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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the April 2011 issue

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Steffie Shields delights in diminutive spring flowers. According to Google, the almighty, cyberspace guru, ‘Small Is Beautiful’ (1973) is one of the most influential books published since the Second World War, written by the economist, E F Schumacher. These three words resonate, a potent, economic phrase that is equally applicable to the very different business of choosing plants and bulbs for your garden.

As Monty Don said recently, in a ‘Daily Mail’ interview talking about real trials including a stroke a few years ago that he has had to come to terms with, and announcing his imminent return to BBC TV’s ‘Gardener’s World’: “The important thing about gardening is the little things. There’s as much pleasure in a snowdrop as in a successful career.”

Small flowers lend perspective. They are worth the stopping, stooping and studying. Take a forget-me-not. How is something so small, so common, so appealing? Five pastel boy-baby blue petals, sometimes tinged with girly-pink, are arranged around an egg-yellow coronet seemingly inside a teeny white star, and centred with a dark eye. One of Nature’s free gifts, they seed around promiscuously. Buy one, get dozens free next year! Brunnera macrophylla has a very similar, heavenly blue flower without the yellow halo, a very useful perennial to smother weeds, with its attractive, kidney-shaped, variegated silver leaves, a plant that likewise flourishes in dappled shade and sunshine on the woodland edge.

Pulmonarias have great charm, prefer semi-shade, seed around easily or can be divided, with more than their fair share of colloquial names: soldiers and sailors, spotted dog, Joseph and Mary, Jerusalem cowslip, Bethlehem sage. ‘Fairy-cap’ flowers appear first in shades of pink, fading to shades of blue, before the silver-speckled, clump-forming, somewhat lung-like leaves appear, hence another common name, lungwort. One plain-leaved variety with hairy stems, Pulmonaria rubra has minute pinkish, ruby-red flowers that do not change colour. A swathe of these has proved appropriately effective to edge a celebratory bed of Ruby Wedding anniversary roses.

In April, as the last vestiges of grey winter gloom are forgotten, we rejoice in every glimpse of fresh colour. Primula from the Latin primus means first. Smartie-coloured primulas are often the first to be bought by the dozen in market-place or garden centre. Common they may be, but their diversity and ability to hybridise intrigued Charles Darwin. I would hazard a guess that these uplifting, frilly, inexpensive, little plants are top of the pops when we contemplate spring-cleaning. I love Primula ’Duckeyes Red’, both for its name and its rich red colour.

Give yourself something bright to look at, instant gratification requiring no real effort. Simply put a clump of emerging miniature daffodils, such as the favourite Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’ in a large container. Then surround the bulbs with either a single-coloured or multi-coloured circle of primula, guaranteed to put a smile on any front door, and just the right place to hide some Easter eggs. As blue skies come and go, a royal blue container would work admirably in setting off the yellow daffodils, just right to add a flag or two for the Royal Wedding Day!

I always pause to peek into a small town garden, where the low fence is friendly, on the way to my dentist in Grantham. It is very special. Every spring the postage stamp size patch of grass in front of the house is peppered with tiny flowers – a woven tapestry of lemon-yellow cowslips, primroses, snakehead fritillaries, cyclamen, anemones and a sprinkling of forget-me-nots. Even the odd dandelion does not look out of place. A sign near the gate indicates honey for sale. The bees obviously repay this unexpected suburban treasure trove in kind.

In my own garden, I have planted up a grassy bank by the churchyard wall with primroses and a few miniature daffodils, and one Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ under the tree canopy nearby (I keep waiting for this exotic looking flower to spread so I can divide it and make a patch like one I spied at Harrington Hall). I thought the elfin Narcissus ‘Hawera’ would blend in well. It is long-lasting and fragrant, with many nodding bells per stem in the same pale, primrose-yellow tone. Unfortunately the nursery had labelled the brown paper bag of bulbs incorrectly. My hopes were dashed as bold yellow, reflexed-petalled Narcissi ‘Jetfire’ emerged instead the next spring. Their clashing, narrow orange ‘new age’ trumpets created an effect so different to my imagined ‘designer look’. Hey ho, there are worse things at sea. Gardening has taught me toleration. I have let the sleeping bulbs lie. The primroses have clumped up and appropriated the space nicely without any assistance from me. The primrose bank is probably the one, very natural area of the garden that gives me the most pleasure year after year.

Now, it must be said that some folks view the arrival of spring with some angst, reluctant to face any outdoor work. Gardening often seems off-putting, more about effort in backache-inducing or dirty chores in neglected green spaces. This need not be the case. Much of the pleasure is in looking and thinking. A friend gave me an unusual perennial wallflower. Erysimum ‘Chelsea Jacket’ enjoys full sun but is sadly short-lived. I watched closely, day by day, as each tiny, four-petalled flower opened up yellow, and then changed to a different shade of pink and tangerine, as if Nature was a contemporary artist.

Gardening is also about planning ahead. Let your imagination wander as you browse through a rack of seeds in the garden centre. Better still, visit the Spilsby Daffodil Show on Saturday 16th April (see County Calendar for full details) to compare colours and sizes and get ideas and names for   miniature bulbs to plant next autumn. Easton Walled Gardens is sure to have miniature daffodils among its 100 labelled narcissus varieties. The National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book is widely available with places, directions and times, and there are plenty of gardens to visit in aid of the Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance, or the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust. When you spot a bulb or plant that you covet for your own patch, make a note of it there and then. Better still, stick a yellow post-it note with the names into the September pages of your diary to remind you when to go out shopping for bulbs! Faced with an enticing array of packets of bulbs, the decision-making will be much easier and quicker.

Every September, or early October, I treat myself to a few, new varieties of miniature daffodils or tulips, such as the delicate, early Tulipa bakerei ‘Lilac Wonder’. I pot them up and when they break cover stand them near the front door, so that, coming and going, I can get to know and enjoy them. After flowering, I choose a suitable spot to dig them into the garden, and instantly forget where I have put them! This way, each spring I am encouraged out to explore, tidying as I go, looking for surprises. All the little, nodding flowers seem to multiply by magic, as the wind whispers the tune “small is beautiful”.

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