Plant of the month: March primroses

Long as there’s a sun that sets, Primroses will have their glory – Wordsworth

Although there were plenty of daffodils in bloom in the garden for St David’s Day this week, it’s the primroses that I love to see in March. We have a patch under a hazel along with bluebells, cowslips and grape hyacinths. They bloom well for a couple of months before the canopy of the hazel develops, bringing cheer to shady parts of the garden. Edible plants, you can pick them to garnish a cake or a spring salad – they taste like lettuce. All of the primroses I have in the garden have developed from some plants dug up by a friend. They spread prolifically. I’ll be sharing the love with my neighbours soon, so that they don’t take over.

Primroses were prized plants in days of yore by those who made their own cures and potions, being useful as remedies for muscle aches, rheumatism, paralysis, jaundice and gout. Combined with beeswax it makes a salve for burns or an ointment for treating spots and wrinkles (useful) and it’s even been made into a tea to treat insomnia (not necessary as I’m always shattered when my head hits the pillow). The leaves and flowers of the plant can be used both fresh and dried. Roots were only used when dried, and a special infusion of the roots was used to treat headaches.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn primroses were considered sacred by the Celts, who carried them to ward off evil spirits. They thought primroses held the keys to heaven. Another old superstition claimed if you ate the blossoms of a primrose you would see a fairy and large patches of primroses were portals into the ‘faerie realms’. They are traditionally associated with Easter in Britain although the my Irish ancestors were just as likely to link them with Beltane (May Day), using them to decorate the threshold but never bringing them inside if the hens were laying or hatching eggs indoors.

Whatever you believe, primroses are true harbingers of Spring. It may be bitterly cold outside today but when the sun shines and you’re out and about you can feel that the season has turned. The annual weeds have sprouted; there are leaf buds aplenty and with a rug slung over my shoulders or across my knees I can enjoy a mug of coffee in the garden.

Snowdrops, magpies and the end of winter

pic by Sally Tonkin

Christmas seems a lifetime ago; COVID has reared its ugly head again at home and in the classroom; my marking mountain never seems to get any smaller and every time I want to get out in the garden, the weather turns or I have too much school work to do. I have been in danger of losing my sense of perspective and, worst of all, my sense of humour. BUT the start of Spring is just around the corner; there have been two magpies in the garden for the first time ever; the snowdrops are blooming. This beautiful photo from a Facebook friend reminded me to check out our snowdrops at the bottom of the garden this weekend. I hadn’t spotted them until now, what with leaving for work and getting home in the dark every day. A tiny habit which reset my internal barometer from stormy to fair.

I’ve written about the start of Celtic spring – Imbolc – before. I started this blog thirteen years ago at this time of year around Candlemas when I was looking for a new project. The urge to embrace the green shoots, shake off the winter blues and start new projects, spring clean, clear clutter in the house and in the garden is strong but I’m going to have to resist for the time being. In the garden it’s probably a good idea to wait for warmer weather anyway. Pollinators are often wintering in dead leaves and hollowed out stems so it’s best to let them bee (sic). In the house, clutter clearing as my husband sorts through the endless contents of my in-laws house moves very slowly. The major spring cleaning work this year has been internal in the letting go of ways of being and working that are no longer fit for purpose and are certainly not conducive to wellbeing.

I’ve set myself a long-term goal. By Spring next year I hope that much will have changed about the way I spend my time, my priorities will be different and I’ll feel more grounded. I’m in it for the long haul. Evolution not revolution. Not my usual approach but all the better for that I think.

Imbolc blessings for the week ahead.

Plants in the classroom

Plants affect your mood. They lower anxiety and blood pressure, decrease stress levels and increase concentration. Perfect in a classroom, then. All of us have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. Biophillia has been big news for many years. Some GPs have started to prescribed time in nature as a cure for stress; gardening is a well-recognized therapy for PTSD and depression; just putting your hands in the soil stirs up microbes in the soil and inhaling these microbes can produce serotonin which makes you feel relaxed and happier.

I am so lucky that my current classroom overlooks a city park. In my last school, it overlooked the science technician’s greenhouse and the approach to the playing fields. The seasons change in front of my eyes through the window from one term to the next. But I do love filling my classroom with plenty of indoor plants too.

At this time of year, when daylight hours are limited, it’s good to remind yourself that Spring is on the way. A few pots of bulbs are an effective aide memoire. If you’re uber-organised, you’ll have ordered bulbs in the summer, had them delivered in the Autumn, potted them up at weekly intervals and stored them in a cool, dark until the shoots appeared, brought them out into a bright spot and watched them grow. Less efficient individuals can pick them up for a few pounds ready – planted at a supermarket or garden centre.

Whichever option you choose, once they’ve bloomed, leave them in a corner somewhere to die back and you can pop them in the ground to enjoy again for many years to come. I like the idea that pupils at all the schools I have ever taught at have been able to enjoy bulbs I’ve planted, long after I’ve moved on.

Brighten the January days with some hyacinths, daffs or crocuses, perk up your mood and, if you’re a teacher, you’ll be helping your students to concentrate too.

Plant of the month : January Snowdrops

I’ve decided to feature one plant from my garden every month this year. They’ll be easy-to-grow cottage garden plants, good for bees and other pollinators and often native to the British Isles. This month it’s the humble snowdrop. These beauties are popping up already. I remember them blooming more in February and March in my youth. Symbolic of innocence, purity and hope, they really are the perfect flower for January. When all the excess of Christmas has been cleared away, there’s an innate need to pare back and simplify. In current times it’s also good to reflect that something so delicate can tough out the coldest month of the year, adapt to freezing conditions by drooping their flowerheads down and opening up again when the temperature rises. It’s a lesson for us all.

