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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the February 2013 issue

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Steffie Shields highlights winter gardens worth a visit.

Did you hear recently that a seven-year-old boy, on his first foray with his Christmas present, a metal detector, found a bomb? Not the kind of treasure his parents had in mind. For most of us, the thought of stumbling across a Saxon or Roman treasure trove conjures a frisson of hope and excitement. With February here, it’s time to wrap up, get outside and as you walk, keep your eyes peeled not just on the ground but for surprise signs of spring. Blow cobwebs and stale odours away, breathe in the brisk air deeply, and reconnect with nature. There is wealth to discover, though not necessarily of the precious metal kind.

Days may still be short, and often overcast, but take your camera with you, to capture shafts of light breaking through. A camera in the hand, even an iPhone, makes you look for pictures and focus on the minutiae, a pleasurable, invigorating and stress-freeing exercise for your mind. If the sun shines, still low in the sky, its glancing rays pick out varying textures, subtle hues, eye-pleasing form and detail. Early morning hoar frost crystals sparkle like diamonds amongst the shadows. Apparently, February in Finnish is ‘helmikuu’, meaning ‘month of the pearl’ because melting snow on tree branches forms droplets that freeze again, like ice pearls. In Old English it was called ‘Solmonath’ or ‘mud month’.

Nevertheless a winter garden or landscape stripped bare of overabundant fussiness and devoid of vibrant colour can be surprisingly beautiful, with last summer’s dead grasses now bleached blonde, and tree trunks polished or gnarled. Desiccated, veined leaves underfoot are like crispy, contemporary sculpture. Treat yourself to a visit to an open garden with family and friends. Tell them to think of it as an extended outdoor exhibition where they do not have to fight neck-craning crowds to get a glimpse of works of art.

In looking, both imagination and memory come into play. You might spot things you have never noticed before. Last February, going in close to photograph ‘lambs’ tails’ hazel catkins, I noticed, for the first time in my life, a bright red female stigma which catches pollen from the male catkins. Another day, I came across an architectural perennial, Gunnera mannicata. In summer this has spectacularly large rhubarb-like leaves resembling giant sunshades piled high. A caring gardener had neatly stacked the leaves to protect the crown of the plant from the excesses of frost. In the last throes, they seemed like folded cloths crossed by ribbed and prickled stalks, in tawny tones of brown, every vein raised, and, punctuated with holes here and there, on the way to becoming sadly skeletal. I named one photograph ‘X marks the spot’ as if the huge leaves hid a buried cache of gold. They were. Looking again, I felt enriched and gladdened by new life, a clump of snowdrops pushing up from underneath.

As soon as one aconite with green choirboy’s ruff opens its shiny, buttercup yellow face to the sun, and the very first common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is showing white, avid plant hunters are off looking for the first glimpse of nature’s bounty in those gardens open to the public. Perhaps the snowdrops’ purity or their honey scent wafting on the air attracts galanthophiles like bees to a honeypot, hoping to find unusual, rare and often quite expensive beauties. You can spot these obsessive collectors a mile off. They stop every few yards and stoop to look, while others are simply happy to walk and talk, admiring the bigger tapestry on the hoof, brown and green carpets dotted with white.

If you live in the north of the county, I recommend an excursion to Hodsock Priory, just off the A1 near Blyth, to see the ‘Snowdrop Spectacular’. It is one of the best winter gardens in the country, with a circuit walk of a mile and a half through bright-stemmed shrubs and white-carpeted woods, and an unusual ‘fan’ of snowdrops on the house lawn. Meanwhile, enjoyment is assured by a hugely ambitious 50,000 bulb planting in meadows and in amongst new woodland at the Garden House, Saxby. The images on their website, with snowdrops, winter crocus and winter iris cascading on the south-west slopes of the hillside garden, will surely inspire you to get there, by hook or by crook. Look out to see if shorter, graceful daffodils, Narcissus cyclamineus ‘February Gold’ and Narcissus ‘February Silver’ feature in the bulb fest. These should be putting in an appearance. The latter, with reflexed cream petals and pale yellow trumpet, is a favourite of mine, as is Narcissus ‘Spring Dawn’, sometimes appearing as early as January. There is now an established Winter Garden displaying rarer snowdrops in amongst hellebores and colourfully stemmed dogwoods and willows. Magic! Savour the perfume on the breeze.

Further south, besides snowdrops, acres of aconites have to be seen to be believed at Little Ponton Hall, near Grantham, along the river Witham banks and leading explorers to St Guthlac’s, the thousand-year-old parish church. I once spotted a very unusual piggy-back snowdrop (near the tennis courts). Upriver, Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire’s own ‘lost garden’, gets better year on year; a truly sensational garden for families with children to explore, with special snowdrop walks and talks for adults – not to mention heartwarming teas and cakes!

Cliff and Joan Curtis’s famous garden, 21 Chapel Street, Hacconby is another gem. With Cliff an expert breeder of galanthus, and Joan’s artist’s eye for planting, here everyone stops and bends down to inspect closely how each snowdrop differs from the last one. Much about gardening is looking; seeing the way others garden, you learn from their plants and their ideas. You will be tempted to buy new bulbs to perk up your own patch, and as a reminder of a special afternoon in a memorable garden.

This month, I will also be heading down to Queen Elizabeth Park in Grantham. Last spring, the new Diamond Grove was a hive of activity. Thanks to a Wyndham Park Forum initiative, schoolchildren from several local primary schools were busy planting hundreds of snowdrops in the green, singles and doubles, amongst sixty silver birch, Betula jaquemontii encircling an ‘Elizabeth Oak’ in honour of Her Majesty the Queen’s remarkable years of service. I do hope the children’s parents and teachers will take time to read Wordsworth’s poem with them, ‘To a Snowdrop’. It ends with these thoughts…

Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

Perhaps then, in the year marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Coronation, they will take all these children down to see the first flowering of the Diamond Grove. By now all the snowdrops’ little glistening white heads should be nodding through the grass. Will this magical surprise entice the children into the joy of gardening? Every February, their newly planted hoard will multiply, dazzling passersby with hope and uplift for many fleeting years to come. Now that’s a thought to treasure!

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