Life has begun to stir, the snowdrops suddenly visible and lighting the gloom. Over the last ten years I have been adding to a ribbon that is designed to draw us out into the landscape. It starts in the hedges close to the house and skips down the ditch in a stop-start rhythm where I have found the places that they like to be. Not too wet and with just enough shadow to keep the grass down once they have come into leaf and do their bulking. They reappear then down by the stream to run its length and ensure we walk our stretch whilst we can still get to the water in winter. The gesture demands generosity and commitment to adding to the trail, like a conversation you come back to, but is never really done.
We need to think expansively beyond the curtilage of the garden, where the land takes over and we could never nor want to control all that we see. Although the touch by necessity needs to be light in these wilder places, it should also feel generous. Not in a conspicuous way, but right because you have found a niche and then followed it. The big moves always start with a small one. Finding the place that a plant likes to be and understanding why and then going with it.
Working at scale in these wilder places demands both patience and persistence. Neither feel forced or hard won when the mother plants begin to seed. The primrose splits from five years ago came from a colony that was hiding amongst a cage of brambles. We fenced the ditch to keep out the livestock, cut away the brambles and the primroses proliferated on the hummocky slopes where each had its little microclimate. The splits – taken early in April not long after the primroses had peaked – were found a similar position and, where we hit the sweet spot, they are showing their happiness there in seedlings. The seedlings slowly erase your hand. The regular rhythm you try to avoid when planting, but cannot help but read when you look back on what you have done. The seedlings skip a beat, their seed taken to a new place by ants. The ones that come through feel right for having found their own place.
By its very nature my role as the ‘gardener’ of these natural processes cannot help but want for a little more. So where splits have proved to be too slow – the mother plants taking time to bulk – I have taken to collecting seed. This is ripe in June, but you have to watch carefully then as the plants are often consumed in the shadow of summer vegetation. The seed is best sown fresh or it begins to enter a period of dormancy that is hard to break. Fresh seed germinates erratically, some in the late summer and over autumn, but the majority in the spring after it has had time for the frost to do its work.
I sow three or four plug trays each year (between 300-400 plants) casting the seed over the tray and then top-dressing with sharp grit to protect it. Sowing annually means that I have a relay of seedlings on the go. Seedlings are left in the trays for 18 months and planted out just about now, when there is time for their early growth to get ahead of the competition. This year the seedlings are going into the steep banks up behind the house, where the sheep have opened up the ground with heavy grazing and poaching. The slope is south-facing and primroses love to bask in early sunshine. Here the bees find them early too. The summer cover of the grassland that rises up around them will keep them in the shade they like later.
Also in mass production and destined for the wilder places are some locally sourced bluebells grown from seed. This is not bluebell country, their niche here being on the heaviest clay in the woods and not where it is too rich and competitive. I have been studying our ground to find the place where I imagine they might thrive, even just in pockets so that we have some pools of blue in the coppice.
Then there are the bulbs that are too expensive to buy in bulk and that I hanker for en masse. Camassia leichtlinii originally bought as ‘Amethyst Strain’ from Avon Bulbs and now renamed Avon Stellar Hybrids, are destined for the ditch. Well-named for their colour range of mauves and lavenders, their propensity to rampant seeding in the open ground of the garden will be mediated by the competition of grass. Tulipa sprengeri (at a prohibitive £5 a bulb) comes easily from seed if you are prepared to wait, as does the pale-flowered form of the native early winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis ‘Schwefelglanz’. I plan for sheets of this butter-yellow form one day, in the places that are too damp for the snowdrops, but on the same trail and flowering with them in January. Though the wait is usually five years to flower for most of the bulbs, the beauty of sowing every year means that there is always a tray finishing the relay and ready to join the land of plenty.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 30 January 2021