19th November 2018
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In the garden

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Suddenly it’s all go. The snowdrops and crocuses are a distant memory and the chionodoxas are just starting to go over. Early spring is a thing of the past. April is of course daffodil month. Yellow peril everywhere. Call me a snob, but I just can’t warm to those large hybrids, especially if they’re planted in a jumble of all shapes and colours.

Ironically, there are some very big daffodils I like, such as the obscenely large Narcissus ‘Salome’ with a frilled creamy white perianth and a salmon pink cup. It is as vulgar as they come and steals the show in any spring border. These big, busty types are best planted at the back of a bed, where their large and long dying foliage will be camouflaged by things growing up in front of them.

I’m rather fond of N. cyclamineus ‘Little Witch’; comparatively small, it packs a punch with clear, bright yellow and is best seen against green, either in a lawn or against a back­ground of freshly-flushed shrubs. If it weren’t for its unmistake­able foliage and early season, the double as double can be N. ‘Rip van Winkle’ could be mistaken for a little dahlia. It’s a daffodil with a permanent bad hair day and buckets of charm. It’s very low growing, and its soft, light yellow blends perfectly with the coral red of Pulmonaria rubra ‘Red­start’ and gives a lift to black-flowered hellebores.

The other day I had a rendezvous in Aith and while waiting for my date I came face to face with one of my favourite daffodils. There was a newly built house, no garden as yet, but two generous patches of Narcis­sus ‘Jetfire’ which really brightened up the place. This is another cylami­n­eus hybrid and to my mind one of the most striking. The perianth is a clear yellow and the little trumpet is light orange. Rather than paling with age, as is the case with many flowers, this trumpet deepens, darkens and smoulders as the days go on.

My colony has the scene all to itself, and while I’m not that keen on yellow and blue combinations I believe this striking daffodil would make a really zingy companion to some of the early and very blue lungworts, such as Pulmonaria ‘Roy Davidson’, with gentian blue flowers over heavily silver spotted foliage. Anemone blanda starts its season now; it grows from a bulb and is perhaps best known in its blue form. It looks particularly fetching when planted as a carpet beneath the dwarf Japanese cherry, Prunus incise ‘Kojo No Mai’. It’s perhaps the only cherry to flower reliably in Shetland, and every branch and twig of this little shrub is smothered in tiny white flowers that open from a red calyx. It is easily grown in ordinary soil and good drainage.

There is a white cultivar of the anemone with much larger flowers, known as A. blanda ‘White Splen­dour’. It is a charming plant, as the backs of the petals are washed in pink, creating a two-tone effect while some flowers are fully out and others still in bud. It is very robust and capable of putting up with com­petition from ground cover plants and the deep shade beneath trees. It doesn’t seed around, as does its blue cousin, but holds its own from year to year.

All the chionodoxas (glory of the snow) are still going strong. The blues and whites are easily placed, but I have a love-hate relationship with C. ‘Pink Giant’. It is, as the name suggests, a large cultivar with lush foliage and a shade of pink that is difficult to accommodate, or so I thought.

Determined to dig up every bulb of this plant, I’ve just found the perfect setting for it. It looks simply ravishing when inter-planted with the red form of Primula denticulata. Not only do both enjoy the same rich, soggy soil, but the expanding leaves of the drumstick primula nicely obscure the dying foliage of the chionodoxas: a marriage made in heaven. We raise a wide range of spring bulbs in pots every year; some for selling in the nursery, and any left over at the end of the season to be planted in the garden to swell what is already there. I find it far easier to plant them in their season rather than in the autumn when we’re told to do so. In spring I can see what is there already, add to existing colonies or start new ones.

There is scope for some mass plantings of small spring-flowering bulbs, even in the smallest of gar­dens. Tucked in around the crowns of herbaceous perennials, or sunk in underneath ground-hugging plants, they take up very little space. And there’s always the lawn.

Even if you have young children who use your lawn as a football field or for other rough and tumble games, by the time the grass is dry and firm enough to play on, the bulbs will have retreated safely below ground and won’t come to any harm. Plant them so you won’t have to side-step them on your way to the washing line, the swing or the front gate.

Fritillaria meleagris, the snake’s head fritillary, with its square-shoul­dered bells chequered in mauve and silver, is always associated with damp meadows, of which we have plenty in Shetland. I’m sure I planted hundreds in my time, autumn after autumn, in my damp meadow, and never saw one come up the following spring.

It is one of those plants that is notoriously difficult to establish from a dry bulb. Dry is the operative word here. Fritillary bulbs, unlike daffodil bulbs, have no protective tunic, and should never be allowed to dry out. Once they do, they’re doomed, especially when planted in a wet meadow.

If you feel tempted by those seductive offers each autumn, plant your bulbs in pots and keep them dry over the winter, in a cold frame or an unheated greenhouse. Once they show vigorous growth the next spring you can safely plant them out, even in a damp meadow, where they will go from strength to strength.

They’re also very successful lifted, split and transplanted “in the green” once they’ve finished flower­ing, which brings me back to the by now almost forgotten snowdrops. If you want to spread yours about, or pot some up to give away as presents to your friends and neighbours next spring, now is the time to set about it.

Carefully lift a clump and separ­ate the bulbs; replant singly for best results or, if that’s too fiddly for you, in small clusters. If you plan to pot them up, this is best done in a loam-based compost that doesn’t dry out as easily as the peat-based stuff. Snow­drops can’t stand getting dry while in growth.

All bulbs look great in containers and there’s no need to dismantle your displays and re-pot everything yearly. I do mine in rotation, which means most of my bulbs, unless they’re very vigorous, stay in the same pots for about three years. Generous feeding is the key to success. I use well-rotted horse man­ure and give each container a generous top dressing of the stuff as soon as the last flowers have faded and the display is moved to its summer quarters.

A word of caution is needed when it comes to mixed pots, the ones that usually feature in every gardening magazine. They won’t last in beauty and harmony for more than a season. It’s the survival of the fittest game, with the smaller and weaker bulbs inevitably crowded out by their more beefy companions.

My advice is to stick to just one subject per container, then group them to get the multi-colour effect, rather than mixing them all up in one pot. And the very best time to plant them up for next year is now, when you can see what you’re doing, rather than in the autumn, when you’re working blind. Given our wonderfully damp climate, pot-grown bulbs, and those in the open ground for that matter, can be moved, even when in full flower, provided they’re not left lying around and their roots don’t dry out.

Last April I lifted a large clump of Narcissus ‘Rip van Winkle’ in full flower and potted the bulbs three to a half-litre pot. The other day I turn­ed them out to plant among the pink lungwort mentioned above and har­vested a dozen bulbs from each container. They were easy to shake apart with very little root damage.

Sometimes the most satisfying gardening is a result of breaking long established rules. Had I gone by the book and waited until aut­umn I, in all likelihood, would have forgotten to plant the bad-hair-day daffodil exactly where I wanted it.

There are times when it does pay to follow long established horticul­tural wisdom, but there are also occa­sions when doing so takes all the fun and spontaneity out of gardening.

Rosa Steppanova