Thursday, 23 March 2017

5 Must-Have Plants for Early Spring

Spring - a Time of Change

Spring is probably the time of most dramatic, glorious change in the garden. Whites of snow and frost, browns of mud and dead leaves are suddenly jewelled with rich, bright colour. Not only do early Spring flowers bring joy to us humans, they are also a vital nectar source for bees and other flying insects.

You'll notice I never grow 'double' flowered varieties of plants, purely because they make life too difficult for pollinators, either because the flowers are too complicated to be accessed by the insect, or the breeding process has removed the plants pollen and nectar producing organs.

Here's my Top Five Flowering Plants for Early Spring:

Hellebores (Helleborus hybridus)

These amazing perennials are commonly called the Lentern Rose. They have big tough leaves that are not attacked by slugs or snails. In the winter you can cut off all the leaves and in early spring the plant will throw up thick firm flower stems with fat buds that open into downwards facing cups. The petals are actually modified sepals, and come in a beautiful variety of colours from white to rich purple-black. They often have delicate spots, some have edges touched in a different colour, known as 'picote' (pic 1). 

Ashwood Nurseries Helleborus hybridus single white picote
Pic 1: Ashwood Nurseries Hellebous hybridus - Single Picote Photo by Pumpkin Becki
If you have different hellebores in your garden, they are likely to cross-pollinate, and the resulting seedlings will be your very own hybrid. The flowers last into May, and when pollinated, you'll be able to see the seed pods fattening and ripening over time.

They like a woodland/ semi-shaded position in the garden. They can survive dry or wetter conditions, but they don't really thrive. Once a plant is settled and growing well it won't appreciate being moved or divided, so make sure to give it a permanent location at it will bring you joy every winter/spring.

Ashwood Nurseries Helleborus hybridus Single Primrose Yellow
Ashwood Nurseries Helleborus hybridus - Single Primrose Yellow
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

Helleborus hybridus single pink
Helleborus hybridus - single pink
Photo by Pumpkin Becki


I have two varieties of Crocus in the garden at the moment, both are spring flowering (rather than autumn). I have a small clump of buttermilk yellow ones, and several clumps of delicate lilac ones. I'm sorry, I can't tell you want they are called.
Cream Crocus
Creamy Yellow Crocus
Photo by Pumpkin Becki
I love the way they hold their flowers carefully shut until the sun hits them and they fall wide open, revealing vivid orange stamen.

Lilac Crocus
Pale lilac Crocus
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

Pulmonaria officinalis (aka Lungwort)

Another woodland perennial, the Pulmonaria is so surprisingly pretty. The emerald green leaves are decorated with silvery spots, and in spring, flower spikes explode into clusters of five petaled flowers in shades of pink, turning to rose, violet and then blue, as the plant changes the pH value within the petals from acidic to alkaline the longer they are open for.

Pulmonaria officinalis Lungwort
Pulmonaria officinalis (Lungwort)
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

The common name Lungwort is centuries old, and comes from when it was grown for its medicinal properties. It was believed that because the leaves resembled the human lungs, they must be healing for illnesses involving the chest and respiratory system.

Whether that is true or now, they are definitely a valuable food source for bees and moths.


I have two varieties of these tubers in my Woodland Garden, Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum. I have tucked them right up near the trunks of the Sycamore and Horse Chestnut trees.

Cyclamen coum
Cyclamen coum
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

The tuber should be planted quite shallow, so they are perfect in rooty soil where Spring bulbs couldn't be planted. Cyclamen coum flowers in the winter through to spring, and hederifolium flowers in late summer to autumn.


This year my Primroses in the Woodland Garden have been in flower since Christmas - that's not right! It is one of the earliest plants to flower in the UK (just not quite Christmas-early)

I grow the native (UK) Primrose, Primula vulgaris, which forms mounds of buttery yellow flowers held just above deeply crinkled bottle green leaves. The flowers look delicate, but they withstand snow and frost, ready to soak up every drop of sunlight. They grow naturally in deciduous woodland, taking full advantage of the open canopy before the trees burst into leaf.

Primrose Primula vulgaris
Primrose - Primula vulgaris

Being native, and single flowered, they produce lots easily accessible nectar and pollen. Growing guides suggest that they are best in damp shade, but mine are in dry partial shade/full sun and they thrive and naturalise beautifully there.

