January 17, 2014 6:31 pm

A review of 2013 in the garden, when spring sprung a surprise

If gardening was predictable, it would lose one of its charms, but in 2013 we never knew what was coming next
Supertrees in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay©Getty

Supertrees in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay

On balance I rate 2013 as an excellent gardening year. It has given us all food for thought and left me with a feeling that its peculiar balance will not be repeated again soon. If gardening was predictable, it would lose one of its charms. In 2013 we never knew what was coming next.

For the first time for several years British gardens had a properly timed spring. It occurred because it was preceded by an old-style winter, packed with snow and low temperatures to a degree which made global warming seem temporarily to be a mirage. Nothing follows about the bigger picture from one localised spell of contrary weather, but 2013 caught out those of us who had fallen into the bad habit of leaving dahlias in the open ground all winter. It even caught out those like me who thought they had sheltered them safely in a locked garden shed. Persistent frost found a way through the walls and turned my tubers of the superb yellow variety, Maltby Whisper, to a squashy mush. If any reader has this wonderfully free-flowering, cactus-flowered dahlia, I am willing to negotiate for cuttings next spring. It is not in any of the main lists but it is a superb variety, at 3ft high, for big urns.

Prospect Villa, Tasmania©Kate Burton

Prospect Villa, Tasmania

While the snow was at its deepest I was away in Australia via Singapore. I still rate the amazing orchid display in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay as my supreme sight of 2013. There is no way I can imitate it in the chilly Cotswolds but I award Dr Tan and his team my Floral Medal of the Year, especially after hearing how much of the planting on their imitation “cloud mountain” was itself a bold leap into untried territory. Their cool, artificially-misted glasshouse has to rank as a primary stopover for any gardener visiting southeast Asia.

On Tasmania, two weeks later, I learnt of a hazard which has not yet emerged in hazy British schemes for “wildlife gardening”. I was admiring the late summer bedding around an old stone farmhouse, settled in the 19th century, when my hosts remarked that their rudbeckias would be looking so much better if they had not been sat on by wallabies. All summer in Britain I watched for paw marks in my beds of Rudbeckia Rustic Dwarf, a mainstay of every summer, whether hot or wet. Badgers refuse to touch them and, as yet, no wallaby has jumped in to join the fun.

Wallaby, a Tasmanian ‘hazard’©Getty

Wallaby, a Tasmanian ‘hazard’

The consequences of a spring delayed by a cold winter were delightfully old-fashioned. Magnolias flowered late enough to avoid the usual blackening by early night frosts. I am glad to have chosen Magnolia Lennei for a prime place as it is a magnolia which flowers late anyway. In 2013 I saw it at its best. By mid-May tulips were still flowering and peonies were still waiting to take over. The most singular effects then showed on apple trees and horse chestnuts.

Cameraria ohridella©Alamy

Cameraria ohridella

In recent years the leaves of horse chestnuts have been horribly browned and damaged by the immigrant insect, Cameraria ohridella. In 2013 the damage appeared far later in the year and was not nearly so pronounced. It is old wisdom that a cold winter “kills the bugs”, but in this case the killer may have been different. Cameraria ohridella is devoured by a Bulgarian sort of wasp and one informed view is that the delay in the season meant that this wasp had time to hatch before the offending Cameraria had matured and taken safely to its wings. If so, this Bulgarian predator is one which we should all be welcoming to Britain in 2014.

Rose Fantin-Latour©Getty

Rose Fantin-Latour

By October the apple crop was abundant. It contrasted sharply with 2012 in so many parts of Britain. I put this good year, too, down to the absence of a killing frost when the apple blossom was first showing. In 2013, the blossom appeared later, like every other spring flower, and there was no ill-timed frost to turn it to a damp pulp. As with horse chestnuts, the moral here is that an accelerated spring is unwelcome not only because everything comes into flower at once. My two markers in the calendar are Viburnum carlcephalum and Rose Fantin-Latour. In the early 1990s the viburnum’s scented white flowers were always out, like white snowballs, in the week of Chelsea Flower Show. In 1970 the rose was still fit to be picked as a buttonhole in the final week of June. Last year, as never before this century, the two markers reverted to their former seasons.

When choosing the year’s annuals, I threw in a packet of a phlox called Moody Blues. The silly name refers to its habit of changing the depth of blue in its flowers according to the warmth of the summer weather. I put the plants in mixed pots on a south-facing terrace and expected them to fade moodily after a brief season, like a nemesia. They did nothing of the sort. They flowered profusely till September and responded to regular watering with a good mid to deep shade of violet-blue. They are easily germinated and far better than the name suggests. From now on, they will be regulars in my planting plans.

Phlox Moody Blues©Thompson & Morgan

Phlox Moody Blues

After another superb season for midsummer’s roses, an uninvited immigrant brought me up with a start. Years of vigilant combat has hardened me to picking up slugs with my bare hands, sometimes to squash them, sometimes to dump them in salt. This year I made to grab an unusually orange-yellow slimer and found it was one of the newly arrived Spanish slugs, which are bigger and fatter on one side of its body. Who ever brought this super-slug into Britain in some Spanish sprouting? These migrant snails are said to have harassed Norway this year, but I fear it will be Britain’s turn next. Have any of you found that a standard slug bait will kill these Euro versions, such slippery lengths of plant-eating teeth with horns?

Spanish slug, a new arrival©Alamy

Spanish slug, a new arrival

My bulbs of the year graced late August and September. They were dozens of gladioli, set among herbaceous plantings which were starting to lose impetus. Remarkably, some of the corms of the big-flowered varieties had even survived the winter where I had forgotten to lift them and store them. From late July till late September we had a surprising lack of rain in the south and it was as well that these gladioli were around to enliven the garden. They are often unpopular for no good reason. If staked, they show up elegantly among the front to mid row of a planned border. If they look too bold, they can be cut and used as excellent cut flowers. Do not miss the season for their corms in shops from March onwards. Not much else is so cheap and yet so exotic.

Was it a dry year in the end or a cool one? I find it hard to be sure but it certainly ended with stupendous winds. Fortunately, my ageing avenues of hornbeams and evergreen pears survived the onslaught, but in East Anglia they would have been badly tested. In the subsequent mild calm the yellow-flowered winter mahonias came back to an early peak. So often these shrubs have been spectacular in the weeks running up to recent Christmases, a month or more before their traditional season of flower. In 2013 they began by being buried in post-Christmas snow. They ended with masses of flower in mid-December. So I give Mahonia Charity my 2013 award for easy garden value, a shrub which has to be a first choice on the approach to a house and home’s front door.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE