For all our readers in Antarctica and Manchester, England, it is hot here in Sussex, 22 Celsius (71 Fahrenheit) and rising. The sun is shining unconditionally and the sky is blue.
If I were in the mood to camp it up I would go straight into a song here, in fact I feel Irving Berlin coming on…..Blue Skies, Smiling at me, Nothing But Blue Skies Do I see…… and then, with a song in my heart, possibly that one, I will go out into the garden, my small courtyard garden, and see what is cooking.
And what do you see when your heart is light and you are innocently singing a song about happy things? Yes, of course, the snails and woodlice are back and they are staring right back at me.
They pose the first of those great horticultural and ethical questions:, how do you get rid of them? Slug pellets are effective but they can take out some other wild life too. OK if the failed head of the Royal Bank of Scotland (Sir) Fred Goodison was passing through or former Vice President Dick Cheney was feeling peckish – slug killer would be just perfect. Others gardeners prefer chucking them, the snails I mean, over into their neighbours’ gardens which is not only outrageously unfriendly but also pointless as the persistent creatures are like homing pigeons and they will all be back again in the morning. An infallible method is, of course, the downward propulsion of a stout gardening boot.
Snails staring at me? Not any more! hehehe. Don’t start feeling sorry for them, they haven’t been eating your bright young green leaves. But what about those sweet little woodlice, I hear you call. Not them too! Of course not. The little woodlouse, which rolls up coyly into a ball like a miniature hedgehog when you go near is a good thing. Woodlice eat dead vegetation and then pass it out again as miniature sacks of compost. I wouldn’t be murdering them even if they weren’t splendid little recyclers, they are my friends and have been since I was a child. I used to put them into my own home-made woodlouse house with leaves and sticks and watch them, well, just watch really, like small obsessive children do. I think it was the hedgehog thing that attracted me at first but then their gentle, short-sighted progress feeling their way with those absurdly delicate antennae just got to me and I am always pleased to see them as, sadly, are a whole load of marauding spiders. It is a battle ground out here, believe me.
Back to that blue sky and a moment to enjoy the Japanese cherry blossom on my miniature tree now in full flower. There may be no cherries later on but the beauty, as those clever Japanese plant cultivators knew, is well worth the loss. Every year, in Japan, this cherry blossom moment merits a holiday. Just a relaxed affair with a few glasses of wine, an Oriental bar-b-q and some friendly sumo wrestlers, nothing better. My garden is only a year old and the tree is still a baby but already it is eye-catching enough to lift even the gloomiest spirit.
Is has also attracted the other persistent visitors to my little york-stoned and flint-walled space. Endangered in Britain, experts are saying, but here, I see no shortage of bees. Bumble Bees, Honey Bees and a seemingly friendly hovering bee, not a hover fly, that buzzes around me whenever I come out here.
Today the sound of bees is a constant hum so much so that, if you recorded the sound and played it back to someone locked in a dark chilled room, they would believe almost believe that they were hot, basking in the sun, in a summer garden.
If bees are the sound of a hot day in the garden, then, for me at this time of year, the Rhododendron luteum is the perfume of late Spring. I grow a specimen in a large terracotta pot which sits in full sun until after its flowers have faded when I move it to a less prominent position where its spindly frame and undistinguished leaf shape can carry on without boring us. It comes back in the autumn when its reddening leaves add a final touch of colour to this postage stamp garden.
The acid yellow flower breaks my rule which says that, when the daffodils stop flowering, it is definitely time to put yellow back in the wardrobe for another year.
Rhododendron luteum is a special case though. The perfume is wafted on the breeze when the sun is strong, it is a strong sweet tangy smell full of promise of things to come. The bees love it too or so I like to think.
Certainly the combination of that heady perfume and the buzzing of bees as I lie here in the sun is a moment hard to beat.
Earlier than I was expecting, the first of the irises are flowering. In my previous garden I had a full bed of irises, in a wide, and maybe wild, variety of colours. They are right up there on my list of favourite plants, maybe number two even. Number one, you ask? You will have to wait and see. In my now tiny space, I had to choose which variety to have so I settled for Blue Denim because, for me, blue is the perfect colour for late Spring, after all that yellow and, maybe the most suited to the Iris’ elaborately bearded face. I still miss my white and brown varieties though but denim is pure rock ‘n roll and I have two now and a lot more on their way. I can’t wait.
Another promise of things to come is the first of the strawberry flowers which I grow in a traditional Victorian style terracotta pot which has windows scattered round its sides for a dozen plants. I have also successfully brought on a full set of replacement plants from last year’s suckers which will take their place in the pot when this year’s crop is harvested. I grow strawberries as biennials for the best results. Last year these plants produced unbeatable fruits which went straight from the stalk to the mouth. Perfect.
Whilst the cowslips are fading in the sun, the magnificent display of primroses has disappeared, obediently obeying my yellow rule. They sit in two old urns in the darkest corners of the garden like aspidistras in a Victorian drawing room. Their leaves, vividly luxuriant and, to my eyes, very English, not only look elegant but they will stay like that until late summer as long as my battle with those snails is won.
If I had to choose though, and I know this is a silly schoolboy’s game, if I had to choose my favourite garden plant then it would have to be the tulip.
Here in my miniature garden there is not enough room for all the types I would love to grow. There were a few early varieties, those rag-a-muffin strays that I have allowed to pop up practically wherever they want and there were some beautiful small species ones, brick red and low stemmed which, tragically, fell prey to the snail’s homeless cousins, the slugs.
My real favourites though, are those elegant long stemmed, so-called Lily-flowered types. They are almost too grand for the plebeian garden, their stiff formality gives them a look which, if it wasn’t so old, could win it a contemporary design award.
For all their apparent icy formality they share their urges with all other tulips turning their heads to the sun with almost indecent urgency.
In full sunshine they give way to their passion and throw open their petals in joyful abandon and showing the world their deeply guarded stamens.
In this unseasonably hot sunshine, my tulips have begun their joyful endgame with daily bursts of exuberance. Not even Stravinsky in his Rite of Spring expressed this burst of life with more vigour or sensuality.
I am a ruthless gardener as far as tulips are concerned. If ever a plant seeks perfection it is the tulip, known to its Latin lovers as Tulipa Liliaceae. After one great moment of glory it sends all its energy back to its subterranean bulb where it is stored ready for another burst next year. Not for me though. I think they reach perfection only once, in later years they are retired athletes, arthritic, mere shadows of their former magnificence. So I treat them like annuals and pull them up as soon as the flowers fade.
Like the worst sort of promiscuous lover I will seek someone new once this passionate but short-lived romance fades. This time I have grown Ballerina but next year I will have found someone completely new.
That terracotta pot by my French windows will be replanted for the summer with something else but it will miss the drama that will erupt here every Spring. Nothing can beat it.
Meanwhile I shall share the tulips’ love affair with the sun whilst admiring those blue skies celebrated by Irving Berlin.