Iris Reticulata

I was once told (by someone who alleged himself to be a horticulturalist) that Iris Reticulata were impossible to get to flower after the first year and that I would have to replace the bulbs. I'm glad I didn't believe him in the slightest, as I now have lovely naturalised clumps that come up and flower year on year.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

Iris reticulata is a very dainty form, reaching around 15cm high, and flowering in early spring. The leaves are narrow and almost as tall as the flowers. Don't expect Iris reticulata to be big and blousey like a bearded iris, you have to keep your eyes peeled amongst the leaf litter to spot these little beauties. The flowers aren't very long lasting, but across the clump, bulbs will flower at slightly different times, which extends the show considerably. Bees love them!

So there you have it, my top five early spring flowering plants. I hope you love them as much as I do, or maybe you have your own favourites, let me know in the comments xx

Friday, 3 March 2017

Guinea Pigs: Are there different breeds?

Are there different breeds of Guinea Pig?

Yes, there certainly are, more than you might imagine, in fact the British Cavy Council currently recognises 51 standard pure breeds of Guinea Pig for showing, which are: 

They each have very strict breed guidelines which 'show quality' cavies are judged by. Pet Guinea Pigs will generally be cross breeds (mixtures of pure breeds), or animals seen as 'poor examples' of a pure breed that could never be exhibited at shows.

Lets just be clear here - this relates to exhibiting cavies, and winning prizes based on aesthetics - it has nothing to do with the character of a guinea pig or how wonderful a pet it will make. When you are choosing a pet piggie, don't base it on looks, coat type or colour alone, pet guinea pigs will come in an amazing array of these things, just make sure they are healthy and friendly. I have owned pure bred guinea pigs (Honey and Amber), bred by someone who showed and was a show judge. These poor piggies were susceptible to everything, pneumonia, ovarian cysts etc etc, and they lived relatively short lives because of this. We all know that mongrel (cross-breed) dogs usually live longer, healthier, more balanced lives than pure bred ones, same applies with guinea pigs. 

The difference between 'breed' and 'colour' is tricky to understand, and it's easier to think in terms of coat type and coat colour. For example;

  • Himalayan is always pale cream/white with a brown patch on it's nose and brown ears (the Siamese cat of the Guinea Pig world), but can be found in long haired, short haired, Abyssinian, Rex etc. 
  • Tri-colour can be any combination of three coat colours (usually, but not exclusively black, white plus a third colour, Emmeline's third colour is red, but Tilly's is Lemon) and any sort of coat type. 'Self' breeds have single, uniform colour coats, in any coat type. 
  • Agouti is one colour hair shaft, tipped in a contrasting colour, usually golden or silver, it can be the entire coat (like Molly), or part of a tri-colour, or just a patch (like on Phoebe) see the problem.
Lets look at some of the most commonly available Guinea Pig breeds by coat type.

Short Haired 

Illustration Short Haired Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Short Haired Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)
(aka English Short Haired and American Short Haired)

The oldest and most common breed available. Their coat is smooth and short, running in one direction from nose to rump.

Colour variations are huge, going from Self (a single, solid colour like black or cream), Tri-colour, Himalayan, Agouti etc.
Phoebe, Tilly and Emmeline are all English Short Haired.


The Crested falls into two categories, in both the main coat is a single colour, it's short and smooth except for a single rosette of flattened hair in the centre of the forehead. The English Crested's rosette is the same colour as the main coat (and can therefore be classified as a 'Self' breed). The American Crested's rosette always contrasts the main coat colour, usually in black or white (and so cannot be classified as a Self breed).


Illustration Abyssinian Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Abyssinian Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)
The coat of the Abyssinian is usually mixed colour (ie tortoiseshell, Agouti or Brindle. The hair is short and rough, and lies in rosettes all over the body and head, which create ridges where they meet.

'Show' Abyssinians have 10 rosettes over the body in a very specific pattern, and there should be no areas of smoothness. My illustrated one here wouldn't win any prizes!