They’re native European plants, although I think they were introduced to Britain by the Romans – along with ground elder. (I know which I prefer in my garden.) There’s folklore attached to the snowdrop too – formed after the fight between the Winter Witch and Lady Spring, symbolising Spring’s ultimate victory over Winter. The Victorians thought of them as a sign of death however – probably because they grow prolifically in churchyards – that they shouldn’t be cut and brought indoors, believing they brought bad luck to farmers, affecting cow’s milk and discolouring butter. I don’t tend to cut snowdrops for the vase. Maybe it’s the influence of my deep agricultural roots or just a feeling that these flowers are better featured when nodding their heads outdoors.

Plant them in partial shade or full sun, pointy side up in groups of 25, about 3 inches deep. Wear gloves, because the bulbs can irritate skin. I prefer to plant in the green in March, rather than from dry bulbs. When established, allow them to die back (letting the leaves go yellow) before cutting them back. When uber-established you can dig them up and divide them, spreading the love around your garden or giving them away to friends and neighbours. They do well under trees in our garden before the leaves form a canopy.

If you don’t have snowdrops in your garden this year, mark a place where they could go and order some to plant in the green in March. Then this time next year you’ll be watching them poke through the soil, a harbinger that the days are lengthening and spring is on its way.

Mistletoe and no wine

I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.

There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.

The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.

Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.

Dreaming of a purple patch

February into March is all about snowdrops and daffodils in the garden but I’m ready for that purple patch that follows. Perhaps it’s the need to move on after months of the limbo of online and in-school teaching. Usually I savour the here and now but the thought of Spring sunshine, more time spent outdoors and a bit of colour in all our lives is a strong fillip right now.

In fact, the tulips I planted during the Christmas holidays are beginning to poke through the top of the pots where I stowed them. In this cottage garden, tulips are planted in trenches to be harvested for indoors or in pots to be enjoyed whilst sitting on the terrace with a cup of coffee. In borders they tend to flop and look somewhat unkempt. Not unlike me after weeks of teaching and no visit to the hairdresser.

Pink primulas and garden planning on a rainy day

A rainy walk today and not really a day to be doing more than taking a quick jaunt around the garden. These primulas are loving the rain and there is plenty of plantlife burgeoning. There is some frost-damage to prune away on some of the shrubs which had started putting on new growth and a general tidy up and weed to do. I’ve made a start and hope to get that finished before the end of Half Term.

I’m going to hold off on sowing seeds in earnest until April but I might get a few sweet peas underway before then. The ground is too wet to work so I’m getting my garden fix from planning and ordering a few snowdrops in the green to pop in ready for next year. It’s a great time to do it now when you can easily see the gaps where they should go.Another few weeks and there will be too much growth. Planting them in the green also builds stronger plants. Whatever the season or the weather, there’s always something to do in the garden.

Tree pruning, winter sunshine and a full log store

Yesterday I ran around doing errands in snow flurries; today the winter sunshine is streaming through the kitchen window as I teach my classes. We had a visit from the tree surgeon this morning to give our trees a bit of a Winter prune.

The laburnum at the front is beautifully shaped after a year of being nothing short of bedraggled. And the hazel has afforded a few extra logs for the fire and some bean poles.

Its the kind of day which provides food for the soul. Sunshine, stores to plunder in the future and everything neat and tidy.

Snowdrop walks, woodpiles and bee berets.

I’m missing my visits to National Trust properties to wander among the snowdrops so this beaut picture from The Courts gardens in Holt, where I have spent many a happy hour was a boon when it popped up in my timeline. The snowdrops in my own garden are nodding their heads vigorously in today’s strong winds. Yesterday in Wiltshire was positively barmy,when I did a spot of weeding and planted two new daphnes in shady parts. I’ve never known a year when annual weeds were so prolific in February. The urge to sow seeds is strong but with no greenhouse I’m holding off outside until April, though I may start a few on the kitchen windowsill before then. In the meantime the garden jobs include some tree pruning to reshape the laburnum, quince, apple and greengage trees and to coppice the hazel. I’m also marking spots where I want to sow more bulbs in the autumn. If I don’t mark them now, by midsummer, when the borders are romping away I will have forgotten. I’ve ordered some Patty’s Plum poppies for a neglected spot and some more hellebores.I can never have enough of these in the shadier parts of the garden.

There is a definite whiff of spring in the air. My friend’s chickens have started laying; I drove home from school in daylight for the first time in months and even sat outside with a coffee on Friday in between online lessons. But it’s still good to light the fire of an evening. We replenished our woodstore for the second time this winter. A full logstore is a thing of beauty and a log fire is the perfect accompaniment to Six Nations rugby and the mountain of GCSE and A Level marking that is currently occupying my Google Classroom.

This term has flown by despite one day being pretty much like another in the world of online teaching. This week was enlivened by the COVID Russian roulette of being on the in-school teaching rota and my good friend Helen popping round en route to the supermarket to drop off a beautiful handknitted red beret embellished with bee and flower. Looking at the forecast for this week, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Packets of positivity

Now that the days are getting lighter, I’m going to sow a few sweet peas in pots in a sheltered spot to plant out in Spring.

I used to sow sweet peas in individual root trainers but now I sow a few in a deep pot, the kind in which I start the dahlias off. The don’t mind the cold but I protect them from the worst of the rain until they are ready for transplanting.

Something to look forward to next Summer.

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