Suddenly the violets are in bloom, an invisible cloak of perfume that hangs heavy by the milking barn. They are planted for exactly this moment, on the bank by the path, in the lea of the building and where the early spring sunshine unlocks their early blooms and bounty. The surprise, when walking into their orbit that first spring day makes you instantly breathe deep.
The handover from winter to spring started in the third week of February and in reaction to a week of hard freeze. The catkins on the hazel fell like streamers being shot from above at a party and the silken pussies on the willows gathered in number and glistened in light reflecting shoals. A windy few days, which saw the gales leaning heavily into the garden put paid to the snowdrops, but in a perfectly orchestrated handover, the primroses were there to replace them. One or two at first and, within just a couple of days, more than you could count and running away into the distance where over the years we have been splitting and dividing.
Although it comes with a little sadness to be clearing the garden, the push of the new has made way for change. Old stems now feeling tired for the contrast of fresh buds at their base and the expectation of spring applying a mounting pressure to move on and make way.
Each year since we planted the garden, the clearances have revealed a place that is slowly hunkering down and becoming itself. The layering I had planned for and that only comes with time. Pulling back the old growth and cutting it to the base is always a good time to look and see what has really been going on under the cover of a growing season. Asters that are on the verge of running riot where they have got the upper hand on their companion. The sanguisorba that this year will need dividing to prevent them from toppling mid-season.
The clarity of the clearance also reveals the interlopers. This year it is a running epilobium which has jumped from the nearby ditch with wind-blown seed. Growing away happily and out of sight it has set up home with a mother plant and she has begun to run. Ducking and diving and popping up a new and lustrous rosette like a mole throwing up hills. Fleets of arum seedlings have also made their way in through birds that have been resting up in the spent stems of winter and pooping. The parent plants, which now have a lusty presence in the garden hedge just a few strides away, have obviously been sizing up the ‘open’ ground of the garden. Beth Chatto warned me about the Arum italicum which had taken over her woodland garden. “It is a terrible weed.” she said, “Watch out for it!”. I have been and I will, each seedling carefully removed with a long-bladed trowel, being very careful not to leave the pea-sized corm at the base.
Pull away the old growth and you find the evidence of life that has been going on under cover. Scatterings of a specific stripy snail shell, smashed around a stone where the thrushes have made their makeshift anvils. Nests of mice and voles under the thatch of the ornamental grasses. You can imagine how cosy it must have been as you pull the old growth away to expose the evidence of their foraging. Neatly gnawed holly berries and what I’m thinking might be the dismantled seed heads of the Agastache nepetoides that I’d been looking forward to for their blackened winter pokers. They mysteriously vanished over the course of a week in the autumn.
As the garden grows and becomes its own ecosystem, every year demands a specific response to retain the desired balance. I made a start this year in January where I’ve been planting bulbs and early woodlanders in the shelter of the shrubs that are now casting their influence. The Cardamine quinquefolia are already showing green when most of their companions are sleeping. Running happily amongst the dense rosettes of foliage cast by the hellebores, they make perfect company if you cut the hellebore foliage in December when making way for the flowers. The cardamine will have done its feeding and be flowered and dormant again, their short life above ground stored in wiry rhizomes and done by the time the foliage takes its space back on the hellebore.
The big clear up at the turning point between winter and spring takes place in the cross over of February into March. We take three weekends usually with the middle weekend being with invited enthusiasts and many hands on deck. Not so this year, the year of things being less social and more distanced. So the clearance will happen over a month and take another week to work our way clockwise. From the top where the Allium ‘Summer Drummer’ is already etiolated with its early growth drawn up into last year’s skeletons. We will then pass around the outside where the pulmonarias are blooming in the sun and need to be liberated and enjoyed. Finally we will draw back in to the centre, the most complicated of the beds where the detail and fingerwork is intensified. It is a process of reveals and observations, decisions and actions. One leading to another and spring engaged with through the doing.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 7 March 2021