As days start to lengthen, the temperature slowly rises and rain becomes more showery, the garden comes to life with daffodils, following the early snowdrops and snowflakes. First are the wild Lenten daffodils and the tiny N. cyclamineus with their swept-back petals, now in expanding patches round the garden.
Usually by 21 March and the opening of the garden, the first flowers of the tall Asiatic tree magnolias can be seen dramatically on bare branches against the sky. We have many of these, visible like beacons from all over the garden.
At the same time the early big-leaved rhododendrons, such as R. falconeri ssp. eximeum, start to flower, huge yellow, cream and pink blooms on tall trees that surprise our visitors. The Gibson brothers hybridised some of these species rhododendrons in the 1950s so we now have an amazing display in March and April. There are also the early reds of R. striggilosum, R. meddianum and R. neriiflorum, beautiful true reds that gleam in the sunlight.
In the Rock Garden, tiny erythroniums are opening, first the native ones, then the sturdier North American species. Trilliums, with all parts in threes, respond to the light and suddenly emerge in full leaf and flower in their many forms. Dwarf rhododendrons add new colour and you can spot the first growth of the fat, hairy buds of meconopsis that will start flowering from late April, with their strong blue silky flowers.
As spring turns to summer, the colour through the garden becomes super-charged, with each plant in turn having its showy season. The tender R. lindleyi on Granny’s Hens is rightly famous for the beautiful, scented trusses. Views are continually changing. Candelabra primulas are dramatic and colourful at the Pond and on Granny’s Hens. Azaleas fill the garden with fragrance and bright colour, particularly in the Rock Garden.
By August, colours are toned down and other flowering trees fill the place of rhododendrons. These include tall eucryphias and hoherias with masses of white blossoms. In the Rock Garden, lilies, verbascum and verbena take over from iris and ligularia and heleniums form bright spots in the gradually changing colours of autumn.