Early spring flowering plants are really special – it is like a reward for having put up with a dark and wet winter! The Hellebores, Winter Cherries, and Witch Hazels are the first brave flowers to show, followed by Daphnes and early spring cherries.
The size of your garden will determine what you can grow – most hellebores can be found a space somewhere. They like a reasonable soil with good amounts of organic matter in it. This can be topped up each year to keep the soil in good heart. The Cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ flowers at odd times through the winter and has a grand final fling in early spring. It is a small growing tree that won’t shade out other plants and well worth the investment. It can give a good display of autumn colour as well.
Witch Hazel makes a gangly sort of shrub that keeps a low profile for much of the year, coming into its own in spring. The bare branches can be covered with flowers from pale yellow, gold, pink and bronzy-red. The yellow flowered varieties tend to have the sweetest scent, especially Hammamelis ‘Pallida’. The hazel-like leaves give a good autumn display with deep orange and purples.
Witch hazels are not hard to grow, and are as versatile as they are beautiful. Put one at the back of a wide border to add height, grow as a good specimen plant, or plant in groups. They’re fully hardy and tolerate most garden soils including chalk providing the soil is deep enough. Full sun or partial shade is fine, as long as there is some protection from winds. Maintenance is minimal, just a tidy up with the secateurs in late winter to keep the shape you want.
Daphne – are early spring delights with both deciduous and evergreen forms. The name is derived from the ancient Greek meaning “laurel.” In Greek mythology, Daphne was the name of a nymph who was pursued by the god Apollo. Her father, a river god, changed her into a laurel bush to save her from him. Hopefully she was changed back when danger had passed, but I cannot confirm this.
Daphne laureola is better know as Spurge Laurel, and is a UK native with subtle lightly scented green flowers and glossy green leaves; it doesn’t get too tall and thrives in the shade. Very ordinary but works well as ground cover. Daphne odora is far more glamorous! Evergreen and reasonably hardy in this part of the world, it produces deep purple-pink and white flowers any time now. They have a strong scent – unforgettable once you have smelt it. The variety D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’ has leaves with subtle creamy-yellow margins. It is well behaved, slow growing and doesn’t get too tall.
Daphne mezereum, and Daphne x burkwoodii have a more upright habit, but are deciduous with their scented spring flowers carried on bare stems.
Alpine Daphnes such as D. bholua are particularly eye catching in a rockery but need to be well drained in winter. In general the Daphnes are not too difficult to grow and will cope with most soils except very acid ones, as long as they neither dry out nor become waterlogged.
Jobs for the Month
Catch up the winter jobs before spring gets going. General tidying up, finish winter pruning of dormant trees and shrubs, especially the fruit. I plan to get the roses done fairly soon on the basis of previous springs being relatively frost free, but we’ll see what the weather brings. Ornamental trees often need a little surgery and young trees need shaping, and mature deciduous shrubs often need thinning out [about a 3rd each year for many sorts]. It’s a good time to cut back overgrown deciduous hedges, and, of course, prune the wisteria. Evergreens are best left until March for pruning although hardy evergreen hedges can be dealt with now. Use secateurs on large leafed plants such as laurels to avoid leaf damage.
Bulbs are shooting up, and if it goes cold they will slow up but they’re tough and unlikely to be damaged. Snowdrops should be split and replanted after flowering – ‘in-the-green’ as are Winter Aconites.
Seed potatoes and onion sets are now in the garden centre – so for the best selection and the sought after varieties – get there early! The grow-your-own incentives have never been stronger and with a bit of decent weather there is no reason why any of us should be denied a decent harvest.
If you are growing vegetables from seed, it pays to cover an area of ground with black plastic to allow the ground to dry out a little and warm up – makes early seed sowing more productive.
Have some horticultural fleece on hand to cover up any early tender growth or fruit blossom if the frosts should return at an awkward time.