On days when grey skies and pouring rain dampen spirits, there's happiness and hope to be found at ground level among the spring flowers.
Snowdrop blooms last for weeks in these temperatures. When the show is over, it's perfect timing to transplant a few bulbs - or whole clumps - to other areas. They're no trouble in lawns, since they're dormant by the time lawn mowing season begins.
Equally easy in lawns is Crocus tomasinianus. The little, early crocus which squirrels detest is a rampant self-seeder. In old gardens it creates sheets of colour, from deep purple to pale mauve. But its thin, wispy leaves don't dominate, and by late spring are gone.
Another spectacular sight are patches of dwarf blue scilla (Scilla siberica) which get very dense when allowed to grow and spread freely. They do best in semi-shade under deciduous trees or shrubs. Like Crocus tomasinianus, scilla is quite inexpensive and it's easy to buy large quantities in fall.
Not many gardeners grow winter aconite, but its low-growing bright yellow globes are a lovely distraction from the storm clouds of late winter. When available, it's best to acquire and plant them early, because they're reluctant sprouters if the tubers dry out. There seems to be some benefit in soaking them for a day before planting, just as there is with snowdrop bulbs.
In gardens where it's been undisturbed for a few years, the hardy Cyclamen coum makes a mat less than three inches tall, but is an eyes topper with its bright pink or white flowers. It grows readily from seed, and ants help it migrate into the lawn, where it goes dormant in May and sleeps through drought, competition from grass roots, and riding lawnmowers.
Hellebores are always a delight at this time of year.
The green, red-rimmed flower clusters of Helleborus foetidus have been beautiful for almost six weeks, and will continue for another six, until their pointedjester's cap seed heads need to be dead-headed to keep them from spilling embarrassing quantities of seed.
Helleborus orientalis is also in gorgeous bloom at this time. Besides the typical red-purple and white single-cup-like flowers, hellebore colour now includes blue-black and a wide range of purples, reds, pinks, yellows, and shadings of colour into white and picotees.
Garden centre offerings of this hellebore are absolutely spectacular this year, including a wide assortment of doubles, and contrasts of bud and flower colour. Later, the seed heads become almost as striking as the flowers were.
One of the loveliest dwarf shrubs at this time is Daphne mezereum which produces heavily fragrant pink flowers (rarely white) all down the stems from a very young age. It can be difficult to start from cuttings, but grows easily and true from seed, then produces (poisonous) red berries. Some white-flowered forms produce yellow berries.
Another nice, dwarf shrub is the white forsythia (Abeliophylum distichum). In late February/early March it opens long wands of small white flowers. It's an open, fragile-looking shrub, and its flowers last only a week - but the piercing fragrance is memorable.
Unfortunately, it's hard to propagate, and hence hard to find. But anyone who does come across it might want to know it's very much worth having.
Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to her via email@example.com
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