The garden in... March and April
Kari-Astri Davies is enjoying the welcome colour of new flowers as they start to unfurl their petals
All around us birdsong is building to a crescendo, territories are being proclaimed and ladies courted. Last year I found out that it was male wrens which build the mossy little nests to attract females. I wanted to move part of a Bergenia ciliata to the relatively new, vaguely Himalayan-themed raised border. This bergenia puts up massive bristly paddle leaves later in the year but at the moment is still hunkered close to the ground. Parting the leaves to find a good splitting point I discovered a wren’s nest with one tiny, brown freckled egg.
I closed the leaves and left all as it was. Needless to say the nest didn’t last long, a few days later something had left it strewn across the lawn. Wooing male wrens build three or more nest sites, however, so there was still time for Jenny Wren to start again, she just needed to chose somewhere a little more practical.
Not shy at all
Presumably the only connection between the phrase social wallflower and the wallflower plant is where they can be found. The phrase is said to date to a poem from the 1820s describing the person hugging the wall whilst others filled their dance cards and twirled the night away. The flowering kind can eke out an existence clinging to old buildings, their roots growing in lime mortar. On my journey to work, there’s a Somerset front garden on a steep rocky bank with a striking display of colour through much of the year. The gardener favours a rich burgundy, purple and orange palette. I was particularly taken by the eye-catching use of Siberian wallflower, Erysimum x marshallii with its zingy bright tangerine flowers. This is an idea I might steal. In the past I have grown a rare old cultivar, ‘Harpur Crewe’, with doubled dark yellow flowers running like tiny buttons up the flower stem. ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ is a good doer but not deliciously scented. It flowers on and off for ages, but tends to exhaust itself, then dies. Both can be kept going by taking cuttings. I have done the traditional thing and interplanted bedding wallflowers, Erysimum cheiri,
with tulips in raised beds around a paved seating area. The flowers provide a food source for early bees, and me with wafts of rich scent and welcome early spring colour. In June last year, I remembered to sow a row of wallflowers in the new veg plot. I chose ‘Blood Red’ for its velvety richness. The seedlings were thinned out at around 3in high, then finally dug up and planted out in late September. I generally try to grow from seed rather than buying the usually mixed colour bare rooted bundles of wallflower plants for sale in the autumn. I prefer being able to choose the colour and growing from seed lets me do this. Last summer, I pulled up the last few remaining wallflower plants from the previous year. I was amazed to find how little root development the plants had made from the original plugs. This was despite them supporting a good set of leaves and flowers up top. I had bought plug plants by mail order the previous autumn as I’d forgotten the summer sowing. Wallflowers seem to be able to make themselves at home on very little, but shy and retiring they are definitely not!
Sowing the first seeds
In March thoughts turn seriously to veg seed sowing. As the soil starts to warm outside, the first carrots and beetroot can be sown. I’ll start with stumpy Chantenay Red Cored carrots and stripy
“Now the sun walks in the forest, He touches the bows and stems with his golden fingers; They shiver, and wake from slumber.” Katherine Mansfield, ‘Very Early Spring’
chioggia beetroot. In April indoors, tender crops like tomatoes and peppers, which are slower to get going, can be started in propagators on windowsills. Squash and beans will not be sown until early May. They are faster growing so there’s a shorter time between sowing, potting on and being able to plant out at the end of May. We created the small raised veg beds last year. They are primarily comprised of excavated heavy clay so I’ll be adding green waste compost to lighten the soil. My carrots won’t then come out of the squelchy ground with such a watery thwup! The greenhouse tomato crop last year was better than the previous year, perhaps because they were
“Flower god, god of the spring, beautiful, bountiful, Cold-dyed shield in the sky, lover of versicles” Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Flower God’
planted into soil rather than in grow bags. They set fairly well, but none were particularly sweet which I put down to the dismal light levels last August. The pulpier beefsteak types made a lot of lovely fresh tomato sauce. This incorporated basil from seed sown directly into the soil around the tomato plants. Most years I stick with at least one variety I know and also try something different. ‘Big Rainbow’ from supplier Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was new last year. It grew huge, turning yellow and developing red streaking when fully ripe. Stalwart ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, a crimped smaller beefsteak tomato performed well as I expected, although recent RHS trials didn’t rate it as highly as some. This year I’m trying ‘Bulgarian Bull’s Heart’ from a seed supplier on Etsy.
Plants on the move
As the soil warms and dries, it is a good time to start moving plants again. I must harden my heart and dig out plants that have either overgrown their allotted spaces, aren’t happy because conditions have changed, or quite frankly I just don’t like. Initially I was grateful for fast-growing big spreading plants to fill the brand new beds. Now I need to be more selective as we are overrun. Aster ‘Andenken an Alma Pötschke’ will have to go from the rose bed. I loved the rich vibrant pink flowers in the first year. Now it is swamped by plants growing up around it, and flowers only fitfully. There is nowhere else for it to go unless I continue adding disruptive colours to the once cream/yellow-themed border. I’ll leave the Euphorbia mellifera to flower and then reconsider its presence. The little cutting I took when we moved house has grown into a lush exotic evergreen mound which over time will get tall, leggy and unattractive. Atriplex halimus is a fast growing, pretty, silvery leaved evergreen shrub. A Mediterranean native, it has provided welcome height and an instant touch of Southern French glamour. The foliage on the bottom section has already been pruned away to allow plants to grow up underneath. The slower growing evergreen strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, in the same bed is the intended star of the show. Without the atriplex it can come into its own. There is one last new area to be planted over the next few months where some plants will be relocated, creating more breathing space in other beds. This final bit is due to be a sort of not very purist Piet Oudolfian area planted with (small) drifts of grasses, sanguisorbas, sedums, etc. Again it’s excavated clay, so gravel needs to be worked in.
Fleetingly welcome spring flowers
I enjoy seeing the first knuckles of pulmonaria buds emerging through the winter debris of old leaves and twigs. The leaves bear varying degrees of silver
splashes, dots and blobs. On warm days the flowers are a-hum with bees. Soldiers and Sailors is a common name for this plant because it sports deep pink and blue flowers at the same time. I’d assumed the colour changed once flowers were pollinated. The pink flowers are the newest and rich in nectar, but apparently the effect of massed pink and blue flowers offers a wider colour spectrum to attract insect interest. When we moved in, the garden was already awash with self-seeded plants. As the year progresses they become rough hairy leaved brutes ramping across the woodbed and need to be kept within bounds. Another plant I have a certain amount of tolerance for at this time of year is the white flowered dead-nettle, Lamium album. As a child I liked it because it wasn’t a stinging nettle – the leaves are softly felty. They can definitely stay.
Left to right: Wallflower ‘Bowles’s Mauve’; time to start sowing carrots; an early honey bee gathers nectar; a wren on top of a leylandii.
Left to right: Siberian wallflower ‘Harpur Crewe’; time to start cutting the grass; daffodils bring welcome spring colour. Bedding wallflower, Erysimum cheiri, is a herbaceous perennial, often grown as a biennial. It reaches up to 30in (80cm) in height.
Left to right: Sting-free white dead-nettles; pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ springs splash of colour; filling raised beds with compost.
Striped tulips add an extra layer of interest to spring planting. Kari-Astri Davies started gardening in her twenties with pots of roses, geraniums and sweet peas on a parapet five storeys up in central London. She’s now on her fifth garden, this time in the Wiltshire countryside. Inspiration includes her plant-mad parents, as well as Dan Pearson, Beth Chatto, Keith Wiley and the Rix & Phillips plant books. Kari describes her approach as impulsive, meaning not everything is done by the book.