Follow your nose around the garden

It’s too easy to dawdle in the garden at this time of year. When it’s warm, I tend to drift around in a reverie and actually doing something (and there’s plenty that needs it) moves down my list of priorities. New leaves on the lime trees are a translucent green and their foliage is as inseparable from spring as the cries of the newborn lambs in the park. Scent weaves through the garden and becomes an important part of the experience of an English garden at its best.

The strongest perfume comes from the hyacinths in the Woodland Walk. They were originally forced in the greenhouse for cutting and, later, the bulbs were planted out. They don’t make such large inflorescences outside, but they certainly let you know where they are if you follow your nose. There are white and pink hyacinths dotted around and a winding planting of blue cultivars forming the backbone. The latter are offset by golden feverfew, which makes clumps of clean, yellow-green, scented foliage, perfectly complementing the blue.

They join hellebores, brunneras, aquilegias and various forms of foxgloves that thrive in woodland conditions. The flowers of these shady areas are often laden with pollen and are making the most of the light before the canopy closes in overhead. By late summer, their annual cycle will be complete and the whole area can be strimmed off.

In the Secret Garden, we’ve experimented with the hyacinth Woodstock, a deep burgundy-purple that’s rarely as good as the catalogue pictures suggest, and combined it with Muscari aucheri White Magic. They flower together and make a pretty picture.

Some of our daffodils have a particularly good scent. My favourite is Sir Winston Churchill, white-flowered, with three or four heads to a stem. The inner petals are double and are picked out in yellow and orange, giving the impression of peaches in vanilla custard. They were planted in the courtyard with their single-headed counterpart, Narcissus Acropolis. This year, we’ve added a row to The Pickery (our cut-flower garden) so that we can enjoy the scent indoors, too.

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An added distraction in mid April is the return of the swallows. Nothing lifts my heart like these spirited birds and they deserve my admiration. They’ve made a round trip from southern Africa, negotiating storms, crossing jungles and making an epic flight over the Sahara.

After all of that, our swallows used to return to an impoverished landscape. Small wonder that, when we first started reviving our ancient gardens, there was just one breeding pair left in the potting sheds. As every building was crumbling and on the Heritage at Risk Register, there were plenty of available nest sites.

The problem was the lack of flora. Self-sown sycamores and rabbits had invaded the old gardens and smothered or eaten everything. As a result, insect numbers had collapsed. To make matters worse, the little river had no clear areas for swallows to dive to drink from.

Over the past 14 years, we have improved the habitat for insects and their predators. By making room for meadow grasses, sowing and cultivating single nectar-rich flowering species, managing our trees and planting new ones, last year’s (informal) swallow count included six breeding pairs.
Even better, by mid spring, the gardens have now become an important watering hole for more swallows, martins and a few swifts, as they migrate north.

The skies explode with swooping, chattering birds that feed on the insects rising from the meadows and the trees in the park. They follow each other upstream to drink on the wing from the top pool. They stay for a few hours, trailing joie de vivre in their wake, and then move on, leaving our resident birds in peace.

The low eaves and smallish sheds around the gardens allow us to monitor the swallows’ nests fairly easily. We’ve created U-shaped popholes in the top of the doors for the swallows to get in and out. The youngsters tend to try and leave by a closed window and occasionally need a helping hand, but they soon get the idea.

For most of the summer, they will sit on the moss-covered coping stones or on the telephone wires, chattering like indignant monkeys, or swooping over the heads of unsuspecting visitors before they plunge into the darkness.

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