Spring Gardening – Salute to the Glory of Spring
By Barney Bardsley
In the first garden column that I filed for this magazine I was being brave in my allotment shed, writing notes in the middle of winter. It was freezing. Happily, it is now spring – the gardener’s busiest time of year, and my favourite season of all. This, then is a love letter to the sweetest and best time in the natural world. All hail to the season of hope. Already in my garden the snowdrops and crocuses have pushed up their pretty little heads and daffodils and tulips are waiting to dazzle in the wings.
All these spring flowers are so common that we take them entirely for granted, but we should not. They are not only beautiful in their own right; they are also symbolic of the rich possibilities of the New Year. I encourage you to look again at the colour and profusion of these familiar plant species – and to salute them. They are the perfect antidote to the winter blues: a powerful rush of colour and light against the retreating dark.
Let’s start with the snowdrop. This is the tiniest, bravest soldier of all. Gathering, in serried ranks, in the freezing soil of December and breaking into bloom in boring, cold, old February. Always the first to come to the party. The snowdrop is part of the Galanthus genus (“milk flower”) and is native to Eurasia. Keen though we are to claim many of our common flowers as native species, they rarely are.
“Each flower is exquisite”
The snowdrop was brought in in the sixteenth century, its flower a gorgeous, pure white – three “tepals” on the outside, and three tiny ones within, marked with pale, spectral green. It is hard to get close to a snowdrop, they are so small and far away – and besides, like all the spring flowers, they are at their best in the company of many. But look at a photograph or botanic print. In close up, each single flower is exquisite. To me, the snowdrop, of all garden flowers, is a symbol of innocence. Seamus Heaney, in his poem about the death of his four year old brother, ‘Mid-Term Break’, writes that “Snowdrops/And candles soothed the bedside.” A fitting consolation.
Next up is the crocus, member of the iris family, and a tough, upright little flower, which comes bursting through in February, treading on the toes of the delicate snowdrop with an altogether more brazen demeanour. The crocus grows from corms, rather than bulbs, and is native to Central and Southern Europe. Its colours range from white to purple, but yellow predominates. And what a yellow! It is as shiny and bright as a blackbird’s beak, whose song it seems to resemble as it opens its cup shaped bud into full-throated bloom. If the snowdrop hangs her virginal head, then trust the crocus to stand proud to public view. It may be small, but it knows how to show off.
“Never lose their joyful bounce”
Snowdrops and crocuses are the stocky trailblazers of spring. They hold firm under ice, snow and wet. But once the worst is over, and the winds of change start blowing, you need something taller and more adventurous to get things properly moving. When April arrives, there is nothing more welcome than the daffodil, which blooms in astonishing profusion all through the green belt of North Leeds, and, more than any other flower, literally dances in the breeze, frilly petticoats lifted to the heavens in joyful abandon. There is nothing complicated or subtle about the daffodil.
It is the can-can girl of spring: and how we love it for that. The daffodil is the common English name for narcissus. And it was the gorgeous Greek lad of ancient mythology who gave it its name – staring so long at his own reflection in the pool that he fell in and drowned. A narcissus sprang up on the spot, in honour of his supreme act of folly. The daffodil is a trumpet bowl of a flower, surrounded by six floral leaves. The wild flower is yellow, but some of the prettier varieties are white, and the nicest of all are the miniatures: all the froth with none of the blowsiness.
It is Wordsworth, of course, who captured the terpsichorean essence of the flower in his poem, ‘Daffodils’. Walking with his sister by Ullswater in the Lake District one spring, he was overwhelmed by the sight – the SHOUT – of thousands of yellow daffs.”…All at once I saw a crowd/A host of golden daffodils;/Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” These words have been read and spoken so many times. But they never lose their joyful bounce.
“Tulip is the full reveal of spring”
And so, inevitably, to sex. It’s there, all around, when the spring season is upon us. In the smell of the earth, ripe with tumescent growth, in the fragrance of the blossoms, in the energy of the fresh air around us. The flower which most embodies the sensual mysteries of spring is la belle dame, the tulip. Garden writer Monty Don memorably considers the tulip “a gorgeous celebration of sex.” Naughty. But he has a point.
Look at the tulip, with her sap-filled stems, her curving leaves wrapped coquettishly round her body, and her flowers – deep, bosomy, cup-shaped. In crimson, purple, deepest black. If the snowdrop marks the quiet end of winter, then the tulip is the full reveal of spring. Lovely in the garden – even better as a cut flower. Watching them fall from grace, from tight-shut uprightness to drooping, blown-wide-open voluptuousness, is pure delight. The diva of the flower world: the tulip.
Last on my spring awards list is not a flower at all, but a tree. The spring flowering cherry. These small, hardy, purely decorative trees – part of the Prunus family – are the true heralds of spring. Boasting full, luscious blossoms of pure white and deep cerise, the cherry comes originally from Japan. The Japanese love their cherry trees, and rightly so. This is not so much a tree to them, more a ritual of spring. As the warm weather moves up from the south in Japan, its progress is keenly charted. The cherries start to bloom in Okinawa in January and reach Tokyo by April.
They are heralded by flower viewing parties and festivals, known as “Hanami”, a tradition which dates right back to the third century and shows no signs of dying out. The UK is also graced with thousands of these beautiful trees. If you have a garden – add to the world’s beauty and plant one immediately! If that seems too big a task, whack some tulip bulbs in this autumn, they do well in pots as well as in the ground. No garden? Buy a big fat bunch of tulips or daffodils and gaze at them with love. Nature’s miracle. And a genuine work of art.