Illustration Sheltie Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Sheltie Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)
The Sheltie (aka Silkie in America) is a long haired breed where the coat runs smoothly in one direction, from nose to rump with no partings or rosettes. The facial and shoulder hair is shorter than the rest of the body, which falls on the ground at the back and sides (known as the 'sweep'. Unless you are showing your Guinea Pigs, it is advised to trim the sweep regularly to prevent knots and mats forming. Shelties come in any colour or mix of colours.


Illustration Peruvian Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Peruvian Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)
Peruvians are also long haired, but the hair has two rosettes, one at the neck and one further down the back. There is also a parting along the spine. This makes the coat grow forward over the head, evenly down both sides, and backwards over the rump. When you see show Peruvians all brushed out, they look like toupees! Glamorous toupees, but toupees nonetheless! Non show piggies should have their coat trimmed to floor level to prevent mats forming. Peruvians come in all colours and mixes.
Rosie is a tri-colour Peruvian.

Illustration Rex Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Rex Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)


Rex coats are quite astounding, the hairs are dense, springy, short and wiry, with a lightly crimped appearance. The whiskers look crimped too! The coat stands upright away from the body, so Rex piggies look chunkier than they actually are. The Rex coat comes in many colours and mixes, but the Agoutis look really special. Molly is a Golden Agouti Rex


Teddies look similar to Rex piggies, but the short, dense, bouncy coat is straight and should appear to run from the rump, back up the body towards the nose. At the top of the head this backwards hair growth forms a little fringe or 'cap' between the ears. The Teddy whiskers are straight. Teddies come in most colours and mixes.

Illustration Texel Guinea Pig Rebecca Reynolds BA Hons
Illustration of Texel Guinea Pig by Rebecca Reynolds BA(Hons)


The Texel has a mixture of Sheltie and Rex coat characteristics. The hair is long, sweeping back along the body from nose to rump. The hair falls in waves (almost dreadlocks) and is usually longer at the back than on the sides. To prevent knots and mats it is best to trim the hair to floor level.
Texels come in all colours and mixes.


One of the most recently recognised breeds, the Lunkarya's long coat is naturally unruly, the hair on the face is Rex-like forming curly sideburns, and the body has ringlet curls and two rump rosettes which push the coat up and outwards. Lunkarya are not designed to be neat, so it's important to keep a sharp look out for knots and mats, and if not showing them, trim the coat to a manageable length all over. Lunkarya can be any colour or mix. 

Skinny Pigs

Developed in the 1980's from a genetic abnormality, the Skinny Pig is completely hairless, though the skin will have the colours and markings that the coat would have had. Their skin can be dry and sensitive, it requires protection from the sun and they should live indoors during the winter at the very least. Skinny Pigs require a knowledgeable, experienced owner.


Baldwin young are born with hair, which by 2 months of age has mostly fallen out, leaving just have a little patch of wiry hair on their nose and each paw. The skin will have the colours and markings that the coat would have had. Their skin can be dry and sensitive, it requires protection from the sun and they should live indoors during the winter at the very least. Baldwin Pigs require a knowledgeable, experienced owner.

And Finally: A Note About Satins

Satin Guinea Pigs don't just have shiny healthy-looking coats, the hair shaft is actually hollow, giving a glass-like appearance to the coat which is quite quite different to that of normal varieties. Almost all coat types and colours have been bred in the Satin variant, but it quickly became apparent that this genetic mutation did not just affect the hair, it could also affect skeletal bone density, often leading to Osteodystrophy (defective bone development aka OD) and/or Paget's Disease (excessive formation and breakdown of bone and bone marrow). Both diseases are chronic, painful and degenerative, and can only be supported with pain relief, there is no cure. X-rays can determine how far the diseases have progressed, and what degree of pain relief is needed. 

Many Cavy Societies have actually banned the exhibiting of Satins, due to the welfare issues involved. The British Cavy Council still has classes for Satins, but I hope that this will change, as promoting a variety that carries such genetic problems only encourages breeding for profit not welfare.

Satins are only suitable for experienced owners who are also prepared for the high cost of veterinary care involved.

Never buy a Satin. Adopt, but only if you feel you can give one a reasonable quality of life with support from a knowledgeable vet and a regime of pain relief.

Never breed a Satin with another Satin. The genetic mutation that causes the satin coat is too complicated to be controlled by backyard breeding, it cannot be bred out, and you could be subjecting animals to unnecessary pain and suffering.