I have had many people stop me in Syston to say their plants are flowering much earlier than normal. This is mainly due to the lack of heavy frosts during December and early January, which has allowed plants to open their flowers without becoming frosted. Here I would like to point out that we grow plants from all parts of the temperate world, some flower on short day lengths, gradually increasing day lengths, long day lengths, or gradually decreasing day lengths. This then gives us all of our spring, summer, autumn and winter flowering plants.
Amongst the winter flowering shrubs in my garden the most highly scented are Sarcoccoca hookeriana ‘Purple Stem’, which is a three feet (90cm) tall evergreen with purple young branches and masses of white flowers from January to March, I also grow Sarcoccoca ruscifolia ‘Dragon Gate’, which has small green leaves and a more open habit. Both are strongly scented and we find even one sprig too strong to have in the house, but in the garden, they are superb, either in sun or in half shade.
This year Jasminum nudiflorum has been magnificent, producing a lovely show of bright yellow flowers. Last year the flowers were so badly frosted the plants took on a very sorry looking spectacle. This lovely winter flowering Jasmine is not a climber, but a very lax shrub that looks at its best when trained out and up a trellis against a south facing wall, or fence.
During March, as soon as the flowers have faded, prune all of the branches back to within a few inches of the framework you have created on a trellis. Last year, just to see how they performed, I purchased three new Helleborus ‘Double Ellen’ hybrids. Although I planted them in well-prepared soil and watered them in dry periods, two died. The remaining one is now in full flower and has four layers of creamy petals, each petal having a pink edge, but having such a heavy head, it does hang, so you have to lift it to appreciate it. Incidentally, all Hellibors are resistant to rabbit, deer and mice and although the hybrids will grow almost anywhere, they are at their best in half shade. Now it remains to see if ‘Double Ellen’ will seed itself around the garden, as do all of my other Helleborus hybrids.
Cyclamen coum is a very hardy, dwarf tuberous alpine, which in my garden flowers from late December until early March. I have five different varieties of this superb alpine with flowers in colours of white, lavender-pink and red. Their small, rounded leaves also vary; some are deep green and others being green with Christmas tree-like silver patterns in them. I did have one with pure silver leaves, but this year it failed to appear. It was fifteen years ago when I first received Cyclamen coum and thinking alpine, I planted them at the front of a gravel scree, but gradually over the years they have seeded themselves towards the shade of rocks, or dwarf conifers.
At present, there are a number of different coloured polyanthuses in one of my borders. In the first place, all had been purchased as winter bedding to plant in the tubs, or pots on my terrace. They gave way to summer bedding and as they are perennials, I planted them in the border. Some are five years old and still, when the birds leave them alone, give me a colourful display.
Old polyanthus can, when they have produced more than one rosette of leaves, be carefully divided into single rosettes, but do make sure there is an ample root system with each rosette and then replant, or pot on to use as bedding the following autumn. In the past, I have contributed money to buy shares in seed collected by plant hunters throughout the world. Some seed has produced unusually and interesting plants, but a lot were often weedy looking plants that finished up on the compost heap. However, a few years ago I contributed to one expedition to the Sakhalin Island, which is between Japan’s north island and Russia. Some of the seed did not germinate, but amongst the seed that did germinate was a species of birch, which has light brown bark. I have given two of these, which are pot-grown plants to St Peter and St Paul School to plant in their new wild life garden.