April in the Garden

April in the Garden

We’ve all had a treat this month haven’t we?  The glorious sunshine has been a treat and put me in mind of a few lines of Frost’s which might be relevant to gardeners.

Why make so much of fragmentary blue 

In here and there a bird or butterfly,

Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,

When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since Earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)-

Though some savants make earth include the sky;

And blue so far above us comes so high,

It only gives our wish for blue a whet.”

One of the glories of this time of year is to see early flowers against a clear spring sky, particularly when these flowers are borne at the ends of magnolia branches.

Magnolia denudata

Magnolia denudata

Magnolias are the queens of garden flowers, there is such a variety of form and habit from shrubby types such as M. stellata or its pink form ‘Rosea’ to large trees, amongst the finest of which are the Campbellii species as hybrids such as ‘Darjeeling’ or mollicomata which flowers earlier than most. Typically the magnolias we grow in our gardens are precocious, the flowers appearing before the leaves.   However there is a magnolia for almost every season if you have the site,  soil and situation.  Magnolia grandiflora is an evergreen suitable for growing as a large tree.  Football sized fragrant white flowers are a vision in summer.  As this magnolia comes from the southern U.S.A it is used to higher average summer temperatures and humidity then we get in the U.K so it is better grown against a warm sunny wall, even in full sun.  If you have a north facing wall then a good upright growing variety such as ‘Daybreak’ will prove successful, as the lack of strong sunlight protects the buds from being forced into flower early and thus being damaged by frosts.

 Magnolia M. Daybreak

Magnolia M. Daybreak

For fragrance M. ‘Merrill’ which has white flowers and grows 12 or 15 feet high cannot be beaten whilst M. salicifolia has aniseed scented foliage.

Magnolia M. Merril

Magnolia M. Merril

Magnolias come from a wide variety of climates and habitats but those we buy from the nurseries will be grafted onto one rootstock or another to control vigour as well as to induce them to flower earlier.  They are very amenable.

 Most will grow in any reasonable, slightly acidic garden soil but they do demand decent humus and organic content.  Most magnolias are forest plants and so enjoy companionship and the shelter from strong winds provided by other trees.

Magnolias have a system of shallow feeding roots which, once planted, resent disturbance.  When planting, I don’t even tease roots away from the root-ball as I would do with any other shrub or tree.  Thorough ground preparation with plenty of leaf-mould or soil conditioner is essential and it is important to plant the top of the root-ball level with the surrounding soil.  I have learned to my cost the fatal effects of planting magnolias too deep despite the well intentioned desire to keep as much moisture as possible around a newly planted specimen.

If Magnolias are the queens of garden flowers then Rhododendrons ( including Azaleas) are the kings.  April and May are the best months to go to gardens boasting collections of rhododendrons and admire their many forms and flower colours.

Rhododendrons have suffered a fall in popularity over the last few years.  Many people have been of the opinion that this was because they could not be accommodated in smaller gardens, but I rather feel that it was the result of nurseries and garden centres failing to offer a variety of plants.  When many people think of rhododendrons, they often think of R. ponticum or its hybrids, which line the drives of many a stately home and, after flowering, form an unattractive green lump.  When the gardener is looking for a plant that gives interest over more than one season it is understandable that many begrudge giving space to rhododendrons with their short flowering season.  However if we look beyond the common hybrids there is a rhodo out there for everyone.  Many of the species and cultivars have attractive foliage with either silver backed leaves or leaves marbled with brown hairy indumentum as well as attractive bark. Azaleas, members of the rhododendron family, make excellent garden plants.  Many cultivars are deciduous and have the added bonus of scented flowers and autumn colour.  They come in a wide range of colours from the pure white of ‘Persil’ to pinks and the bright yellows of R. luteum.

We all want our plants to give us value, to perform for as long as possible and with as little demand on our time as possible.  There is nothing wrong with this view; my argument is simply a blend of the practical and philosophical.  Firstly, not every plant is suitable for every garden or situation within a garden so we should all chose plants suitable for what we have, rather than try too hard to change the soil or situation to our advantage.  Secondly, imagine the most beautiful magnolia flower you have ever seen then ask yourself if in fact part of the charm is that very ephemeral nature.  Would you be as excited or notice it as much if it flowered non-stop?

Finally, my top tip for this time of year is not to cut the foliage of flowering spring bulbs down until they start to die down on their own.  This might not appeal to the tidy minded gardener but these bulbs are entering the most critical stage of their growth when they are making food to support new flowers next spring. Look at your snowdrops. Now they have finished flowering, the leaves have elongated and widened to capture as much light as possible.  If you have daffodils planted in grass leave it alone, don’t mow.  If you don’t like having long grass then you shouldn’t have put the daffodils there in the first place!

Ross Underwood