The delight is in the detail

We like a detailed garden, we do. It is not just the big views that catch our eye. Often it is the little delights – tiny, even – that focus our eyes on the close-up. It is possible to have a highly detailed garden without it descending into fussy clutter.

Here we are in midwinter and the small bulbs are bursting into flower. No, this is not early; nor is it a sign of climate change. It is on cue for an area where our winters tend to be mild and lacking in extremes. Goodness knows, we complain as much as anybody about cold weather, dreary days, rain and wind but the plants tell us that it is not as bad as we think.

In the days when I used to write for the Waikato Times, we had a sheltie dog who quietly photo-bombed many a picture. Now we have Ralph channelling the spirit of the late Zephyr, except he is a boisterous photo bomber.

The swathes of snowdrops and dwarf narcissi that we have in areas of the park are only just showing first colour because it is colder on the south facing slopes but there are plenty out in the cultivated areas of garden that are noticeably warmer.

I started with the snowflakes and an obscure scilla that flowers earlier than the more common bluebells. The snowflakes – leucojums – are often taken for granted as robust survivors that are inferior to the more desirable snowdrops (galanthus). This is unfair to them because they are very different as a garden plant and under-rated, especially when we consider their extended flowering season.

I am fine with under-rating this particular scilla. Its only redeeming graces are that it is pretty to pick and it is the very first to flower. It isn’t worth garden space – far too much foliage for the number of flowers – so it has been banished to the wilder margins. We used to have a collection of species scillas – there are a lot of different species – with names like greilhuberi, hohenackeri and litardierei but I think they came to us under incorrect names even before we lost the names. I have no idea which one this is.

I added in the early flowering lachenalias to the flower lay. We still have an extensive lachenalia collection which flowers for us from now through to early November. Some are much easier to keep going in the garden than others but these early ones are toughies which will withstand competition and meadow conditions. The more collectable blue and lilac forms flower later. From left to right we have the most common, robust, cheerful but vulgar Lachenalia aloides (still sometimes to be found mislabelled as Lachenalia pearsonii),  the somewhat more refined Lachenalia aloides quadricolour (quad = four colours, in this case orange, yellow, green and burgundy), the red Lachenalia bulbifera and finally the yellow of Mark’s L.reflexa hybrid.

Sometimes I think I would have enjoyed being an illustrator or a graphic designer specialising in pretty florals but nothing can compare with the ephemeral charm of living flowers.

In a world where the news just seems to get more complicated and worse by the day, where things feel as though are spinning out of control, I find dainty flowers can be a welcome diversion. They don’t come any prettier than snowdrops, cyclamen and little narcissi. The snowdrops are a mix of Galanthus ‘S Arnott’ and G. nivalus which are our two mainstay varieties that perform in our area where we don’t get much winter chill, let alone snow. The cyclamen is C. coum which, according to Wikipedia, has the common name of ‘eastern sowbread’. I am not even going to ask who calls it that and why. While they might have wild sows in its native habitat around the Black Sea, the corms are so small and its rate of increase slow so it is unlikely that would ever make much of a food staple for browsing animals.

The narcissi are a mix of species and hybrids. My preference is for the cyclamineus types with their swept-back, reflex petals but the earliest jonquils in both yellow and white are deliciously fragrant and the bulbocodiums or hooped petticoats are also very charming.

Zach has been lifting surplus bluebells to make way for more desirable snowdrops and baby daffs in the area we refer to as the hellebore border. I suggested he could rehome some of the bluebells – thugs that they are – into the area by our gate where the giant eucalypt came down in February’s Cyclone Dovi. Over the years, I had planted a fair swag of surplus bulbs around the base of the old gum.

When he had finished, I couldn’t work out what the white patch was until I got up close. Buried bluebells, obviously from an earlier planting. Deep beneath the soil that had become displaced by the falling tree, some had leaves 30cm long and still not breaking the ground into the light.  I knew they were tough but that shows a high level of survival skills.

I have spent some time in the past working out the differences between the highly desirable, scented English bluebell and the dominant Spanish species and came to the conclusion that what we have are predominantly Spanish (Hyacinthoides hispanica), maybe with some Spanglish hybrids. They will not flower until mid spring.

We still have the worst of winter to get through but the earliest spring bulbs are a daily reminder that we are on the right side of the solstice already.

Finally, welcome to new subscribers who came this week after reading this recommendation from Julia Atkinson-Dunne. May you enjoy what you read and see.

16 thoughts on “The delight is in the detail

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I like fluffing around with flower lays and sometimes they are easier to show the flowers off than trying to get individual photos of very small plants in flower. I think of them like temporary floral wallpaper.

      1. helgaarlington

        Do you also have jonquilla in your collection of tinies? I loved them in my childhood garden in Marton – the section flooded regularly and they would be sitting in pools of water, but survived beautifully. I’ve tried to grow them in Auckland but maybe too dry as well as too warm. I wonder that they seem to be rare, since they’re so lovely.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        It is a bit hard to see – even harder if you are looking on a phone – but there are two jonquilla in the photo. A white one hard left and a yellow and orange one second from the right. I don’t think they are rare. It is just that the big King Alfred types and the novelty hybrids with split corollas or pink corollas have taken centre stage. We don’t grow any of those popular very large types which flower later in the season.

  1. Christine Bebarfald

    Thanks for lifting my spirits today Abbey. You focused my attention with your beautiful photos on some of the lovely little flowers in your garden. I am going out to search in my own for such delights.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is very helpful. Thank you. Mentally, I had it as litardierei but I think I had worked out that wasn’t right, it was just the name it came to us under.

  2. Jill Lyall

    I have Aconites, Snowdrops ,and Cyclamen Coum in flower, and Hypericum Sympatica just opening -bravely surviving in a south-facing bed in Christchurch

  3. Angela

    Hello Abbie
    We’re in New Plymouth for a couple of days, can we visit your garden please?
    Angela (from Wellington))

  4. Paddy Tobin

    The garden here becomes mostly mine in winter as Mary does not enjoy wet and muddy conditions while I don’t especially mind and I enjoy the winter/spring bulbs very much. Bluebells have become unwelcome in the garden as we have tired of their invasive nature but getting rid of them is quite a challenge and will take several more years. Snowdrops and daffodils do especially well and we enjoy them very much.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We are okay with bluebells in the wilder areas but I am certainly thinning them out in the cultivated gardens! Pretty in flower but really too thuggish to have any refinement.


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