August, 7

February Flowers

It’s that time of year when galanthophiles (the polite name for snowdrop bores) start to bombard social media with images of their pearly-white treasures. Whilst I would not go as far as to say ‘they all look the same to me’, it’s certainly the case that one must be a) an ardent lover of winter, b) fiendishly observant, and c) grateful for small mercies if one is to fathom what all the fuss is about. Having a few bob in your pocket also helps, since snowdrops can be an expensive and addictive habit. I neither have the conditions nor the patience to establish great drifts of galanthus at The Watch House, and this year I am unable to leave the house to enjoy the efforts of those who do. There will be a time and a place for snowdrops in my life. For now, I skip through the flurry of photographs on my feed with a level of interest as fleeting as a snowflake alighting on a warm hand.

I may not have an appetite for snowdrops, but the garden certainly isn’t without flowers. Staring out of the dining room window at lunchtime, I notice that Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ already has buds opening. This is very early, even for Broadstairs. If it continues raining as much as it has been doing, the tiny, clotted-cream flowers will turn brown and drop before they can be appreciated. More flowers will follow in April. Considered slightly tender in the UK, I have seen Rosa banksiae growing wild in the mountains of Bhutan where it is colder, but I suspect drier.

In a small pot on the outdoor kitchen worktop, Iris ‘Pauline’ has produced the first of many elfin blooms. Would I rather irises than snowdrops? Perhaps, but they are fleeting and unreliable in comparison, lasting only a short time and rarely gracing us with their presence for a second year. I treat them strictly as annuals when planted in pots. To witness Iris reticulata blooming on the same grand scale as snowdrops one would need to travel to the mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Russia. I don’t know about you, but after eleven months of lockdown, any suggestion of travel is mouthwatering. I repair to the library to peruse ‘Flora of the Silk Road’ written by Basak Gardner & Chris Gardner and this only makes matters worse.

Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’

I have been growing Agapetes serpens ‘Scarlet Elf’ in a pot attached to the wall outside the front door for eighteen months. It cannot be grown any other way here, since it’s not remotely lime tolerant. Like me, it’s sickening for a holiday in Cornwall, where I’ve seen it growing wild and tangled in garden walls. Nevertheless, my plant is already starting to produce an abundance of flowers. Each one is an elongated Chinese lantern, delicately marked with a chevron pattern. In common with the snowdrop, agapetes is a plant that demands close scrutiny. If I can keep this one alive, I will track down Agapetes ‘Ludgvan Cross’. This hybrid has ivory flowers, heavily flushed rose, and dramatic markings resembling varicose veins or one’s retina. For more information on agapetes, you can do no better than to visit Strange Wonderful Things.

Agapetes serpens ‘Scarlet Elf’

Those hyacinths that we planted in pots in September and left in a sheltered spot are already a few inches tall, displaying pale green flower buds. We did not finish planting all the bulbs until Christmas. This should reward us with a display lasting several weeks. Every year I complain that we should have planted more hyacinths. Even having tripled our order for 2021, I suspect I might be repeating myself come March. Not everyone appreciates the hyacinth’s regimental flower spikes, but nothing in the world rivals their perfume. I adore them for that, and their waxy, iridescent petals.

Other than a few pinpricks of bright colour, everything is green, and lush green at that. The ferny canopies of Geranium maderense have so far survived the winter, although cold winds last weekend made the leaves limp. After years of worrying, I have concluded that this is a clever evolutionary tactic to stop the whole plant from taking off as if it were an umbrella in a gale. By allowing the leaves to become floppy, the plant reduces its surface area, thereby limiting any damage – or at least that’s my theory.

Geranium maderense foliage in winter, when it’s at its most beautiful ….. and vulnerable.

Isoplexis sceptrum always looks healthier in winter than it does in summer. However, the foliage on one branch is persistently anaemic. Assuming this was a problem with the alkalinity of the soil, I have been using Epsom salts and ericaceous plant food to correct the yellowing, all to no avail. Only recently did it dawn on me that the issue may not be coming from below, but from above: the branch with the sickly foliage is immediately below a bough where our resident collared doves roost. Their alkaline droppings frequently smother the leaves below and I now wonder if their caustic doo-doo is the culprit. If anyone has any experience of such a phenomenon, please do let me know. In the meantime I may experiment with an ericaceous foliar feed to see if that helps.

Isoplexis sceptrum, The Watch House

And so we look forward to another cold, wet weekend. 2021 has not been kind to us weekend gardeners, serving up awful conditions every Saturday and Sunday since New Year. I am done with armchair gardening, online shopping, tidying cupboards and fretting about household repairs. Scrolling through other people’s snowdrop spam is not for me. I want to get outside and get growing again. TFG.

Echium pininana

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