Green & Spring Life
May and June 2015
Spring is drawing to a close, with the daffodils and flowering cherries over and tulips and ornamental apples also coming to an end. This time of year feels like a moment of pause in the garden, as if it is drawing breath after the spring revival and exuberance, before launching into the summer extravaganza of roses and perennials in June.
In the garden…
I was picking flowers for my niece’s christening at the weekend. It wasn’t all that easy as most bulbs are over and the roses are still to come (my cutting patch perhaps focuses too heavily on these, along with hardy annuals and dahlias which also all come later).
What I did find was masses of columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris). These cross-pollinate and self sow so once you have a few in the garden you soon get plenty more in a range of shapes and colours. I am going to go through and dig out all the murky pink and less exciting ones and keep just the best as there are now too many.
I also cut some luscious, fragrant lilac branches, these make a wonderful combination now with snowball viburnum (Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’). The garden lilac doesn’t last in a vase so should be cut just before it’s needed.
The alliums are in flower and are good for bridging the seasonal pause. They are excellent for cutting and easy to thread through a border of established planting. You can’t beat the inexpensive ‘Purple Sensation’ and starry Allium cristohpii although there are many other varieties, some costly and rarified, some tiny and some dramatically enormous. They repeat pretty well each year and I have noticed that the rodents don’t seem to like them as much as tulip bulbs.
Everyone is becoming more aware of the need to balance our use of the planet with the needs of the natural world. Gardens are a crucial resource for wildlife, often providing ‘corridors’ that insects, birds and animals can move through because the gardens adjoin each other. An isolated small wildlife paradise is much less beneficial than one that is close to other areas they can use because a significant population can colonise it and move from place to place.
In any event, it’s a great pleasure to have a vibrant, living garden with insects humming, birds flitting in and out and perhaps the odd frog or hedgehog making an appearance.
Bird-friendly plants include those they can eat and also those they can nest or shelter in. For insects, a supply of pollen and nectar is needed, for some insects like bumble bees, it’s important that this continues for much of the year so early and late pollen-providers are valuable. Introduce water into the garden, perhaps a large pot or half barrel or a small natural pond, and frogs and dragonflies will soon follow.
Best plants for insects
Not just butterflies and bees, other insects will also be attracted by nectar-rich flowers and these in turn will attract birds and other animals into your garden.
Good spring flowers include grape hyacinths, wallflowers, flowering currants, primroses, violets, wood anemones, honesty, columbines and English bluebells. All of these are really easy to grow too.
For summer, plant Buddleja davidii, lavender, alliums, bergamot, penstemons, Verbena bonariensis, Agastache and salvias. For late-season nectar, grow coneflowers (Echinacea), honeysuckle, ivy and Michaelmas daisies (Aster).
Many herbs are great for insects too – marjoram, borage, chives, fennel, dill, mint, rosemary and thyme are as delicious to them as to us.
You needn’t be limited in your choices, for a huge, long list of plants for pollinators, visit the RHS website.
It’s a good time for planting with the soil warming up and plenty of rain. Seeds or new plants can all be popped in the ground now.
Another way of adding beneficial flower power to your garden is to create an area of wildflower meadow. Plant plugs of meadow flowers like cowslip, meadow buttercup, ox eye daisy, yellow rattle and self heal in your lawn. Don’t mow until early September – it’s less work and eco too!
The countryside is absolutely full of wild food right now. It’s one of the best times for foraging with all the fresh, new leaves about. Imagine if the bagged baby leaves in the supermarket were marked ‘FREE!’ at the moment, you’d be chucking a couple in the trolley. So take a plastic bag on a walk and pick some delicious young leaves. A note of caution - take responsibly and be sure you know what you are picking!
Here are some easy ones to identify and try…
Stinging nettles – pretty much anyone can identify these and they are extremely common. Pick the top few leaves (wearing gloves). Very nutritious, they can be used in a similar way to spinach in soup, curries, stews, pies and risottos. You can cut back older plants and use the fresh young new growth later in the season too.
Goosegrass or cleavers – also called sticky weed, this is the stuff you stick on your friend’s jumper when you are at primary school and see how long before they notice. Only pick the young stems that are no more than 10cm long or they’ll be stringy. Steam and butter or sauté or add to soup or an omelette.
There are masses of other edible spring leaves from hawthorn to sorrel, do some investigation and start sampling.
Dandelions – bitter when raw but the young leaves are less so and can be used raw in salad or are delicious wilted in olive oil. The flower petals can be used to spice up salads.
Primroses – add the flowers to salads or fry the young leaves in olive oil.