In February, when the wind is howling bitterly round the rooftops and the trees in the front garden are bending at a 45 degree angle it is tempting to hunker down, close the curtains and wait for better weather to come. Sometimes, though, if you put on a warm coat, thick scarf and hat you can be rewarded at this time of year with the early flowering gems that somehow emerge in the low light of late winter to delight and raise the spirits, presaging better things to come.
We gardeners are, are we not?, an optimistic bunch. The sight of a primrose, that beautiful pale yellow glowing in the border, just about bursts my heart with joy. The cyclamen, so delicate-looking but in reality tough as old boots, spreading under the hazel, a splash of vivid pink and magenta above marbled, heart-shaped leaves. These used to be in planter in the front garden badly neglected. Baked dry in summer and often rain-drenched in winter it seemed to be just what they loved always returning robustly every new year. When the planter finally gave up the ghost, the cyclamen were transplanted into the ground. I was concerned that after the brutal neglect they clearly loved going into a well mulched soil would be the death of them. But no. Carrying on where they left off, happy as larry, they are seeding themselves around like a weed. A weed that I am very happy to accommodate.
The Iris reticulata also put into the ground after a season in a pot were the first to appear, a little early it felt to me, braving the torrential rain their stunning markings evident when you bend down to get a closer look. This close inspection of one plant suddenly reveals the new growth of plants to come. Little clumps of Forget-me-not leaves sprouting in between the perennials. They are promiscuous but how brilliantly they fill the gaps in springtime before later emerging plants have really got going. The ferny leaves of Nigella damascena, commonly known as Love-in-the-mist and another early summer annual, having emerged before Christmas are now biding their time to rush ahead when the weather warms up.
Crocuses, early narcissi and, of course the late winter staple, Hellebores are all cause for rejoicing. For a lot of the year the Hellebore are a useful ground cover plant and are less than exciting but in the right place (mine are on the shady side of the garden in moist, clay soil) if you cut back the old leaves in early winter allowing the flowers to be seen to their best as they emerge from late December onwards you will be rewarded with an amazing display. Their demurely drooping flowers can lull you into thinking they are rather inclined to a cold sulk but they thrive in the harsh conditions and if you really want to see the detail of these beauties cut off a few flower heads and float them in a pretty bowl of water.
Not to be left out, of course, snow drops and winter aconites are spellbinding in their simplicity and beauty and winter jasmine scrambling over the front garden fence catches the eye as you leave the house. In the front garden I also have Sarcoccocca, or Winter Box. It’s not beautiful but does it earn its keep when suddenly without warning it starts to pump out its spicy scent on the most inauspicious day imaginable. I don’t have room, I think, for the beautiful winter scented Daphne
Not only are these flowers salve for the soul but are life savers for the early emerging bees and invertebrates. If there is a warm spell, or indeed if it has never really gone cold, bees will wake up and need a sugar hit pretty quickly. To plant some late winter/early spring plants will be the best investment you can make to help them through to summer.