Published: Feb 20, 2017This is the time when primroses put on their wonderful early season display.
Winter can be a particularly unappealing time in the gardens, variously cold, wet, dark or on a bad day all three. I don’t get too many “Ooh, I wish I had your job” comments from the office staff as they dash past from the car park to their nice heated work places on winter mornings…!
It’s a busy time in the gardens though, so we can’t just hunker down in the office and wait for spring. This is the time when we can safely do tree work and clearing tasks without worrying about disturbing nesting birds, and when we can get on with that most satisfying of jobs, planting. Around the periphery of the Zoo and the car parks we manage the site for wildlife and to produce browse for the Zoo animals. Over the past few winters we have planted hundreds of hazels, field maples, oaks, limes and other native species. It’s a long-term strategy whose rewards will be reaped by generations of animals, both wild and exotic, for years to come if we can get it right.
Nature too is busy at this time of year. For some plants and fungi, this is when they come to life. For things that don’t share our view on a bit of cold and wet, it’s a time of opportunity. None more so than the small plants of the woodland floor, who can do little under the dense canopy of the summer, when it’s just too dark and too dry for them.
Winter is the time of year they can glean a little light - and a lot of water - to begin the seasonal growth that will culminate in the wonderful display of spring wildflowers that is (or was!) one of the great joys of the English countryside. One of my objectives, along with planting the trees and shrubs, is to regenerate the native woodland plants that would have gone hand-in-hand with them. We have relict populations here and there in the Zoo; with some careful manipulation we can start to expand them.
Emblematic for me in this process is the primrose, a symbol of Devon woodland if ever you wanted one. When in flower they are very visible, so if I can get them established, they act as a statement of intent as to what is to come. They are also quite charming. Just about everybody loves them - you’d have to be a pretty callous soul not to be moved by a cluster of their cheery faces basking in the early spring sun. Nonetheless, they are tough little plants that belie their outward appearance, and will even flower in January given a run of reasonably warm days.
From our small populations I have taken out a number and plonked them in wherever I have been clearing out non-native scrub and ivy. It’s easy to dig out a clump to be popped in elsewhere, and the great thing is that opening up the ground encourages more seeds to germinate, so you get a sort of natural nursery system going.
Of course, just moving clumps about is one thing, but unless they thrive and multiply it’s a bit of a waste of effort. The other morning, I checked on some of my earlier transplantings to see if, a year or so on, they had produced seedlings. I must admit I wasn’t that hopeful, particularly as the ivy was already beginning to smother the ground again. However, I found a legion of young primrose plants, from tiny seedlings to well-established stocky little plants all around my original transplants. This is, I hope, the start of big things. If a few plants can make a lot of new plants, then a lot of plants can do something really special. These clusters of seedlings are a real joy to see, and they seemed quite happy even in single-figure temperatures. So yes, a little victory for my patient tinkering and tweaking to get things to a better place.
Martin Holt, Paignton Zoo gardener