On a Chalk Hillside April 2020

Published: April 6, 2020

Posted on 06.04.2020 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Mindfulness in the garden – the Spring Equinox

This is not the advertised article.
On the spring equinox – 20 March – as the schools were shut indefinitely; my sister, step-mother and mother had all entered 12 week shielding in locations far far from me; our daughter was in lockdown in her care home and our son and family was also social isolating as our youngest granddaughter had been sent home from nursery that week with a high temperature I went out in the beautiful sunshine into our garden in a very worried, stressed state.  As we sat on our courtyard with a cup of coffee, to calm our minds a little my husband and I counted our blessings – we had toilet rolls, milk, frozen veg from our garden, we had each other, and we had our garden.  As you know we work a lot in our garden, which is quite large compared with many people's and this we could carry on doing.  
As the sun shone, and the birds sang, I walked round our garden doing a mental audit of what needed doing, I began to breathe more regularly, my shoulders untightened slightly and suddenly I began to see all the signs of spring – buds coming on trees and shrubs, spring flowers emerging, bees, butterflies, ladybirds.  I went and fetched my camera and started snapping.  I thought of all my friends and family in isolation all around the country, and how one way I could keep in touch and keep all our spirits up was to send them pictures of the signs of spring from this garden every day or so, to let them know I was thinking of them.   To remind them how at springtime you can see small changes in plants day by day, and take delight in these small, positive changes.  This, to me, is a form of mindfulness – a way of focussing down onto smaller happenings than you might have normally done.  Noticing the way a leaf or bud unfurls, or seeing the first bee or butterfly, makes you appreciate that springtime is still going on.  You can register these milestones or changes as positive progress, which you can celebrate, and gives us something different to talk about with others.  It occurred to me that in these unprecedented times you might also like to see some of the signs of spring from this garden. 

Here is a stream of photos from 20 March from this garden:-
Firstly the clump of native primroses (Primula vulgaris) that were flowering under the pear trees.  This to me is a quintessential spring flower, and I had divided up a big clump of Primula vulgaris last autumn and spread them through the cowslip meadow so they would flower before the cowslips started.  This was the first clump to flower, but as I write the sward is spangled with them.  A success.

primrose 45

Another quintessential spring flower to me is the Scilla sibirica – planted round a dwarf apple tree In the orchard as soon as the crocus go over I am looking impatiently for their leaves to pop up.  Here on 20 March, they were in flower:-

scillas 90

The next one is from my newest garden venture, and is a bulb I have struggled to get to grow on this chalk hillside – even in the gunnera bed in the bog garden – , Snakes head fritillary.  I had planted these bulbs last summer, with the suppliers warning ringing in my ears that they are not very reliable from “dry” bulbs, but the very very wet autumn and winter has helped them to establish – as you can see they were beginning to colour up on 20th – I am monitoring their progress daily.

snakeshead 49

The leaves and flowerbuds were coming on all my dogwoods on 20th – this is the only snap that was in focus (!) of the Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata':-

red dogwood bud 47

By 20th March the Blackthorn blossom had been in full swing for some time as you can see below, the next photo is of the Plum blossom that was just starting to unfurl on 20th – I am hoping you can see the size difference on these two beautiful white blossoms?  Blackthorn is Prunus spinosa, and the plum is from the Prunus domestica family.

blackthorn blossom 86
plum blossom 51

My had not been visible all that week, I had been bemoaning its loss – it may not thrive and spread here, but it came with us from our Harrow garden, and I would have been very sad if it didn't reappear under the acer, but on 20th there it was:-

aneneme blanda 1

A plant that reminds me of my Mum as it came as a cutting from her garden is the up near the house, just beginning to come into glorious yellow/orange flower on 20th.  The small birds were in and out of it collecting bugs/nesting materials and as the flowers emerged the bees descended on it too – a real wildlife magnet to watch from the sofa when not in the garden:-

berberis darwinii 29

Another plant that always reminds me of her is this elephants ears, (Bergenia purpurascens) which she has a whole bank of under her trees, and which has been flowering here since January:-

bergenia flowers 21

Carrying on the family remembrances, I am always delighted when the dog violet or Viola riviniana come out – my maternal grandmothers favourite plant, and one that came from my sister's garden in a pot of another plant and has seeded itself all round the paths here – the one I took a picture of, out on 20th, is self  seeded on the patio above the pond:-

dog violet 49

Another blue flower at this time of year that bursts in spring is Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue' as you can see it is starting to open its flowers on 20th, and now as I write at the beginning of April is completely smothered in flowers:-

blue flower 52

As I have said before, in this garden this time of year the flowers are predominantly blue and yellow – and one of the yellows we have is the citrus yellow of the euphorbia.  Here are three different ones all in flower on 20th – firstly Euphorbia robbiae, then Euphorbia ‘Harlequin' (oh alright, I know its not yellow!), and lastly subsp. wulfenii which has been in glorious citrus flower since February, and is still glowing today in April as I write:-

euphorbia robbiae 13
harlequin euphorbia 9
euphorbia wulf 45

To continue the yellow and blue theme here are two plants you probably see on your daily exercise walks in other peoples front gardens if you don't have it in your own – forsythia, (Forsythia x intermedia) and Grape Hyacinths, ().  There is nothing more delightful than watching a large bumblebee trying to sip nectar from a grape hyacinth, making the flower dip perilously close to the ground and the bee buzz frantically. 

forsythia close 21
grape hyacinths 95

I even have forget-me-nots () flowering in the kale bed!  (These are biennial, and self seed themselves around after flowering, making a rosette of green leaves during the summer and autumn, then flowering the following spring before dying.  They are absolutely LOVED by bees and hoverflies, and I always encourage some clumps to run to seed in the veg garden so that we get pollinators come in to pollinate our crops.

myosotis 43

These pictures above show spring plants in flower on 20th.  Although you could argue that the hellebore below is a herald of winter not spring I would urge you to look again at the picture also taken on 20th March – do you see the fresh green dome of geranium leaves, a promise of flowers to come?  You may also see the leaves of a Spanish bluebell bottom left, also a promise of flowers to come.   All over the garden hardy perennials are showing their first shoots and fresh leaves, spring is springing around us.  Even in these very challenging times, we can gain solace from our gardens, and the new leaves and shoots give me hope for the future. 

hellebore with geranium leaves 95

Next time I shall be talking about one aspect of using our gardens as a resource for our wellbeing both physical and mental and for homeschooling or occupying children.   That aspect is regarding our lawns.  If you are working from home, homeschooling children, having to take care of all aspects of your own life without your usual support network, you might not have even more time to mow your lawns (or if you are like our elderly neighbour you might run out of petrol for your mower and be reliant on others to get you more).   Can I suggest you either leave your lawn to grow longer in its entirety, or some part of it.  Not necessarily to run wild all summer, but maybe cut it every three weeks, or every month.  Why?  To see what grows in it.  Next month I will run through the benefits to wildlife of leaving patches of longer grass, and how you might use it as a resource for yourself/children.   I am suggesting you and your family do some citizen science.  If you are out in your garden more frequently you can monitor what flowers and plants are growing in your lawn as the grass grows, you can see what wildlife comes – bees, butterflies, hoverflies etc.  I will show you what grows in my grass here, we can see if my grass grown on chalk supports different plants to your lawns.  If you want to learn more in the meantime, Beechgrove Garden, the Scottish garden programme experimented with keeping some grass less mowed, and on their website have information packs about what the Scottish Wildlife trust said, and what their results were.    

Sheila May

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