By Robin Lane Fox
Never has there been such a non-British winter. Magnolias have opened in London gardens. Japonica is in flower two-and-a-half months too soon. April’s polyanthuses and grape hyacinths are out everywhere with primroses following on. Daffodils have been falling on their faces in heavy rain 10 weeks before their usual season. Last year their bulbs tended to send up leaves without flowers. This year the early varieties are flowering profusely, enjoying the wet and warm conditions. My accelerated sight of the year is Leucojum vernum, the spring snowflake, in flower before Christmas in a London front garden in Hendon beside blue anemones and a few flowers on hardy geraniums which ought to have waited until June.
Does it all matter? These early flowers are probably not coinciding with their pollinating insects but few of them are on plants which we want to propagate from seed. Early flowering is not “exhausting” them as a non-botanical friend assured me last week. They are doing what they always do, only a bit sooner than usual. The losers will be their spectators. By mid-April there will be fewer of the usual narcissi, japonicas or magnolias to delight us and gardens will lack some of their zing. Usually the seasons come back into a familiar pattern after a freak spell. This season is not usual, but I am not yet betting on a bewilderingly blank phase in May. In a strange way seasons even themselves out.
Meanwhile, I am vigorously planning to fill gaps caused by more traditional hazards, deaths and failures. Orders for plants are flying off in all directions and this year I am being encouraged by notes from a memorable garden that I visited in 2013. The gardens at Chanticleer, near Wayne in Philadelphia, are up in my top 10, full of ingenious planting which blends the best of British and American and has a style of its own. The gardens passed to the management of an enlightened foundation in 1990 and are a living witness that the succession from a founding family to committed horticulturists can be happy and aesthetically progressive. Visits to the gardens can be combined with visits to nearby Longwood Gardens and the superb art museums in Philadelphia itself. I cannot think of a better gardening break, even in sweaty summer, and it is one that is extremely easy to organise without a specialist company’s help and expense. These great gardens are both open daily to the paying public.