Where just a fortnight ago time felt like it was still in hand, spring stirrings are now telling us otherwise. Green in the hawthorn hedges reminds me that I still have the remains of bare root whips that have yet to be found a home. Flower buds fattening on the pears might well need protection and at ground level there is activity everywhere. Bittercress rearing to flower to seed another generation and shoots on the peonies already scarlet and glistening with the vigour of the new season. All change and no holding back now.
We are pushing to finish the mulching, combing the beds one last time for weeds and seedlings that might go unnoticed once the mulch goes down. The rash of Digitalis ferruginea, which has germinated in the last fortnight will be stifled by the mulch, but we will apply it only thinly or not at all where we want them to replace the older generation. The Great Dixter team call this ‘intelligent mulching’ which always seems like such a good way of engaging with what you do and don’t want when applying this protective eiderdown.
The first sightings of self-sown Beth’s poppy and eschscholzia are a good litmus and we start to sow other hardy annuals as soon as we see them. Larkspur, Love-in-a-Mist and Shirley poppies are sown directly, disturbing the ground where we want them and making sure they retain enough headspace to grow sufficiently strong to be able to run up to flower without being outcompeted by neighbours. We sow plugs of Orlaya grandiflora, Ammi majus and Ammi visnaga so that they can be introduced into any unplanned gaps that might appear. These are started off in the polytunnel where we also have plugs of early vegetables that appreciate the start of early warmth. Salad, chard, slow to germinate parsley and pots of dwarf French beans to steal a march on open sowings in the garden.
Triggered by the shift in the season and a growing feeling of needing to get a move on, I’ve been going through the seed boxes and found to my dismay that we’d completely overlooked sowing the Lathyrus odoratus alongside the other sweet peas in the autumn. They will be not be as strong as autumn or February sown sweet peas, but they may well provide us with a nicely staggered supply of blooms. We will be sure to watch them for the mice by keeping them out of reach on the staging, as they can so easily ravage a generation of peas before they have even germinated. The stocky young plants from last autumn’s sowing are ready to go out now after being hardened off in a well-ventilated frame.
I sow a number of perennials from seed so that I can grow them on and produce them in the numbers I need to make a planting flow. The green form of Bupleurum perfoliatum and unusual umbellifers that are hard to find. With bulbs such as Tulipa sprengeri and locally harvested Bath Asparagus (Ornithogalum pyreniacum) I sow every year so that I have a steady flow of plants. The four to five year wait feels like nothing once you have them in relay and the first three years behind you.
I started the same process with Anemone pavonina (main image) last summer. I bought the parent plants from Beth Chatto. She was originally given them by Cedric Morris who had collected seed from plants on a Greek hillside. Knowing the provenance of a plant adds immeasurably to both the feeling of belonging to a community of plant lovers and an understanding of where they will do best. It is warming to think about them sharing stories about where they grew and with what and then their experiences as they went on to grow them here in England.
The seed is as soft as down when the seed head ripens and ruptures. It was sown fresh last June in an open compost with a dusting of grit to hold it down and make it feel at home. Sowing seed fresh is always the best option because you sow it with the plant and your vision of more of them firmly in mind. Fresh seed also tends not to lose its viability, where saved seed often triggers a longer dormancy to help protect it. Primrose seed, for instance, germinates erratically if kept on a shelf until the autumn, but if you sow it fresh it will have begun its life by July to overwinter as youngsters and be that much faster the following spring.
The anemone seed germinated in December as it might with winter rains ahead of it in Greece. I kept them in the frame to prevent them from getting too wet here in Somerset and will keep them in their pots for another two years before planting them out in a little stock bed where I will grow them on to flowering size. Being seed-raised there will be variability in the offspring, but in this case I will welcome the unexpected. Anemone pavonina is famed for its candy colourings and my original plants range from white with a blue eye to lipstick pink, deep rose and blazing scarlet. Colours you are as happy to see in spring as the promise of germinating seedlings.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 19 March 2022