The spring this year has been a remarkable one. An intimacy provided by lockdown and, for the first time I can remember since childhood, the opportunity of really touching base with the shifting and sure unravelling.
We have been working hard to keep our studio team cohesive. Looking inward, to a virtual world, where it is sometimes hard to read quite what’s happening. But, in pausing between video calls, I have looked out of the study window to watch my collection of epimedium unfurl and then unveil their delicate constellations. I have witnessed their complete flowering season. One that I usually just snatch a glimpse of, if I am lucky, amidst all the back and forth and the juggling. We have been so fortunate to be here, in the place we made to be part of. A walk to see the crab apples (main image) coming to life on the steep slopes behind us in the evenings. Bud break from bare limbs and then, in the glorious days of sunshine, the sugary pink of bud giving way to branches incandescent with the light of blossom. In the time it took them to fill their branches, the meadow beneath them came to life too, long enough suddenly to mow a path and now as the blossom is torn from the branches by sharp spring bluster, shiny with wind whipped buttercup.
Interestingly, time has not slowed as I thought it might for being confined here. It has simply intensified as we have looked closer and in real time. Spring has provided an unstoppable momentum and the last few days of rain has seen an explosion of growth. We needed rain to welcome the new life and the softness of fresh foliage. Despite the bright uplifting days, I was beginning to see a caution in growth, a tailoring for the moisture available. Sown rows remained dormant in the kitchen garden and the sheep were beginning to get on top of the grass in the paddocks below us. Then suddenly, relaxed by the last few days of rain, there are now weeds where there was clean ground and growth rearing up exponentially. Ankle then boot deep in the meadows in what seemed a measure of hours, not days.
It is a particular time, this weight of green and the energy that comes behind it. Last weekend the ground was bare and the Polygonatum verticillatum just a memory, but here they are, spearing through mulch, almost audible in their ascent. A rush that typifies the break for light and space and their own particular window of opportunity. I crouch for a moment beside the emerging shoots, which are twice as many as last year and try to focus. It is difficult, for there is promise everywhere. The bolt of giant fennel already towering twice my height, with trunks for stems and the feeling they have drawn upon reserves that must have come from the deep. Their verticals are repeated again and again throughout the garden to feel this joy in the early rise. Nectaroscordum siculum spearing through foaming Brunnera ‘Betty Bowring’ and Allium ‘Summer Drummer’, new this year and already scoring lines that I’m pleased to have drawn where the growth is still low amongst the panicum.
There is a delicacy that is particular to this moment. Earth still visible, but not for long, where Astilbe rivularis unfurl their limbs. I am aiming for cover, no bare earth, and the delicate balance of layering has already begun. Cardamine that were visible just days ago already submerged in the laciness of astilbe and fastly rising Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. The bell-hung spires of Tellima grandiflora ‘Purpurteppich’, establishing happily now where there’s a microclimate of company. Just a year ago, with space in the new planting, they were burning in spring sunshine to reveal their woodland origins, but now the layering is working. Taller Sanguisorba, later to emerge, will provide them shadow. Taller still buckwheat and the reliable shade of the Heptacodium miconioides in the heat of the summer.
The early risers are such an important part of a spring garden, because this newness will quickly tarnish as we hurtle towards first summer. Never better than now are the Disporum longistylum ‘Night Heron’, rising fast and dark as licorice. Sometimes they seem more animal than vegetable. Chris and Toby Marchant of Orchard Dene Nurseries gave me my first plant when we were still in Peckham and I would never want to be without it. Another impeccable collection from the great plantsman Dan Hinkley, it needs a sheltered corner out of the wind to do well. I have given it one of my most treasured places in the lee of the studio where it gets morning light to colour its foliage well and then shade in the heat of the day. It rises here above the dappled spring foliage of Epimedium myrianthemum and Corydalis temulifolia ‘Chocolate Stars’.
Early flower is not yet my focus and I like the early green and its variations whilst growth is still young. Bronze in the Actaea foliage, made light for the shimmer of Melica altissima ‘Alba’ and the filigree froth of Selinum wallichianum, arguably as good as it is for late summer flower. But the first flowers are made special for being able to see them without too much competition. Metallic blue Amsonia orientalis rising above the pure, sky blue of brunnera and the pale, ascending spires of Veronica gentianoides. Good amongst the played down pink of Valeriana pyrenaica and neatly taking over after the pulmonaria. It is a moment of teetering and the anticipation of bud is there already in the iris and some of the peonies are already cupped and flaring. Turn away and it will be different. The reward of time is to be able to look harder.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 2 May 2020