Primroses in the Old-House Garden

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Matching nicely with the moss phlox of spring, Primula kisoana is a fast-moving groundcover.

Matching nicely with the moss phlox of spring, Primula kisoana is a fast-moving groundcover.

Blessed with a rolling, wooded landscape bedded in sandy loam, Kristian Fenderson couldn’t have happened upon a better habitat for his beloved primroses. There was never any doubt they would keep company with his 1790 farmhouse in New Hampshire: He has been an active member of the American Primrose Society since he was a teenager. “These addictions start early,” Fenderson says. When he moved from a Zone 2 property in Maine to the relative warmth of these 300 acres in Zone 4, his primrose penchant came, too.

Grout Hill, owned by one family for 150 years before Fenderson’s arrival, has always been farmed, more-or-less productively. (Kris Fenderson and his partner keep horses and Scottish Highland cows.) But a visitor can’t miss the primroses, grown from a huge collection that Fenderson amassed while still in college. The plants and this old New England farmstead were made for each other.

In spring, Grout Hill is a riot of color as primroses perform with deciduous azaleas, forget-me-nots, and daffodils.

In spring, Grout Hill is a riot of color as primroses bloom with azaleas, forget-me-nots, and daffodils.

If you hear “primroses” and think of the common supermarket plant, think again. Fenderson hosts just about every primrose under the sun (or shade, actually). With typical Yankee zeal, he collected primroses “indiscriminately,” sending for seeds from the Society and acquiring choice plants at swaps. He was inspired by a trip to Britain, where he saw memorable rhododendron dells in Cornwall and woodland gardens that he would interpret on his rocky land. In the meantime, Kris Fenderson became an expert on the genus, publishing A Synoptic Guide to the Genus Primula.

Enhancing an antique pitcher: a bouquet of various P. veris color strains and their hybrids.

Enhancing an antique pitcher: a bouquet of various P. veris color strains and their hybrids.

Forty years ago, Fenderson’s first planting was diverse, to be sure, but there were only a few of each primrose type. What started as onesies and twosies has turned into hordes. Now the three-acre garden, boasting many species and cultivars both rare and common, is dense with primrose colonies.

Despite cruel winters, the primroses in residence require minimal care and are stoically hardy. From snowmelt on, there’s a jolly riot of little woodland flowers around the hunkered-down old house. But this is much more than a spring fling. By filling the garden with primroses from around the globe, Fenderson manages to host flowers throughout the growing season—from Primula vulgaris and P. x juliae in spring until Primula capitata in November.

Specimens show the diverse color range of primroses, which  mix promiscuously in the garden.

Specimens show the diverse color range of primroses, which mix promiscuously in the garden.

Highlights include early spring’s cowslips (P. veris) and oxlips (P. elatior), which segue into alpine P. auricula and P. marginata types. Early summer sees Japanese woodland primroses (P. sieboldii) and candelabra types (P. japonica and P. bullesiana), followed by Asiatic primroses (P. sikkimensis, P. florindae and P. alpicola) later in summer. There’s a primrose blooming in almost every shade imaginable, even the parrot-green of ‘Francesca.’ Several varieties form tiers of blossoms; others seem to nod. Some flowers are open-faced, others oboe-shaped. These plants are hardly prim. The colorful display lends gaiety, even a vaguely calamitous mischief, around the no-nonsense country house.

The shade that primroses prefer was present; in fact, the garden had to be carved out of the farm landscape. Fenderson installed shrubs to anchor the plantings and create interest from the ground upward, connecting the low-lying primroses with the trees. Whiskey barrels elevate the smaller primroses so they aren’t lost on the ground. His primroses are allowed to set seeds before mowing, to disperse the progeny and enable their predilection to increase shamelessly.