Sunday 19 November 2017

Diarmuid Gavin: Golden wonders - the beautiful native primrose

The arrival of the beautiful native primrose to our gardens is the sign that spring has truly begun

Colorful pots full of winter primroses
Colorful pots full of winter primroses

I've spent the past week on a London rooftop, planting pots and containers in an exciting garden. We are seeking to make a big impact in advance of the imminent sale of the property. However, February is still a little early for the avalanche of garden colour which will emerge when the ground warms up.

So it's no surprise that my visits to the New Covent Garden Flower Market at 6am on these freezing mornings have seen me load the truck with trays of a joyous little sparkle - primroses. Also known as the cowslip, this plant inspires enormous affection on these islands, but I think especially in Ireland. So many of us are originally "from the land" and are used to trips back to Connemara, Sligo or Kerry, where we delight in the early spring arrival of sweet-smelling, delicate lemon-yellow flowers (pictured inset) set amongst crinkly green leaves. After snowdrops kick off the spring symphony, primroses soon follow on - and then we know that the season of growth and hope has truly commenced.

I have childhood memories of finding clusters of pale yellow primroses in the damp soils of the gentle Rathfarnham hills. They seemed like a gift from nature, their pure beauty acting as glistening jewels scattered in pastoral landscapes.

And while it's vital that we leave wild and native flowers where we find them in the countryside, garden centres and hardware stores are now awash with the type I've planted this week - as well as their somewhat more garish cousins from the primula family, polyanthus (pictured main). More about those attention seekers in a bit!

So, how should we use primroses in our gardens? Well, they're ideal for growing under deciduous trees, as this allows them good light in winter and early spring, followed by a cool canopy in summer. They don't like to dry out in summer so are happiest in humus-rich, well-drained soil and are particularly partial to growing in shady banks.

My favourite place to see primroses is beside the gurgling stream and rills of beautiful Mount Usher Gardens in Ashford, Co Wicklow. The drumstick and candelabra plants in particular are a sight to behold.

If you'd like to grow them from seed, ideally you should use fresh seed collected straight after flowering. However, you can store seed in a screw-top jar in the fridge until you're ready to sow them.

Your compost needs to be free-draining so add horticultural grit to seed compost. Scatter the fine seed on the surface, but don't cover, as the primrose seeds need light and air to germinate. You won't need a heated propagator because they'll germinate better for you in cool temperatures. If sowing in autumn, you could pop them in a cold frame for protection.

When they have about four leaves, you can pot them on into individual pots and don't let them dry out. Another way to propagate is to lift and divide every couple of years, gently teasing apart their fibrous roots. Established clumps of primrose will be reinvigorated by this process.

They make great companions with other early-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and ferns, either in containers or in woodland gardens.

There are also many beautiful cultivars, the best known of which are Barnhaven primulas, which come in a wide spectrum of colours - including pink and red as well as violet, pale blue and orange - and look great mixed up in cottage-style planting.

For earlier shows, there's always plenty of polyanthus in the garden centres throughout winter. These are bedding plants bred from crosses between primroses, cowslips and oxlips. Some of the colours can be a bit overpowering - if children were responsible for designing flower colours, these are the ones they'd come up with.

These types of primula are cheap, easily sourced and guaranteed to capture attention. They will do a great job for cheering up windowboxes and containers or bereft-looking beds and borders. Most often, they are used accompanied by pansies, violas and bachelor's buttons, dotted through strands of variegated ivy in hanging baskets. In this elevated situation, where they can easily dry out with cold winds passing over leaves and flowers, their love of moisture can be satisfied with the addition of some moisture- retaining gels or crystals into the compost while planting up. These will expand when the basket has been watered to many times their original volume and will hold the moisture until the poly- anthus or primulas satisfy their thirst.

Primroses and polyanthus always look better gathered in groups and, if you're an avid gardener, it may make sense to grow loads from seed. They're relatively easy to germinate, requiring lots of light but not much heat. While still seedlings, transfer the individual plants into trays and then on into pots when they're robust.

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