The nature of gardening means that I’m never short of time to think. At this time of year I find myself consciously searching gardens for signs of life, carving out a little time in each place to look for emerging bulbs and new flowers.

It’s so incredibly important to do this; far from being an indulgence, taking an enhanced interest in my gardens helps to keep me focussed on what’s happening and why I’m really there. I don’t just care for gardens, I care for gardens.

Some flowers, like this red ‘witch hazel’, are harder to spot than others

At the beginning of January it seemed as though everything was fast asleep. If we think of the gardening year as a car journey, we were at a slow speed and in a low gear in January but now we’re picking up speed as we’re well into February and making our way on our journey. By summer we’ll be cruising briskly on the metaphorical freeway, before joining ever more minor and slower roads and coming to a gentle halt at the end of autumn.

Hellebores make grey winter days so much better

A lot of the plants that are flowering now are things that would naturally live in shady conditions in the wild during summer. The hellebores, snowdrops and even shrubs like Hamamelis and the exquisite cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) are plants that take advantage of the fact that other species are at a low ebb now; why compete when everything is at its most competitive if you have the option to shine during a quiet period instead?

A Question Occurred To Me

We know that there are meteorological and astronomical seasons, based around weather patterns or the position of the Earth respectively, but when do the horticultural seasons begin and end?

To consider this we must look at our plants and decide in which season we consider each to flower. Sounds easy, right?

For me snowdrops represent the arrival of winter, usually

For me the snowdrops represent winter. This makes sense in my head; there’s a nice logic to it, right up to the point where I remember that I have snowdrops in flower at the end of September. There is no way that September is ‘winter’.

Hellebores are a little easier as they are generally disciplined about when they flower, but even then there is a problem: hellebores are out in glorious bloom in my area but in other parts of the UK they’re just starting out. That’s just the UK… some of you in other areas are still gripped by bitter cold and won’t see your hellebores in flower for weeks yet. Some of you haven’t even seen your snowdrops, yet the UK is currently at ‘peak season’ for them.

Changing My Mind

When I was a younger and more novice gardener I used to think that Camellias were spring flowering. It made sense to me that a plant of such flamboyance would definitely be a spring thing. Now I’m not so sure; gardeners across larger swathes of the temperate world can have Camellias in flower from early autumn to early summer. There are even plants derived from the confusingly named Camellia azalea that should flower in summer.

Camellias are iconic spring flowers, except for the ones that flower in autumn, winter and summer…

Camellias are no longer just spring flowers for me; as I’ve learnt more about plants, gardens and the world around me I’ve been less inclined to think of winter as a ‘dead’ season. In fact with the right plants winter in the garden can be a time of great life.

An Impossible Question

I’m not going to abandon this question.

I’ve come to terms with the idea that this is a question to which there is probably no answer.

Daffodils are iconic spring flowers, but some flower in autumn and winter

I’m fine with that. If anything it makes the question even more interesting. I can mull over this question of where we as gardeners define our seasons as I please, and it’s an interesting topic of discussion with other gardeners.

So over to you.

If you were put on the spot and had to choose which plant represented the arrival of spring to you personally, what would you choose?