The garden holds its breath against the cold and everything is still. Spring is coiled, waiting patiently like a dog on its bed with its nose tucked into its tail, waiting for the word. Snow lingers in pockets and frost greets each morning. I am less patient. I have been looking for Pulmonaria in flower for the last fortnight – it is one of those plants which signals the turn of the year, but it is still a week or ten days away.
I take my breakfast coffee out into my friends’ garden and walk the perimeter with the dogs. The morning sun picks out the bright white bark of Betula ermanii, Erman’s birch. I planted a pair twelve years ago next to the drive, in soil which is little better than sand. They were 1.8m/6′ when they were planted and are close to three times that height now. Birch are short-lived by the standard of trees, and quick to mature. Erman’s birch can reach its full height of 12m/70′ within twenty years in a temperate climate. It is native to NE Asia – deep, cold Asia – and will survive anything the British climate can throw at it. In the last couple of years, the bark of this pair has started to peel, curling away in strips which are bright copper on the reverse. They have all the space they need and have suffered no accidents, so their crowns are even and attractive. If ever I have a spare piece of ground, something in the order of a third or half an acre, I would like to plant it with a mixture of Betula ermanii and Amelanchier canadensis, evenly spaced. The shorter, round-headed Amelanchier would look splendid among the taller, more upright birch. It would be a joy in spring when the Amelanchier is covered in delicate white flowers, and I would plant the sward below with lilac Crocus tommasinianus. It would be a joy in autumn too when the birch is dressed in buttery gold, and its companion in shades of yellow to red. I will call my glade something portentous like the Garden of Cadmus, because here, in my half acre, these natives of Russia and North America will live in beautiful harmony.
As I stand, looking at the birch, feeling the morning sun warm on my back, I am filled with hope. I am 44, but the speed at which these trees grow means there is still time for me to plant such a garden and to see it mature. The catkins are well-developed and will open any day now, and in the field above the house I can hear a skylark raising its song high into the air.