We complain about the cold, and rummage through the dead vegetation after every hard frost, and tell horror stories about how one friend has lost all her dianthus in Aberdeenshire, or another whose every last rose has been killed stone dead in the Northumberland.
Silly, isn’t it, all this anguish? After all, nowhere in Britain is seriously cold, yet even gardeners who really do have deep-freeze winters, respond irrationally to their climate.
Canadian pals, feeling at home in the recent rough spell here, said that most of their acquaintances gardened with with half-hardy annuals. Weird, when there is such a marvellous and vast local flora that plainly survives perfectly well.
Still, just because they ignore it, why should we? So don’t despair. Even if you live in Scotland’s worst frost pocket, there are masses of good things to grow and, even better, plenty that will give you an early show of flower to make a quick end to winter (after all, it’s easy to manage a show from July onwards even at a glacier’s edge). And you won’t have to worry about the cold damaging any of them.
Apart from endless bulbs designed to tolerate high mountain winters, and flower as the snow melts, but why not start with hardy herbaceous things? Like the entirely suitable Aquilegia canadensis (though it grows over more of the continent than the name suggests). It’s the first to flower of the genus, with sprays of nodding ‘grannys bonnets’ with soft coral pink sepals and yellow petals. It’s got just the colouring to work with the milder coloured pulmonarias (though if you’re brave, try it with some of the electric blues as well). Best,for starters, try it with forms like ‘Cambridge Blue’ or ‘Fruhlingshimmel’.
If you are a real stylist, then any of the white flowered ones would work well. If not, then avoid the pulmonarias altogether, and plant the aquilegia above sheets of the tough and brilliant yellow Alyssum saxatile. It makes grand gardeners shiver; don’t worry. It’s a good plant, just too often seen mixed, unsubtly, with nasty mauve aubretias.
Do, though, keep it well away from another cold-proof toughie – the genus Bergenia. Its cultivars, with their vastly valuable winter reddened leaves, and their spring stalks of brilliant cerise pink flowers (yes, there are pale, and even white flowered, ones for very tender spirits), are very bright indeed and would clash dreadfully.
However, they look good softened with clumps of the ordinary, but lovely, bistort (Polygonum bistortum) flowering in pale brown-toned pinks. All you’d need then would be the later flowering varieties of sweet violet, say reddish lilac ‘Opera’.
If the yellow daffs don’t give you enough of that colour, then the cold garden should also have sheets of doronicums (wolfbanes), with good fresh green foliage, and heady quantities of whopping golden yellow daisies.
Don’t plant daffs amongst them for the colours are far too close for comfort.
Better, try a contrast; perhaps a few plants of the various cultivars of the enchanting Brunnera macrophylla, with its tall sprays of forget-me-nots, and drifts of some of the larger epimediums. Of these, especially good is Epimedium x cantabrigense, with rusty orange flowers, half hidden in the previous season’s foliage.
Then, if you wanted the same planting to carry a little longer into early summer, plant whatever dicentras you like. All are tough, from the easy D. spectabilis to lovely grey-green leafed plants like ‘Stuart Boothman’. For a bit of background, say against a wall, or under birch or rowan or pear trees, it would be fun to add the easy Euphorbia polychoma, with its greeny-yellow flower heads in earliest spring, and architectural mid-green foliage for summer, and some generous plants of Solomon’s seal whether the straightforward Polygonatum x hybridum, or the smaller P. japonicum, whose variegated form is now easy to find.
But if you want to start the season with the Christmas roses (only Helleborus niger will ‘do’ up to the Artic circle), then, once its season is over, carry on with some poppies. The Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) is cheap, easy, reasonably perennial, and comes in some startling shades, but if you want something more flamboyant, the Oriental poppy, despite its name, is also very hardy, and those whopping flowers in orange-scarlets (avoid the chill pink ones), look especially good under pale northern skies. If you hate the foliage once they’ve flowered, give the whole planting a bit of ‘oomph’, and try the more usual of the rodgersias. The bronzy foliage will look splendid with the poppies, and once those are over, the rodgersias will produce their own plumes of subtle flowers…
And that still leaves you seriously hardy thinkgs like paeonies, the first daylilies, polemoniums, and on and on. You’ll soon forget there is such a thing as a flake of snow.