Now and Then: April

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…

“Border Auriculas are making a brave show. Nothing in the flower year is more interesting than a bed of good seedlings of the Alpine class. I know nothing better for pure beauty of varied colouring among early flowers.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

We have recently begun to establish our own small collection of auriculas and this spring we have put them on display for the first time. Border auriculas are among the easiest to grow (tough, garden worthy varieties of Primula auricula that will happily grow in the front of a border with free draining soil) but those more often grown in pots can be a little more awkward. Indoors or outdoors? Moist or dry? Sun or shade? Well, they like just a little bit of everything…

Auriculas growing in a plunge bed and cold frame in our Nursery Area, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Auriculas growing in a plunge bed and cold frame in our Nursery Area

Auriculas are alpines so they are used to freezing temperatures, and even snow, where they grow high up in the mountains exposed to a constant drying wind. When the snow melts it drains rapidly through thin, rocky soil. These are the conditions auricula growers must attempt to recreate with a free draining compost mix, protection from heavy rain, and good air circulation at all times.

Our collection is grown in a waist-high cold frame built atop a large plunge bed filled with silver sand that is kept well watered throughout the growing season. The auriculas are plunged into this moist sand which helps to keep their roots cool in summer and watered with a special watering can fitted with a narrow spout to prevent water getting on the leaves.

Preparing the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Preparing the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee

The cold frame itself is made of aluminium and crucially, is glazed with sliding panels that can be pushed aside to vent, or even removed completely in the summer. It is great for keeping the plants dry and allowing watering to be regulated carefully by the Garden Team, but on a hot day the temperature soars beneath the glass. The cold frame has to be kept cool with shade netting during the hottest part of the day or the auriculas would simply wither in the heat.

 “The qualities to look for in the bed of seedlings are not the narrowing ones of proportion of eye to tube, of exact circle in the circumference of the individual pip, and so on, but to notice whether the plant has a handsome look and stands up well, and is a delightful and beautiful thing as a whole.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Getting auriculas to flower (or at least flower well) is no easy business. First, they must be woken up after a winter of rest. From November to January auriculas require little attention besides the removal of dead leaves and just enough water to prevent them from wilting. Too heavy a hand at this time of the year could cause the plant to rot off whilst it’s not in active growth.

Painting the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Painting the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee

Come February, watering should be increased and the plants will begin to grow rapidly in response. They can then be helped along with a soluble feed. High nitrogen feeds are ideal for kick starting strong and healthy growth, and high potash feeds later for promoting flowers. Over-feeding can be just as detrimental as not feeding at all, causing excess salt to draw moisture away from the plant in a process known as reverse osmosis.

Happy auriculas will begin to flower in April and many will even throw out ‘autumn trusses’ in September and October. These late flowers are a good sign showing that the plant is healthy, but they should be removed as soon as they appear to prevent them from developing at the expense of a spring display.

Putting the finishing touches to the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Putting the finishing touches to the auricula theatre, photograph by Leighanne Gee

Small ‘pups’ or plantlets that emerge from the side of the central taproot can also be taken as a sign of rude health. These can be removed after flowering (late summer is ideal) and potted in reserve. Young plants will not flower well until the second year but maintaining a rolling stock is desirable as older plants tire quickly, and when they do they are best retired to the compost heap.

 “… such rich gradation of colour, from pale lilac to rich purple, and from rosy pink to deepest crimson, is hardly to be found in any one family of plants… For practical purposes the florist’s definition of a good Auricula is of little value; that is for the show-table…” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Flowering auriculas have long been displayed in theatres designed to shelter them from heavy rain and shade them from the sun. These small structures are often comprised of a covered roof and a series of shelves or tiers which allow the plants to be viewed both individually at close quarters or as part of a group from a distance.

Primula auricula 'Ian Greville', photograph by Leighanne Gee, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Primula auricula ‘Ian Greville’, photograph by Leighanne Gee

In addition, auricula theatres are sometimes painted black giving the colourful flowers maximum impact. We have made our own small theatre and have chosen to display it on the Tea Room Bunker, usually home to our collection of Sempervivum. Here they will thrive in a shady corner of the garden and visitors will be able to get up close to the perfect blooms.

Auriculas are subject to a strict criterion for classification. Most of our plants are designated ‘alpine’ varieties (there are ‘fancies’, ‘striped’, and ‘doubles’ too!) with either a light or gold coloured centre and petals shaded from dark to light. P. a. ‘Ian Greville’ illustrates the type well, with a white centre and petals which begin magenta and finish light-pink nearest the edge.

Primula auricula 'Queen Bee', photograph by Leighanne Gee, Now and Then April, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Primula auricula ‘Queen Bee’, photograph by Leighanne Gee

We also grow some ‘show’ varieties. These have flowers which are covered in a floury substance called farina which can be easily washed away by the rain. P. a. ‘Queen Bee’ has flowered particularly well this year with deep-maroon coloured petals and a green edge, bordering a white and yellow centre, all covered with a thin film of delicate white farina.

Feeling inspired? We have been busy propagating and have a small selection of named varieties available for sale on the nearby Tea Room Terrace. Pick out your favourites and create a bit of garden drama with an auricula theatre all of your own…

4 Thoughts on Now and Then: April

  1. Paul Martin

    Reply

    Great article Dan… and a useful reminder of how to care for them. The Auricula theatre looks great. That’s the perfect spot for it.

  2. Katherine Wagner-Reiss

    Reply

    Loved this article because there is an Auricula theater at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, USA that I visit every spring, which brings this lovely British gardening tradition to the states. The theater itself was designed in 2007 by The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. Good to see all the background work required to prepare this special spring treat!

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