This may be the quiet time of year for our main grass and perennial plantings, but it is hardly an uninteresting time to be in the garden……
Knoll was originally a private botanic garden; the Wimborne Botanic Gardens, and as a result of plantings made in the 1970’s and 1980’s we are very lucky to benefit now from a framework of woody plants that have become a most valued feature in their own right. Over the last few years we have become known for our work with grasses and perennials in what is often termed the naturalistic style; an intentional gardening ethos and approach that honours and mimics some of the natural processes we see operating in our natural systems so successfully. At this time of year there is comparatively little to see as the main borders (see image below), have been cut and prepared for the long season ahead; and this is where the woody plants can be so valuable – in this or any other garden.
Not only do woody plants provide a year round structure so many of the spring bloomers can provide amazingly beautiful effects in terms of sheer flower power. They have an eloquence that no other group of plants can match. Take for example the almost overwhelmingly magnificent blooms of Magnolia Charles Raffill (below), which are at their best for only a week or so; but in that time create a breathtaking effect that can last in the imagination for so much longer.
They are probably about the largest individual flowers, dislayed perfectly on bare branches, to be seen in the gardens but some of the reticulata type of Camellia come close. Trehanes Nursery the nationally respected camellia specialists are quite literally next door; and I am sure we have a nice collection of camellias as a result!
It is true that we benefit from a sandy, slightly acid soil so we can grow azalea and rhododendrons; and coming from a heavy Devon clay that was alkaline I am still (23 years later), enjoying my move to acid conditions! I love the larger rhododendrons that have some scent and R. Janet is one that never lets me down. As it has grown larger the stems have become a feature in their own right, underplanted with Hakonechloa Aureola, but the wonderful flowers (image below), are the main delight. The mild winter has brought many plants into comparatively early growth and flower this year so in many ways the garden is ahead of itself this spring.
At the other end of the scale in terms of flower size is Acacia pravissima (image below), whose tiny pompom like bright yellow flowers are produced in such profusion. Thousands and thousands of these tiny flowers crowd the branches at this time of year and while they can be at risk of a late frost careful siting can minimise the chances of spoiling the display.
And its not only ourselves that can enjoy this floral springtime spectacular. One originally unintended, but so very welcome, effect of our naturalistic gardening approach has been that a significant amount of wildlife has come to join us in the gardens. As a result we have become keenly aware of the value of suitable flowers as food for insects such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies. This is perhaps especially so for early emerging insects that may not find much to eat! Early blooming woody plants such as the camellia (image below taken this morning), can therefore have a double value; not only an aesthetic one, but also as a food bar!
Of course woody plants do not have the stage entirely to themselves. There are many wonderful early flowering perennials and we have some great hellebores which are liking their shady conditions in the Spring Garden to the extent that they are not only flowering beautifully (see image below), they are showing their approval by seeding around to help build a thriving colony for the future.
We have one colony planted on a slight incline, and by the edge of a path, so in fact the faces of their flowers can be seen without necessarily having to be on your knees first!
Another dainty looking, but very durable group when happy, are the primulas. For me there is nothing to beat the wonderfully simple pale yellow native form, but I have a special place for Primula ‘Minicombe’ (see image below), as it was first spotted and named by my Mum in our Devon garden.
There may not be so many grasses in evidence at the moment – but it is nonetheless a lovely time to be in the garden !