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Diary of a Cultural Gardener - April 2020

‘Do remember they can't cancel the spring’ David Hockney, March 2020

April in The Hepworth Wakefield Garden began with great drifts of white, as the blossom opened on the crabapples and thousands of white daffodils nodded in the breeze. Over the past few weeks the tulips opened their flowers with an intense punch of colour. Illuminated by the sun, they have the vibrancy of stained glass, ice-lollies and gemstones.

I have been so grateful that I live close to the garden and have been able to keep an eye on it, but it has been very strange with the gallery closed. Some local people tell me that they have re-routed their daily exercise to take in the garden and it has been humbling to witness a few people encounter the garden by chance on their daily walk – they’ve been astounded at the discovery!

The building contractors have been able to sensitively continue work on the second phase of the garden’s creation using a skeleton crew and adhering to government guidelines. They have planted eight Quercus palustris (pin oak), four on each side of the wall, these are 7.5m high and will have beautiful scarlet leaves in autumn, they are also tolerant of pollution.

The contractors also planted six multi-stem Amelanchier canadensis, which have white flowers in spring, red fruit in the summer and brilliant orange leaves in autumn. Along with one Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ which has beautiful pink and white star shaped flowers in spring.

In many ways a garden design is a composition like a piece of music, and our designer Tom Stuart-Smith has orchestrated his planting design so that certain plants rise to the fore at different moments, like the various instruments in an orchestra. You can take in the individual part, but you can also appreciate the whole. Spring in the garden is therefore constantly shifting, it changes on a daily basis and according to the light.

Given happy conditions for growth, plants grow themselves, however the weather and the work of the gardener sculpt each yearly performance into a slightly different variation. April 2020 has been the garden’s very first spring and this extraordinary, warm, dry weather has allowed the daffodils to hold on and they were still flowering abundantly when the tulips came into the blend with their luminous velvet.

We have over 20 different varieties of tulip in the garden this year and each was chosen by Tom to work in combination. They were planted in repeating groups and the effect of the mixture of colours reminds me of the work of one my favourite painters Howard Hodgkin, who had a beautiful exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2017. In his abstract paintings the assembled colours, increase the intensity of one another and they seem far brighter as a group than each colour would appear in isolation. Just like the tulips, it’s as if the colour combination generates a light all of its own.

On sunny days the tulips go through a fabulous ritual, they start the morning with straight, vertical stems and their petals tightly closed, but by the afternoon they have a wild lethargy, the petals are flailing open and the stems are arching over towards the sun. However, when the night comes the flowers reset themselves and the process begins again in the morning.

It’s reminded me a little of the state of myself and my sitting room, after a whole weekend isolating at home, I suppose they, like us, need time to reset and they set a good example in taking one day at a time.

April is a month when the herbaceous perennials begin to give us so much green so fast. When their new shoots first emerge, they are using energy which they harnessed last year and have stored all winter, underground in their roots, like batteries. At first you can feel the waking vulnerability of the shoots peeping out from the soil, but once the first leaves unfurl they can begin to photosynthesise and make energy for themselves anew. For the next couple of months, the plants start to grow exponentially, as the more leaves they gain, the more leaves they can grow. It is a wonderful time of year as the lush green growth accelerates and spills abundantly over the path edges, culminating in the next crescendo of flowers.

I am sad not to be able to share the garden’s first spring with you in real life and I hope that these photos can in some ways transport you here with me. I shall very much look forward to seeing you all in the garden with me again when it becomes possible, as surely spring brings us a sense of hope and renewal.