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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the April 2015 issue

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Steffie Shields shares her favourite Easter sweets

April has to be my favourite month, but I have to hear the hymn ‘All in the April Evening’ to get in the mood. I have many reasons to celebrate. Firstly, I married the love of my life in April. Secondly, I adore Easter sunshine, Lincolnshire lambs and chocolate – who doesn’t? And thirdly, seeing every aspect of my garden bursting with new life, I feel re-energised.

These days, I manage to forget the ‘chosen few’; the select plants I introduced last year. So there are pleasing surprises when I venture out to explore and potter. Every day some plant is packing its tips with promise of joining in the party. Diamond dewdrops dazzle eyes. Little ‘sweets’ are peeking, a rainbow of gems amongst spring green leaves. My garden is better than a sweet shop, and less fattening! Here are a few suggestions to refresh your garden after the amusing ritual Easter egg hunt has come and gone.

Persuade your children or grandchildren to help you on a mission: Operation ‘Rise and Shine’. Make it a game to hunt out each one on a short shopping list of specially named bulbs and plants in a garden centre or nursery. If my four-year-old granddaughter Emily is anything to go by, they will also love the action on getting home, planting up pots, selecting spots to plant them out and watering in fascinating rainbow coloured, nodding friends.

The story will continue when the show begins next spring and their hidden treasures begin to peep again, and then later shine in drifts of colour, as if to say ‘Remember last year’s fun?’ and ‘Time to step out in the spring sunshine and enjoy’!

The award-winning Narcisssus ‘Topolino’ is top of my ‘pick and mix’ list, the 2014 Spring Flower of the Year. Any child is guaranteed to love this little mini-hybrid, only five to six inches tall. The name means ‘Little Mouse’ in Italian. Its creamy-yellow, dainty little flower, matures to white with a cheerful, frilly yellow trumpet. An engaging fragrance, some say reminiscent of chocolate and vanilla combined, cannot fail to make you smile. As I write I long to see the clutch of ‘Topolino’ I planted out last year in the view from our new kitchen window, in amongst Cyclamen repandens. We found these baby, sugar-candy pink cyclamens resident in the garden when we first moved in. They flower their heads off from March until the bluebells come out and have never looked better, or more Eastery, than teamed with ‘Topolino’.

My second happiness-making spring flower is a perennial that rarely gets a mention, perhaps because this bright yellow daisy competes with Wordsworth’s hosts of golden daffodils taking the eye and the heart. I first caught sight of Doronicum orientale at Howick Gardens, Northumberland, one of the best corners of paradise I have had the fortune to wander in. A dappled drift danced in the shade of a towering copper beech tree; a sensational, complementary combination once seen never forgotten. I now have quite a clump established on the shady eastern edge of my patch. Each flower is a pure gold medallion, a burst of sunrays like in every child’s drawing, especially backlit by early morning sunbeams.

Paeonia lutea, the yellow tree peony, reaches for the sky. For one brief moment, its unfurling leaves, tinged in red, seem like clapping pairs of hands, welcoming the season with applause. The buds swell and finally open to reveal tissue paper flowers, like saucer-less lemon breakfast cups. My all-sorts primrose bank beside the church is just as heart-warming. I confess to loving cowslips more, in clustered wild colonies; yellow smarties communing on roadside verges and in churchyards.

You need at least one exotic plant to make your visitors stop and admire your garden. Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ adds a touch of eastern promise to a shady dell. This is a little show-off, yellow again but with an amusing jagged ring of rusty orange. Be careful, when on a spring clean mission, not to strim away its leaves before the Turkscap flower arrives, as my husband once did!

I have now established a hyacinth and euphorbia walk along the edge. Bright lime-green Euphorbia robbiae helps to offset all the candy colours. Be warned: this perennial is a runner and has steadily moved itself around my private ‘pleasure ground’! I usually grow hyacinths in pots the first year, before planting them out. I much prefer hyacinths growing naturally in amongst grass. The flower spikes seem less clumpy. White hyacinth, following on from snowdrops, look just as elegant under my three silver birch trees. Strange how catkins also seem to hang in threes.

Every year without fail, hyacinths remind me of the ‘Easter bonnet’ biscuits my daughter Gabrielle and I once made. First, we enjoyed picking a basket of delicate flowerheads. Then we stuck a marshmallow with a fine coating of white icing onto a thin disc of shortbread. Next, we dipped each fragile floret briefly in white of egg and then into caster sugar to preserve them. Lastly we added an edible Easter flower to each bonnet: pink, white and blue hyacinth bells, lemon primrose or purple violets. (NB. Please do not be tempted to use miniature daffodils, which are poisonous.) What sticky yet very pretty fun!

April without daffodils, perish the thought. So I make no apologies for returning to this festive flower. Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ is strong, ruffled and reliable, a light sorbet contrast. The Springfield Daffodil 2015 Show is an event not to be missed, with a block-busting range of flowers to amaze. Go see the gorgeous all-white Narcissus ‘Lincolnshire Lady’. She should star in every garden in the county!

Complete your shopping list with a tulip to star on your world stage next year: Tulipa ‘Shakespeare’. Look forward to the 2016 Quatercentenary anniversary of the Bard’s death with these dramatic Kaufmanniana species early tulips, carmine red and salmon-edged – little six-inch prima donnas, perfect for the playwright’s April birthday.

Nostalgia too plays its role. Last Easter, I took Gabrielle and her daughter Emily to Bowthorpe Park Farm, a stone’s throw from Witham-on-the-Hill, to meet the mighty Bowthorpe Oak. This iconic tree, much like Lincoln Cathedral, has a spiritual presence and essence that comes with age. Its rugged bark is now so sculptural, its weighty limbs are held up with iron chains.

One of few trees one can step inside, its innards are riddled with woodworm and etched with initials of vandal visitors. Remarkably, and marvellously, it carries on living, a halo of fresh, green leaves reappearing for perhaps the thousandth time.

Creamy, curly lambs gambolling in the field made a delightful contrast to the immovable old tree. Suddenly, one curious, cute lamb emerged from the cave-like heart of the oak. How sweet and unexpected an Easter gift was that?

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