Janet Queen

Rose Castle Garden Diary: March 2013

If a country garden were to be planned and planted with perfection in mind, naturalised daffodils would be carefully restricted to swathes of one or two of the low-growing, oldest varieties that bear small, delicately coloured flowers. I reflect on this when I am walking up the castle drive, flanked on one side by daffodils with vivid colours, varying heights and a selection of flower shapes. Some resemble what we think of as our more natural varieties, and large clusters of those have undoubtedly been growing here for decades. Others have been planted more recently by previous gardeners and castle staff in the days when the bishop was still in residence; an occasional sackful of bright orange and lemon narcissus bought on a whim, or bulbs rescued from containers and given a permanent home in the drive where plenty space is available. Some bulbs have been planted anonymously by passers-by – I know this because I deftly slipped behind a tree and disappeared into the rhododendrons early one autumn morning, not wanting to interrupt and spoil the secret planting of daffodils in the castle drive by an unknown couple who were engrossed in their mission. All this random, unplanned planting over the years has produced a sunshine-coloured conglomerate of March blossom, and I can find no fault with it at all.

Pollen is in the air. Willow and hazel catkins leave behind streaks of yellow pollen on our jackets when we are working in the new woodland. When the garden’s pet black pheasant comes to my hand for peanuts, the sheen of its glossy feathers is dulled by a light dusting of catkin pollen. He has been here for six years, an escapee from the pheasant shooting that takes place every winter in the wood on the hill above the castle. At the first shot, the clever pheasants fly straight down into the garden, sensing their safety in the castle grounds. The black pheasant was one that stayed here, and every spring he struts proudly around the boundaries of the garden, surveying his territory. Pheasants have earned a well-deserved notoriety amongst gardeners for causing havoc in vegetable gardens and being especially keen on excavating potatoes. Our shiny black pheasant, however, is concerned only about his morning parades along the top of the ha-ha, and the source of his next handful of peanuts.

In the glasshouse, the heated, sand-covered bench is filled with pots of germinating seedlings. The sparrows are now denied their dust baths. On sunny winter days, they fly in and out of the glasshouse, using the propagating bench for their dry baths, leaving behind nest-shaped indentations in the layer of sand. Beneath the glasshouse bench, I have planted a new passionflower seedling to replace the original plant that died during the hard winter of 2010. The passionflowers that we used to pick from this greenhouse were one of Mrs Harland’s favourite table decorations for the castle’s dining room during the episcopate of Bishop Ian Harland. I can see the flowers now, floating in shallow bowls of water with candles all around.

There are many stories I could tell about the castle and garden, many more I will never know, and a few I will never tell. But it is the ghost stories that I am most often asked about by visitors, their imagination sparked by the rich history that seeps from walls, paths and soil where the past is distilled and captured for all time. After all, bishops have walked, and gardeners have gardened, within the grounds of Rose Castle for nearly 800 years.

Rose Castle Bishops

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Queen’s counsel for March

Willow catkins

Sought after by flower arrangers, the catkins of willow are most appealing in early spring when they are sleek and silvery. When catkins are fully open, and individual flowers within the catkin are laden with yellow pollen, they then attract bees and many other insects.

Leopard’s bane

Doronicum pardalianches becomes lush and green during March, and then blooms during April and May. Daisy-shaped flowers are around 60cm in height and mingle well with tulips. Fleshy roots of this herbaceous perennial have a tendency to spread, but not too invasively.

Pheasant’s eye narcissus

Narcissus ‘Actaea’ flowers slightly later than many other daffodils. It is ideal for naturalising in grassy areas especially when planted in large groups. The small, red-ringed centre of each white flower gives rise to its common name.

Pheasants in the garden

Newly planted potatoes do seem to lure pheasants to gardens in country areas. I find, however, that if potatoes are planted a little more deeply than recommended, pheasants give up their search for them fairly quickly.

Sweet pea seeds

Choosing between different varieties of sweet peas can be difficult. Lately, I have reverted to growing only one particular group, the Spencer Hybrids. They are old-fashioned and lower growing, and amongst the most fragrant of all sweet peas.

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