One of the great pleasures of the English climate is the way that each season has its own character and indefinable atmosphere, both of which vary from year to year. This year started with an average January, after a much milder than normal December. It was followed by a colder than usual February. After a dampish start, March proved dry and cold and this weather continued throughout April. It was ideal weather for lambing, with very little bacterial disease, but plants in the garden grew slowly and reluctantly. I’ve never known such late crops of asparagus and rhubarb, both of which only came through in the last week of April – in quantities worth picking. The dryness has just persisted into May, although at last – and typically during the May Bank Holiday – there are signs of real rain arriving, hopefully tonight. I’ve kept rainfall records since Maisie and I bought our first house together, in 1980, and I don’t recall lower figures for April (just 10mm!); March was somewhat below normal, too, at 30mm, most of which fell in one short spell.
I wrote the first paragraph yesterday (Saturday May 2nd) morning, then had to break off to inoculate the lambs and dose them against a condition that gets worse in wet weather. I’m so glad we did that, because it looks like the next few days are going to be very wet and it’s pouring with rain at the moment. It now looks like we are seamlessly slipping into what I always think of as Late Spring. So what was the garden like in High Spring? And the answer to that is simple: it was absolutely fabulous. I don’t think I can ever recall a better display of bulbs and early spring flowers. As we saw in an earlier blog post (March 17th), primroses (the native British woodland Primula) were superb almost throughout the winter and then right through and into April. They even overlapped with the first flowers of the native British Primula of open damp pasture and road verges, the cowslip.
When I was a boy growing up in the hills of rural north Hertfordshire in the 1950s, cowslips (Primula veris) were everywhere. I loved the flowers, their subtle fragrance on the air, especially in the warm sunshine of a May morning, and I adored their name, even if I couldn’t understand how the pale yellow delicate flower could ever have been likened to the large, wet lips of a cow. Subsequently I have discovered that the name probably refers to wet cow dung (so ‘slips’ rather than ‘lips’), or just to marshy land, because wet pasture is the plant’s principal habitat in Britain.
We sowed our first cowslip seeds when we bought the field that became our wood and garden, back in the winter of 1992/3. We had saved some seed-heads from cowslips growing in our old garden about eight miles away and one day I simply strewed these along the brink of the large dyke which runs down one side of our holding. It only took me ten minutes and I thought no more about it. That nine metre-wide strip had to be kept clear of trees to allow the Internal Drainage Board access to clean-out the dyke alongside it, every autumn. So we knew it was potentially a good spot for cowslips and indeed, a couple of dozen tiny plants did appear the following spring. Over the next few years the display improved, but even so, I wouldn’t have described it as overwhelming.
About five years later, I transplanted about twenty young plants from the dykeside strip, across to the flower hay meadow we had laid-out between the main garden and the wide belt of woodland that was then just beginning to get established. Those trees were planted to protect the house and garden from the biting north-easterly winds that howl from off the nearby Wash – Britain’s largest bay (and incidentally by far the most important refuge for over-wintering birds). To our amazement the small cowslips took to their new habitat enthusiastically. Accordingly, over the following three or four years I moved many more. Soon the display in the meadow and in the small orchard nearby had completely eclipsed the original planting which, to be quite honest, I rather forgot about. We used it as a grass strip for hay and grazing and as a droveway to get sheep from our yard up to the main land just north of the new wood. And sure, cowslips survived there, but they didn’t exactly thrive. So I sort of forgot about the original area of planting along the dyke, and concentrated instead on the hay meadow and orchard, as readers of this blog will be aware.
Then late last autumn I was taking our new puppy, Pen, for one of her two daily high-energy, mad scampers (‘walks’ they were most certainly not), when I noticed the ground along the dyke, that had been closely grazed-down a week or two previously, was covered with cowslips which were growing in their tightly compact, ready-for-winter dormant pattern. They started to get larger in March, and into April began to throw up a few shy flowers. By mid-April the display was fabulous, but most of the plants themselves were still quite small, so the flower heads were nothing like as huge as in the hay meadow. Still, given a warm, moist early summer, the display will be even better next year. So what had happened to cause this population explosion? I can only conclude that the sharp frosts of the winter of 2012/13 had made seed lying on the ground surface germinate – a process known as ‘stratification’, which you can duplicate on a small scale, using a freezer.
Oh, and I nearly forgot: the snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in the hay meadow were better this year than they have ever been. But the really good news is that pheasants were almost completely absent, so all the flowers were able to bloom and set seed, without being pecked off. With luck their population will start to grow rapidly soon – fingers crossed and a few frosts. Anyhow, I’ll write about the flowers in the wood, shortly. So stay tuned!