Robin Lane Fox: all the joys of spring gardening
The FT's veteran gardening columnist shares his seasonal favourites from the gardens at New College, Oxford
Produced and edited by James Sandy; filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and James Sandy
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Welcome to the gardens of New College Oxford, which I've had the responsibility to run for nearly 40 years. In the lockdowns gardens have been our great consolation, joy, and now opportunity. For here we are, the third week in March. The days are lengthening.
The growth is really quite far advanced. And we all have that sudden surge of energy, with all the hope of spring. Now is the perfect time to look with you around the gardens at some of the ideas we are having and how they can be carried forwards.
Some years ago we sold the filming rights on our holm oak tree to the producers of the Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And since then we have had tens of thousands of tourists coming, enjoying the garden, and with their entrance money helping us to sustain at least two of our research fellows that work in the college. It's a beautiful tree, but it's not in any sense a native English tree.
And again and again we will see the advantages in a garden of looking outwards and not just being a little Englander. You can't just plant a beautiful garden using nothing but so-called native flowers. You have to look outwards, incorporating plants which are beautiful and happy from all over the world.
Obviously, in mid-Match we really start noticing and seeing what needs to be done. Everything is starting to grow again and we have to be very attentive. Nearer ground level these really are, I think, my top flowers now for early spring going into April. And they are, of course, hellebores.
Particularly, we know these ones as Lenten roses. But these are so pretty because they are specially crossed hybrids. They'll grow easily in shade. And every year they come back with no trouble, just worth taking the old leaves out of the way at the end of their growing season in the autumn. And the whole plant will look tidier.
But you can't remember everything. Do it when you see it, is my great theory. This could usefully have been done really back in October. But frankly, like many of you, I forgot. But keep your eyes open. It's all to play for from now on.
Gardens have a constant, changing history. And the important point is to let it evolve sympathetically. Here we have the old city wall of Oxford and our chapel. But in front of it our new sympathetic evolution - an unusual hybrid between a Japanese witch hazel and a Chinese witch hazel.
They're only now in their second year. And they are such an easy choice. Eventually, these will become 10, 15 feet high. And I think they're absolutely lovely for early spring.
This has always been rather dull on the way to the college library. And we needed something bright and cheerful for the darkest months of the year, February and early March, when the rest of the world is rather dark, and particularly this year, slightly grim. They're really special to us because they're such a bright, clear, hopeful colour. There's nothing grim about a witch hazel. And they've been a wonderful lift to the spirits for the last month and a half.
People always ask "what are your favourite trees for gardens?" What a difficult question. But I think, really, my constant number one favourite is this marvellous winter flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella autumnalis. I rate it number one for a smallish garden. And for me the winter cherry is really a symbol of hope and beauty emerging in dark times.
On December the 20th, when the last awful lockdown began, this tree was already in full luminous pink flower five days before Christmas. And in the dark of that evening it really looked like a promise that one day the trouble would end. First of all, it flowers November, December.
And most plants would think that was enough. But it then gathers its strength again. And on the stems now is an entirely new sequence of red buds that'll open out with these lovely flowers. What a wonderful blessing and what a joy to have in the garden.