Meteorological spring starts on 1 March heralding a new season in gardens. Bulbs which have been nosing through the soil for several weeks without progressing much have suddenly burst into life and the garden is full of tight clumps of Tete a Tete daffodils. The days are stretching out too and the prospect of visiting other gardens is very inviting.
I started the garden visiting season by going to Hinton Ampner in Hampshire ten days ago. Run by the National Trust, this largely formal garden near Cheriton in Hampshire occupies a magnificent position overlooking the South Downs. From the terrace nearest the house (largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1960) the view extends south across downland studded with copses of trees, sheep grazing peacefully in the fields. Yew hedging separates the garden from the adjoining farmland. The four rectangular beds which make up the Sunken Garden are punctuated with plump yew pepperpots, the immaculate topiary lending this part of the garden its character. Much of this section of the garden is currently roped off, to prevent the grass being damaged in the winter months. But it is still possible to steal tantalising glimpses along vistas such as the Long Walk, where huge Irish yews stand like a guard of honour either side of a grassy avenue leading from a sundial to a marble statue of the goddess Diana.
We walked beyond the garden across the fields in bright sunshine, the sensation of the wide sky and open space exhilarating for me, so used to working in smaller gardens where borrowed landscape means a neighbour’s tree and where the horizon (glimpsed from the footbridge over the District Line tracks) features a disused brewery in one direction and the Kew Pagoda in the other. Admittedly not a bad view but lacking in sheep.
The outside wall of the large Walled Garden is intriguingly buttressed with clipped box, the spaces between filled with dense swirls of winter jasmine.
To one side of the Walled Garden stand several lean-to glasshouses, one a vinery where the vines are planted outside, like the venerable Black Hamburg vine at Hampton Court. The whitewashed far wall of a neighbouring house supports a beautifully trained peach or apricot (I was peering through the glass and couldn’t see a label) which basked happily in the sunshine. This walled garden is full of variety: vegetable beds at one end and a lawn into which sinuous beds of daffodils have been cut. A deep shrub border lines a path to the side of the garden, featuring winter interest plants such as Cornus Midwinter Fire and Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill: the tallest I’ve seen outside Wakehurst Place. The scent of the Daphne stopped me in my tracks.
The church of All Saints stands a short distance from the house, beside an orchard. I was intrigued by the tiled roof of the bell-tower which I read in the guidebook was added in 1879 when the tower was added to the C13 church. Spring flowers stud the East Lawn beyond the church, the daffodils superseding the snowdrops.
I mentioned the track-stopping scent emanating from a Daphne at Hinton Ampner. This reminds me that it’s easy to overlook how fragrant another winter flowering shrub can be. Yesterday I was at North Hill Nurseries near Chobham, buying plants for clients. The shade tunnel which houses shrubs such as Pittosporum and hardy Fuchsia is home to a large number of Skimmias . Their sweet perfume was intensified by the warmth of the spring sunshine and the confined surroundings. These are such good plants for small gardens: their domed form never seems to get too dominant and as evergreens they look good all year. My favourite (which I have in my garden) is Skimmia x confusa Kew Green: its creamy green flowers have been flowering for months.
When not at Hinton Ampner or spending other people’s money at the nursery, I’ve been working hard to make clients’ gardens (and my own, when I’ve time) ready for the warmer days. I’ve applied mulches to most of them: some shredded horse manure, some composted bark. I’ve pruned roses tall and small, trained climbers and a few ramblers, and weeded and pruned like fury, producing enough green waste to fill a recycling centre skip. Thankfully many clients have their own green bins but I do tend to make at least two visits to the tip a week, bulging bags crammed into the car.
At Osterley over the last few Fridays we’ve been edging the beds in the Tudor Walled Garden, ridding a border to the south of the house of green alkanet, and picking up the dead wood sprinkled across the lawns by Storm Eunice. Sadly the storm brought down a number of trees in the wider park and tore off a branch of the enormous Cedar of Lebanon on the Temple Lawn. We’ve also taken time out to admire the beautiful display of winter shrubs and spring bulbs in the Garden House. More winter fragrance here, with sweetly scented Sarcococca confusa overpowered by Narcissus Paperwhite Ziva.
To round up this summary of recent activities, I have two other items to report:
- I picked the first rhubarb of the season in a client’s garden last week. It is a large mature crown and must be a particularly early variety. I rushed home to check progress of my now three year old crown, growing in a container. The leaves are stretching out from the creased buds but it’ll be several weeks before I can pick a stalk or two.
- A large clump of frogspawn has appeared in my pond this week. Frogs occupy the pond every summer but this is the first time I’ve seen frogspawn. I can’t wait to see the tadpoles develop and hope there are enough ponds in the vicinity to house what promises to be a large brood.