When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…
“In early March many and lovely are the flowering bulbs, and among them a wealth of blue, the more precious that it is the colour least frequent among flowers. The blue of Scilla sibirica, like all blues that have in them a suspicion of green, has a curiously penetrating quality; the blue of Scilla bifolia does not attack the eye so smartly.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
Blue flowers are few and far between and yet spring brings with it a procession of plants boasting that most sought after of colours – especially if your definition is loosened a little at the edges. We grow two blue flowered Scilla (S. forbesii and S. luciliae) between our Irish yew trees lining the path alongside the Geographical Beds.
Scilla are diminutive bulbs with clusters of six petalled, star shaped flowers known commonly as squills or glory-of-the-snow, and many used to belong to a now defunct genus called Chionodoxa. They are perfect for naturalising dry, shady spots and once established even become a bit of a pest, often popping up uninvited between rocks and paving.
Blue flowers like these will need a lift from a carefully selected companion. Too many planted together can sometimes look dull without a crisp white or yellow to contrast against. We have planted our Scilla alongside the pretty yellow and white flowered daffodil, Narcissus tazetta. The perfect planting partner, it too will tolerate dry soils and a modicum of shade.
For those that prefer full sun head to the Alpine House where blue flowered Iris reticulata are thriving. Two cultivars in particular, I. ‘Harmony’ and I. ‘Gordon’, have performed reliably now for a number of years. They also grow perfectly well outdoors, flowering from February onwards, but under cover in the Alpine House the flowers are fragrant with a scent that is easily missed in the open air.
“Leucojum vernum, with its clear white flowers and polished dark-green leaves, is one of the gems of early March; and flowering at the same time, no flower of the whole year can show a more splendid and sumptuous colour than the purple Iris reticulata. Varieties have been raised, some larger, some nearer blue, and some reddish purple, but the type remains the best garden flower.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
White flowers are even easier to come by in spring and of course the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is the most reliable of them all. Snowdrops are easy to grow in either pots or the ground, and even naturalise in turf. Pots placed in a sheltered position will flower into March and a careful selection of more unusual species such as G. reginae-olgae (early) or G. ‘Baxendale’s Late’ (late) will extend the season either way.
Snowflakes look like giant snowdrops with nodding, green tipped flowers. The spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum, flowers roughly at the same time but the larger summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, flowers slightly later in May. Snowflakes must be kept damp at the roots all year around so we grow ours beside a pond in the Woodland Walk where it thrives in the moist conditions.
For something a bit less bashful try placing pots of Crocus in full sun where their open flowers will look right up at you in a bright, multi-coloured array. Of the white flowered varieties, we have found C. ‘Ard Schenk’ a good strong performer with white petals that are flushed with feint purple and a striking yellow throat. A short-lived flower (and primed for the pecking by garden birds), growing Crocus in pots allows you to move different varieties in and out of prime locations when they look their best.
These white flowers appear most effective against an appropriate backdrop or foil. With taller, summer flowering perennials this might mean planting in front of a dark, contrasting hedge such as purple beech. But with spring flowers that hug the ground it is mulching that makes all the difference. Do this in autumn before the flowers emerge and snowdrops will shine brightly against a dark, crumbly leaf mould mulch in spring.
“Beyond and above is the copse, or thin wood of young silver Birch and Holly, in summer clothed below with bracken, but now bristling with the bluish spears of Daffodils and the buds that will soon burst into bloom. The early Pyrenean Daffodil is already out, gleaming through the low-toned copse like lamps of pale yellow light.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
There are fewer pollinators around in spring so plants such as daffodils have to work extra hard to attract them and yellow is seen easiest of all by early pollinating insects. You will notice that those spring flowers which are pollinated instead by wind dispense with the need for brightly coloured petals; catkins of hazel emerge dull-green until pollen is produced and blown away on the wind.
There’s no shortage of suitable planting partners for soft and gentle yellow tones but a hard yellow like that of the dwarf daffodil, Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, planted in pots on the Terrace, clashes all too easily with other flowers; this kind of yellow in combination with pink is a ‘mistake’ many find it difficult to forgive. Yet, left alone to combine with the fresh green of its own young foliage there is little in the garden more cheerful.
Perhaps a near rival might be the winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, which produce bright buttercup-like flowers held atop short stems (10cm) and skirts of deeply divided foliage. As with all bulbs diminutive in stature they look best planted en masse in bold groups drifting through a border or crammed to bursting point in pots.
A native of deciduous woodlands, they detest drying out, particularly during the short growing season that follows leaf fall in autumn and spring. For the best results grow beneath a light deciduous canopy and transplant in the green (after flowering but whilst the plant is still growing) as you would snowdrops, which happily thrive in much the same conditions.