For ages, there have been mutterings that the RHSs monthly (more or less) London shows are not well enough supported by the visiting public. Yet there was no sign of malaise at the thrilling February show two weeks ago, in the Societys magnificent Art Deco hall on Greycoat Street, London SW1, next to its Vincent Square headquarters. As judging progressed in a hall full of alluring exhibits, ordered queues of plant enthusiasts were snaking down the sunlit street. Mid February had been giving a good impression of mid April for some days, and, within half an hour of the floodgates opening, the Lawrence Hall was packed. Its just like Chelsea here today, I heard one keen gardener remark to her friend as they shuffled through the crowds for a view of the snowdrops and elegant narcissi lighting up a lyrical display put on by Avon Bulbs of Somerset (www.avonbulbs.co.uk).
Pottertons Nursery of Caistor, Lincolnshire (www.pottertons.co.uk), bedded down a jewel-box confection of spring bulbs in a fetching woodland mattress of dry fallen leaves and springy green moss. They included crimson and sky-blue reticulata irises, golden and tawny crocuses, blue-white stars of Ipheion uniflorum, and palest lemon hooppetticoat daffodils Narcissus bulbocodium var citrinus. Rising above them all (and selling out early) was the covetable cream-flowered Fritillaria raddeana, a rare gem from the troubled hills of Afghanistan and Iran, bearing a stem of demurely nodding, bell-shaped blooms. Although wilder looking, raddeana is not unlike its showier relations, the popular crown imperial fritillaries, but, apparently, it lacks the distinctive foxy smell of F. imperialis.
The bulb specialists Broadleigh Gardens of Taunton (www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk) laid out sheets of delicate magenta Cyclamen coum and white C. coum Album with drifts of snowdrops, sulphur-yellow Eranthis and pale violet Crocus tommasinianus among rotting tree branches, plump cushions of fresh moss and a spiny scattering of old pine needles, earning a Gold Medal for this captivating evocation of spring. Not all the exhibits had an outdoorsy, woodland theme. Cambridgeshire firm Choice Landscapes, Wisbech (www.choicelandscapes.org), brought along a flaming forest of potted Lachenalia species, the so-called Cape cowslips of South Africa and Namibia, which make enticing plants for a cool greenhouse collection. Close by, I found the conservatory mimosas of Pennard Plants (www.pennardplants.com), a nursery near Wells, just too irresistible and carried away one of the hardier, grafted cultivars, as they grow well outdoors in London.
Their fragrant, lemon-yellow flowers bring a touch of the South of France to many gardens in our neighbourhood in February, although nobody I know has yet assembled a collection to rival that of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, whose lovely Riviera garden in the 1930s included scores of mimosas blooming over several months, a number of them underplanted with sheets of blue anemones. That must have been a magnificent sight with the backdrop of olive trees and the deep blue Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, in my continuing experiments with bird feeders, the three I have bought this winter alone have been a big hit with squirrels. The first two were soon destroyed by our fearless grey-furred neighbours; I dont think the birds got a look in at either. The latest, a tough perspex feeder caged in rigid metal, was confidently labelled squirrel-proof, and to my enormous delight, it had been on its perch only two minutes before the nearby trees were fluttering with blue tits and their kin although alas, they seemed not to notice it and went on their way. The term squirrel-proof, on the other hand, has turned out to apply only so far as wanton destruction goes; they feed from it with the greatest ease and agility. A compromise has been reached. I dont too much mind feeding the squirrels, in the hope that that their filling up on bird seed will mean more precious things such as bulbs and blossoms will be less appealing, and therefore left alone. I only hope they understand the rules.
The next RHS London Show in the Royal Horticultural Halls, Greycoat Street, SW1, will be on March 11 and 12 (0845 260 5000; www.rhs.org.uk/flowershows)