Tuesday, 12 April 2011
As the swathes of snowdrops around my garden were at their height, I was on the search for primroses. All too soon the pretty white blanket would be pulled back and with that a new, warmer earth would be revealed and needing something in sunnier hues to enliven it and remind us that Spring was here: a much needed lift after all the damp grey weather of recent months.
My attachment to Primula vulgaris (also known as Primula auculis), our wild native primrose, comes from my youthful wanderings through the Sussex country lanes with my mother and paternal grandmother. How she used to love to pick them! But oh how quickly they faded even when wrapped in damp tissue and plunged quickly into a little vase of water once home. No, I think they are best left outside, decorating the shady banks beneath woodland trees.
In these harsher northern climes and landscapes of the High Peak where open windswept fields predominate over woodland, it is hard to spot primroses in any number in the wild. I did see some on a walk in Edale at the weekend - but they were in an enclosed piece of private copse nestling amongst the trees. Still, I am lucky enough to have banks in my own 'dingly dell' at home which badly need some life between the fading of the snowdrops and the rising of the bluebells. True, there are daffodils (and I am planting more each year), but there is a particularly bare spot where we cut down a conifer and I decided it was the perfect place for some primroses.
I spotted some on a dash through the garden centre sometime in early March. Sadly there were only two pots left and I grabbed them both and planted them enthusiastically on the spot intended. I added some cyclamen too but they didn't survive for some reason, so I badly needed more primroses. I went back and back to the garden centre but still no more came in - just the rather garish mass produced ones which have never really appealed to me as they just seem so, well, false. Too bright, too cheery, no modesty or humility. I left my name and number but the call never came.
Then last week I found myself in the shop at Chatsworth and spotted some seed packets (Suffolk Herbs) of my favourite litte primroses. I bought a couple and I shall attempt to grow them myself. I shall let you know how it goes.
Meanwhile, I shall just share with you a passage which I found this evening while thumbing through my copy of 'The beauties of a Cottage Garden' by that High Priestess of gardening, Gertrude Jekyll. It describes her very own primrose garden:-
The Primrose garden is in a place by itself - a clearing half shaded by Oak, Chestnut, and Hazel. I always think of the Hazel as a kind nurse to Primroses; in the copses they generally grow together, and the finest Primrose plants are often nestled close in to the base of the nut-stool. Three paths run through the Primrose garden, mere narrow tracks between the beds, converging at both ends, something like the lines of longitude on a globe, the ground widening in the middle where there are two good-sized Oaks, and coming to a blunt point at each end, the only other planting near it being two other long-shaped strips of Lily of the Valley.
Every year, before replanting, the Primrose ground is dug over and well manured. All day for two days I sit on a low stool dividing the plants; a certain degree of facility and expertness has come of long practice. The 'rubber' for frequent knife-sharpening is in a pail of water by my side; the lusciously fragrant heap of refuse leaf and flower-stem and old stocky root rises in front of me, changing its shape from a heap to a ridge, as when it comes to a certain height and bulk I back and back away from it. A boy feeds me with armfuls of newly-dug-up plants, two men are digging-in the cooling cow-dung at the farther end, and another carries away the divided plants tray by tray, and carefully replants them. The still air, with only the very gentlest south-westerly breath in it, brings up the mighty boom of the great ship guns from the old seaport, thirty miles away, and the pheasants answer to the sound as they do to thunder. The early summer air is of a perfect temperature, the soft coo of the wood-dove comes down from the near wood, the nightingale sings almost overhead, but - either human happiness may never be quite complete, or else one is not philosophic enough to contemn life's lesser evils, for - oh, the midges!
I may not have a nightingale, and I do not have hazels, but I have wood-doves and a pair of pheasants who seem to have decided this is home. I watch them every morning when I come down to the kitchen, nodding their way across the lawn and trying to pinch the bird food in the feeder cups in the borders. Occasionally there will be a kerfuffle and a squawk and an elaborate flapping of wings when I disturb them in the dell. I have Lily of the Valley and some more waiting to be planted. And yes, I have midges. In abundance. Human happiness may indeed never be quite complete, but with a sunny bank full of primroses and the spring air full of promise and birdsong, I think I'm getting pretty darn close.
Miss Jekyll, I was pleased to note, also wrote this about sowing Primrose seeds in March (but up here, April will be fine):-
The seed is sown in boxes in cold frames, and pricked out again into boxes when large enough to handle. The seedlings are planted out in June, when they seem to go on without any check whatever, and are just right for blooming next spring.
So I shall now sow them with renewed confidence!