Under the ivy

Charles Quest-Ritson finds some surprises under the ivy.

Come and live in our west wing,’ said my daughter Madeline, ‘and you can make a garden for us,’ adding perhaps we could also help with school fees. This experiment in three-generation living has been a great success, even though the garden is developing only slowly.

I am a plantsman. I try to do clever things with line and form and colour, but, for me, the great pleasure of gardening is planting things and watching them grow. It’s an old-fashioned approach and I rather regret that younger garden owners pay so much more attention to harmony, contrast and movement and all those other abstract qualities that people cite when claiming that horticulture is one of the decorative arts. But, one day, the garden will be Madeline’s undisputed domain and I am encouraging her to follow in my footsteps, if not as a plantaholic, then as a plantswoman.

Under the ivy
Last autumn, my main achievement was to plaster glyphosphate on every sprig of ground elder wherever it appeared, while at the same time planting up ever more holding beds where plants await their final places in a series of properly designed schemes. Meanwhile, there are goat willows, elders, ashes and sycamores to fell and deep tangles of ivy to uproot.

I had no idea that ivy could grow so thickly and turn into bushy thickets, not just on half-strangled trees and shrubs, but even on the woodland floor. Our ivy is 2ft–3ft deep and we now have a pile the size of a haystack to burn. All manner of objects lay smothered old rabbit traps, elm stumps and, eventually, the first hint that bulbs might be alive and well underneath.

In another part of the garden, just before Christmas, snowdrops began to emerge—on the smooth, dry banks beneath some huge beech trees. Large, vigorous, pristine bells of supreme white loveliness glistened in the sun. They were clearly not ‘ordinary’ snowdrops, but there were hundreds of them, perhaps even thousands, and what could they be? I pondered my mental list of galanthophiles and suddenly remembered that Michael Baron lives up the valley in Alresford.

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Michael is a sprightly 82 year old and has a wonderful garden stuffed not just with snowdrops, but with bulbs that he’s collected all over the world, as well as a vast collection of different daphnes his book about the garden is due to be published later this year. When I was a schoolboy at Winchester, he taught me botany.

Michael had been lunching with Victoria Wakefield, one of the queen bees of Hampshire gardening, so dusk was falling as I arrived at his splendidly named Brandy Mount House. He looked hard at my clump of giant snowdrops and immediately declared that they were the vigorous old favourite, S. Arnott. ‘I thought of that,’ I said, ‘but S. Arnott doesn’t start flowering at Christmas-time.’ ‘It’s been a funny year,’ he replied and took me to see one of his alpine houses stuffed with Narcissus bulbocodium, alpine primulas and more snowdrops of extraordinary beauty.

Mooching round our own garden with Madeline next morning, we found yet more outsize snowdrops emerging where once there had been oceans of ivy. And not just S. Arnott, but other extra-vigorous forms, plus several different double snowdrops singles, too and the leaves of other bulbs that may eventually reveal themselves to be daffodils, tulips (how I would love to find the native Tulipa sylvestris), scillas and goodness-knows-what.

‘Well, what a surprise,’ we said to each other, as it dawned on us that we’ll need several years to sort out this unexpected cornucopia of bulbous goodies. And so I began at once to split up the snowdrop clumps and replant them where they can be grown on for further attempts at identification next year. I foresee that I shall need to make many more holding beds.