Spring is such an exciting season, full of promise and expectation of a summer to come. We start with the exuberance of flowering cherries. Up to now, whenever the weather is not freezing, our winter flowering cherry Prunus x subhirttella ‘Autumnalis’ is covered with clusters of delicate pale pink flowers. Flowering can start as early as November and continues off and on throughout the winter. It is not a dense tree, with wide spreading branches giving light shade, so many plants will grow happily underneath. It also has good autumn colour so is a pleasure in all seasons, especially cheering on drab winter days when so much of the garden is asleep.
The first cherry to flower here is Prunus ‘Kursar’. This bursts into a riot of rosy pink flowers in March. It is a small tree and reasonably upright which makes it ideal for the smallest garden. Bees particularly love it and when I walk past on a sunny day it is humming with bees collecting pollen. Prunus ‘Pandora’ is next to flower in the garden, again this has single flowers, deep pink in bud and opening to large shell-pink flowers. The foliage unfurls bronzy green and turns orange and red in the autumn. Very hardy and again much loved by bees. This year we have had a pair of bullfinches in the garden and they have spent much time in Prunus ‘Pandora’ eating the buds, so I am not sure how many flowers we will have this spring, but they are such beautiful birds they will be forgiven. The last cherry I want to recommend is Prunus ‘Taihaku’, also known as the great white cherry. From April, for three weeks, this is a mass of huge, pure white flowers. The branches are rather horizontal and walking under the tree when it is in flower is like walking under a fluffy cloud. This tree had become extinct in Japan (where many of the cherries originate) in the 18th century but one tree was discovered in 1923 in a garden in Sussex – all the Prunus ‘Taihaku’ in cultivation are the result of grafts taken from this one tree. I personally would rather have these cherries in my garden than the blousy, over the top P ‘Kanzan’, which I am happy to see in other people’s gardens or parks.
We also have a couple of interesting crab apples flowering in April. Malus floribunda is one of the first trees I planted. A round-headed small tree, the buds are crimson and as they open they change from pale pink to white, a mass of froth. The small crab apples are yellow-green and provide food for the birds for several weeks. One of the prettiest small trees available, Malus transitoria, is a completely different shape. The branches are wide spreading and horizontal covered with glossy green leaves which turn brilliant yellow in the autumn. Single creamy-white flowers in May are followed by very small round yellow crab apples – not being red these are left on the tree for some time before the birds have eaten all the other available fruit in the garden.
Under these trees I grow a selection of shade loving plants that flower in the spring. Brunnera and Pulmonaria are two groups of flowers that thrive in shade and are easy to grow. They flower in the spring but have the added advantage of excellent large leaves giving good ground cover throughout the summer. I find any soil not covered with foliage grows weeds, and I hate weeding – there are so many other more interesting things to do in the garden – so I use these plants wherever I can. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has large silvery leaves with a green edge and green veins, the airy sprays of blue flowers remind me of forget-me-nots and the colour combines well with the leaves. Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’ has even more silvery leaves but the lack of chlorophyll means it is not so vigorous as B ‘Jack Frost’,
I also appreciate the Pulmonarias in the garden in March and April. Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ has plain green leaves and disappears in winter but the flowers are a wonderful navy blue. I combine it with the grass Millium effusum ‘Aurea’, bright gold in the spring it fades during the summer to light green. It does seed around but is easy to remove and is so cheering in the spring, I would never be without it, and it is a grass which combines with many spring flowering plants. Another good Pulmonaria is P ‘Diana Clare’. The green foliage is narrow (looks as if it has been dipped in silver) and the flowers are violet-blue and of a good size. Pulmonaria are very underused in the garden, but they are easy to grow and several varieties have evergreen foliage, the flower colour can be white (P. ‘Sissinghurst White’), pink (P. ‘Leopard’) or blue fading to pink (P. Cambridge Group) and the leaves vary from plain green to pure silver. The Pulmonaria Group of the Hardy Plant Society has its AGM here in April so I am busy labelling plants in the garden!
This year I have decided to grow more annuals, I grew nigella and nasturtiums last year in the vegetable garden, they were lovely to pick for the tables in the café so I am going to be more adventurous with my choices. Next time I will let you know what I have chosen and then keep you informed with my progress or any disasters that befall my plot.
Stillingfleet Lodge Gardens, York