The Cruelest Month

Perversely, it seems colder this week than it did last month, and this has slowed things down a little. That brief and unseasonal warmth coaxed me out and made me impatient for signs of life. My impatience has not diminished, but I am learning to slow down a little too; to adjust my expectations and enjoy the steady pace with which new life is revealed.

It seems that spring arrives differently every year. There have been years when winter drags on almost to the end of April, and I stare through glass in centrally-heated frustration at a garden devoid of life and resolutely grey. Other years it arrives too early, sending me outside to inspect flourishes of unexpected green only to retreat again as frosts return and new life withers and perishes. Luckily here in London frosts are rare and generally things survive. And when I get frustrated about the size of this urban patch I remind myself that there is barely a corner of it that is not warmed slightly by its proximity to the house. Heating bills may be high, but the winter casualty count is low.

This year, the palmate leaves of the Rodgersia, muscular and bronze, emerged in last month’s warmth, a surge of life that would have seemed unthinkable a few weeks before. Early April slowed their progress, but now they have broken free again and seem to pulsate with energy.


I bought this plant six years ago at a roadside stall somewhere in the Western Highlands, and I am convinced that it was in flower at the time. Since then it has shown absolutely no interest in flowering again, and I have felt pangs of guilt at having forced its urban exile from Scotland to London. Last year, however, it finally stopped sulking and sent up two beautiful plumes of white. Obviously I welcome this gesture of forgiveness, and do not wish to appear ungrateful, but I realise that this is not a plant which necessarily needs to flower. Indeed, the effort of flowering last year seemed to exhaust it, and its foliage, normally so spectacular, suffered visibly. I feel that if it just didn’t make the effort, it could concentrate instead on leafage. Maybe it could try to be a little more slug-resistant in the early weeks? Or attempt to retain a little more vigour when I forget to water it later in Summer? However, it seems to be making flowering its priority for a second year running, which worries me slightly.


Behind it, a small forest of Thalictrum stems emerge from a cloud of green. The purple of last month’s emerging shoots, though fading, is detectable, like blood in veins, and I am reminded of how much taller this will become. By July, its height and vigour will exceed its structural integrity. Stems will sway and lean in untidy confusion, and despite having devised various ways to manage this boundless energy (Summer borders), none of them quite succeed in replicating the beauty, poise and deportment it has when young. I have recently bought a bundle of bamboo canes coincidentally stained the same minty green as the Thalictrum stems, and whilst I hate to do it, I think I may have to start driving them into the soil among the new growth as a cautionary measure against the inevitable chaos to come.


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