The daffodils appeared with a whoosh as the result of a sudden release from a prolonged icy grip, and proved to be à point on Easter Day, here in Oxfordshire. I have been reminded of the most effective way of planting spring bulbs to ensure they look ‘natural’: in autumn, you throw them by the handful and plant them where they fall. Perhaps the most respected exponent of this art was the influential Victorian and Edwardian gardener and writer William Robinson, who gardened prodi-giously at Gravetye Manor, his home in West Sussex. It was he, apparently, who is responsible for the bluebells growing beside the tracks of the nearby Bluebell Line by throwing bulbs out of the train window.
I keep a few favourite daffodils in terracotta pots so that they can be appreciated at closer quarters. I have a few pots of Tête à Tête for its perfectly scaled-down simplicity, one large pot of Rip van Winkle for its unusual double, greenish-yellow flowers, and Thalia for its pure-white, scented blooms. The advantage of growing them in pots is that you can force them into flower early.
A cool conservatory or greenhouse is perfect because the change in temperature is not too sudden, and there is plenty of light in which they can bathe to prevent production of floppy growth. Thereafter, they require little, if any, maintenance and can be left outside until next year in a shaded spot where the compost will dry out less. After four years in the same compost, they still bounced back with equally fresh vigour, but I will treat them to fresh soil this year once they have died down.
It is always heart-warming to hear mummy frog croaking, followed by the appearance of frogspawn in the pond. But, just as in previous years, the spawn is reduced to a nasty greenish froth almost overnight just as the embryonic tadpoles start to wriggle. I am assured that this is caused by newts and goldfish. I have the former in abundance, but the latter have been taken by a heron. The water in my 10ft diameter, 18in deep, round pond always used to look like spinach soup until I introduced the oxygenating plant Lagarosiphon major, which appears to have done the trick. However, it is very invasive and needs to be pulled out by the armful every summer if it is not to asphyxiate my precious water lilies. It is for this reason that I own a pair of wellies just over 18in high. The green clouding of water can be caused by the nutritious excrement of too many fish.
One or two of my borders are infested with celandines, and I have given up trying to eradicate them. Every time you dig one up, their little bulblets fall back into the soil, ensuring that they are spread even further afield. I think it was Sun Tzu who advocated making friends with your enemies, and that is exactly what I have done by planting Vinca minor, the lesser periwinkle, with small blue flowers, in among it. I am now rewarded with a delightful carpet of bright yellow and blue each spring and it is a real joy to behold.
I value plants with early promise. Of all the early flowering bulbs, it is surely the fritillaries that add the most exotic touch. In one corner of one border, there is a cluster of burgeoning plants with yellow-flowered Fritillaria imperialis at the back. These flowers are of exemplary composition, crowned at the top as they are with a green tuft above their pendent, bell-shaped clustered flowers.
I have tucked a group of 10 close to the base of a low, west-facing stone wall where they have happily settled down. In front, I have planted Paeonia mlokosewitschii (a lovely peony sometimes called ‘molly-the-witch’ because of its impossible spelling and difficult pronunciation) because it hides the dying stems of the fritillaries. Its decorative foliage remains intact for longer than most other herbaceous peonies after its glorious and all-too-short display of huge pale-yellow buttercup-like flowers.
Close by is a small group of a variety of oriental poppy called Beauty of Livermere. If you are on the lookout for a plant with flowers of a really good strong red, then this is the perfect choice. So many other reds, including the famous Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff, tend to blush orange as the flowers fade. Every garden should include oriental poppies, if only because you can remove all top growth the minute the flowers have faded, without harming the plant.