such admirable volunteer activity has given me a ‘Big Society’ idea – one way to celebrate Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Of course many trees will be planted, celebratory parties organised, and artworks commissioned to mark this remarkable milestone in a lifetime of service to the country. A different, lasting and ever-spreading tribute would be to invest in sixty snowdrop bulbs for your garden. If you already have masses, even drifts, why not dig up and give at least sixty bulbs to a friend. You could donate clumps to your local park – to make a diamond patch. I mention the suggestion now so that some of you might be spurred into taking action in the next few weeks. Perhaps gardening clubs and allotment associations might donate sixty silver birches to be under-planted with snowdrops to a green community space or school ground that needs lifting. Create a magical Diamond Dell! Then in February 2012, when all the snowdrop flowers appear as if by magic, there will be an even better array of glittering prizes throughout the county for everyone to enjoy, a lovely way for Lincolnshire to offer appreciative congratulations to our special Queen.