Professional gardeners are rejoicing at positive signs that we will have a normal spring after two years of milder weather that some feared would be an ongoing trend due to global warming. That makes now the ideal time to make sure your garden is best promoted to potential visitors, say garden managers.
Gardeners in the South West report a slower spring than the past two years. In the National Trust's annual flower count for Valentine's Day, its garden teams recorded 1,737 plants blooming, 34% down on last year. The trust says colder weather should lead to a good spring for gardens as cooler conditions help extend the flowering season of earlier blooms and later-flowering plants are held back for warmer, sunnier conditions.
Head gardener at Castle Drogo in Drewsteignton, Devon Emma Robertson, says she is seeing "a typical spring this year with nothing out in flower that shouldn't be and everything out at the 'right' time. This is good for the garden."
Stuart Priest, director of operations at Batsford Arboretum & Garden Centre in Moreton-on-March, Gloucestershire, agrees. "It's not early, it's not late, we've not had that much cold weather. Snowdrops and hellebores are coming out. Everything's on track for a normal spring.
"The last two years have been really warm and early. The danger then is that everything starts to shoot and flower early and then if you get harsh weather it knocks it all back. A normal spring, it comes at the right time. In an early year you can have daffs in flower mid December. This year they started off in January, which is the right time. A lot of it is down to luck."
Head of gardens and landscape at English Heritage John Watkins says last year the weather was "really quite mellow", with snowdrops out early in January in many places. This year they did not come out until February. "One advantage is that rather than having a drawn-out spring, this year we're going to have many more early-spring plants doing their thing in February and March, and if it's not so cold we'll then have a longer spring."
Batsford has had a long-term programme of investment in its spring offering to ensure visitors do not only associate the site with autumn colour. Last autumn it planted 5,000 daffodils and is planting 10,000 snowdrops in phases this spring. "Each year we're adding to it. The snowdrops are looking great in the garden, we just keep adding to them.
"In the arboretum spring is five months of colour, starting off with snowdrops, daffodils, magnolias, followed on by cherries. People come for the wow factor of the plants - 95% of our visitors are coming to see pretty flowers. You've got to have a palette of colour out there."
Investing in spring
Hever Castle & Gardens is another venue investing in spring. Head gardener Neil Miller is expanding the usual annual spend on tulips. Normally gardeners plant around 5,000 then dig them up in May and transplant them to a different part of the garden. This year he has decided to launch Hever's first "Tulip Celebration", with 7,000 tulips in 60 varieties planted along the Pergola Walk, Pompeiian Wall, Tudor Garden and Italian Garden as well as in stand-alone planters. Miller and his gardeners are also running tours, advising on self-guided walks and giving visitors tips on how to grow the blooms. "Tulips are really popular with visitors. Last summer, after the tulips went over, we thought hang on a minute."
Spring is a great opportunity for gardens to offer "horticultural Prozac", according to Watkins. "In times now where many people are working in offices, it's important to note the really important role that gardens play in helping people to reconnect with nature and the environment." With gardens such a visual product, successful gardens have become expert at social media too. People respond really well to pictures, says Watkins, so English Heritage uses photos a lot on social media and in blogs.
"Increasingly people are managing their lives through social media. I think things are much more immediate. What an advantage - you can go out in your garden and you think 'great, we can tell people about it'. They think 'great, we can go there on Saturday'. If the sun shines, even better. It's reminding people that places are out there, encouraging people to come out and engage with our gardens and engage with the joy of the season. It's telling people about what we take for granted."
National Trust gardens adviser in the South West Ian Wright agrees it is crucial to get the message out there, either virtually or to visitors. There is always an opportunity to encourage them to come back. "Getting out and enjoying the sights of spring gives everyone a lift after a grey, rainy winter, so I'd encourage gardeners to tell people what's not to miss. Pink magnolias set against a clear blue sky are an amazing visual spectacle, but so are carpets of snowdrops, so encourage people to look up as well as down. Spring starts four weeks earlier in the South West than it does in the north. But wherever you are in the country, there's something to see in the gardens right now."
"And with bluebells and rhododendrons later in the season there's still much more to look forward to. So keep people coming back to see the next big thing."
Priest agrees. "I'd say just keep advertising really, mainly by social media, just letting everyone know what's looking good in the garden," he says. "People seem to lap it up. Instagram fetches loads of people, it's the right way to go."
Watkins reminds gardeners not to forget spring scents. "This time of year the scents are wonderful. Sarcoccea, Daphne balsam (Himalayan Daphne).
For English Heritage spring is also an opportunity to communicate the history of England's landscapes. So Kenilworth Castle, Kenilworth, Warwickshire does not have so much early spring colour, as its restored Tudor garden would not feature plants like Tulips, which had not yet begun to be imported into the UK at that time. "By the 1620s gardens have been completely transformed, you have all these spring gardens," says Watkins. Osborne on the Isle of Wight features Queen Victoria's favourite violets and the wide range of garden Victoriana, such as wall-grown grapefruit.
Hever's Tulip Celebration features a tulip historian who is giving talks about tulip folklore and tell the story of when they were "worth their weight in gold".
"There's so much competition out there, especially in historical sites," says Miller. "You've just got to keep inventing, just taking it that one step further, if people enjoy it this year, next year we'll be better."