The future is BRIGHT
PUBLISHED: 12:32 21 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013
This morning I was filled with great excitement as I unpacked my delivery of bulbs.
. I don't always remember what I have ordered as I have a habit of adding to my order throughout the year as and when I
see things that I like for dispatch in the autumn. One of the great surprises in my delivery was a limited number of species and Rembrandt tulips which I saw at the Chelsea Flower Show. There is a great feeling of anticipation that from such a perfect but humble bulb will blossom a flamboyant display of flower, colour and
form in spring. There are several things that I would like to explain about the way that I go about planting bulbs and putting combinations together, at home and for my clients. I also have some planting tips to extend the length of the bulb season - from potting up bulbs for winter flowering in the house to layering bulbs in pots to create extended displays that will last from February/March through to the middle of May. When the bulbs are unpacked I categorise them in order of priority for planting. In my order there are two types of bulbs that need to be planted immediately. The first are Fritillaria meleagris - the snake's head fritillary. These will grow extremely well in my garden, loving the heavy and wet soil. They only succeed when planted really fresh - they still need to be firm to the touch and not spongy. If they are not planted straight away while fresh and firm they tend to rot. By planting them early they will also root more quickly and, I find, become less palatable to mice who adore them. Mice can smell the strong scent of fritillaria for miles. I always plant fritillarias into grass. As they are native meadow plants they feel very alien in a rock garden environment or in borders but grow naturally in
meadows, perhaps with cowslips alongside them. However, if I don't have time, or if the weather is not conducive to planting straight away, an alternative is to plant them into good quality compost in 9cm pots, three bulbs to a pot. This way you are able to protect them from the mice and you can plant them out in groups when they are about 11-12cms high in the grass and you can be sure of good establishment. It is always a joy to keep a few pots back so I can enjoy them at close quarters either on my desk or on the kitchen windowsill. One of my other passions for the spring is to buy small quantities of species and rare bulbs which I carefully pot into antique terracotta pots - perhaps only five of one variety as these bulbs tend to be expensive and not right for mass planting in the garden. I bring these together on a large oak table in the garden and being in small pots I am able
to handle them. It is wonderful to have these exquisite gems to hand - like an 18th century cabinet of curiosities.
Within my delivery of bulbs I have a number of species bulbs for planting into pots. Rembrandt tulip Insulinde,
Narcissus watieri with its pristine white, shallow-cupped stars; Muscari neglectum in deepest purple which is almost black, with bells nicely rimmed with silvery white and the tip of the spikes a contrasting soft violet blue and Muscari 'Valerie Finnis'. I might even feature the Muscari macrocarpum which is scented and very decorative as it would look awful in a border. Shallow pans of Iris reticulata Natascha and Hyacinth multiflora white will be planted in big pots at the front. And for later in the season, in lily pots, I will plant Lilium mackliniae, a rare lily from Burma. Some will do well and repeat but some will only last a season. Those that dwindle make space for new things next year. After the fritillarias my next priority for planting are the bulbs that I'll be forcing for the house. I tend to limit this to hyacinths and Narcissus Paperwhite. I personally love the pale blues and whites rather than the brighter colours for this time of year in the house. I love using Hyacinth multiflora, as it has smaller flower spikes yet about three to four stems per bulb, rather than the 'prepared' hyacinths which have very big heavy heads and tend to collapse. I always plant my hyacinths and Paperwhites in 9cm pots with the bulb sitting practically on top of the compost, keeping the shoulders free from soil. By planting them individually in pots you can line them out in trays and put them in a cool dark shed allowing them to grow a good root structure. Once this has happened you can bring out a few at a time - and the advantage of growing them individually is that you can choose the ones that grow at the same rate. These then get potted on into lovely old terracotta pans or pots and when the buds are showing amongst the emerging leaves they are brought into the house where they quickly come into flower. Another tip to extend the season of the narcissus or the hyacinth is to plant a few at a time. Place the remaining bulbs in the bottom of your fridge and plant a few more every couple of weeks until December. I don't bring any of the forced bulbs into the house until January 6th when I have taken down the Christmas tree. They bring in a wonderful sense of anticipation of the new year and fill the void that the end of the Christmas celebrations leaves. And as they start to flower they perfume the entire house with their delicious sweet scent. My next priority is that of planting the crocuses. These need to be planted early in the season and do not do well if left until after October. I generally plant species varieties rather than the larger Dutch varieties as their longevity seems to be better. One of my favourites is Crocus Thomasinianus. These flower very early and are of a cobalt lavender with tissue thin petals. They look wonderfully natural in huge drifts coming out of grass. If they are happy in their situation they will naturalise and seed freely creating soft veils of early spring flowers. A great combination with the naturalised Crocus Thomasinianus are snowdrops as they flower at the same time. Snowdrops are always better planted in the green, rather than from a dry bulb, and best planted in February. Every year I add more as they give the garden a wonderful sense of age. Mine
are from Orchard Nurseries (www.orchard-nurseries.com) where they are grown under apple trees and never
collected from the wild. The largest part of my bulb delivery are Narcissus lobularis - the wild form of narcissus that grows especially well in Herefordshire and can be seen on grassy banks and woodlands when driving
through the countryside. I particularly love this form of native narcissus with its delicate pale yellow flowers and slightly reflex petals. Every year I extend my planting of narcissi in the woodland by 2,000 a year. However the narcissi that I planted two years ago - this is particular to this variety - have started to seed and naturalise freely within my coppice wood. A very good combination when planted in a natural setting is Anemone nemerosa Robinsoniana with its delicate pale lavender petals. I like to plant the Anemone Robinsoniana into 9cm pots in
a good free-draining compost and when they are about five centimetres high in the spring I plant them out into their final location. If I don't plant them like this they tend to get eaten by squirrels or mice before they have a chance to grow. Because of the nature of my heavy clay soil, tulips tend not to do very well. So I have started to plant my tulips in beautiful old galvanised flower buckets and terracotta pots and by doing this I am able, as they come into flower, to place them either within my borders, sitting on the ground amongst the plants - or to group them around the edges of borders. I particularly like the mobility of this style of planting - last spring I moved my pots several times - according to where we might be having lunch - or to change the combination of colours as new things came into flower. The list of tulips that are available is huge. I try to keep my colour palette simple. Last year with great success I combined Tulip Christmas Sweet with Caf Noir and Black Hero. Another good combination was Ronaldo with Queen of the Night and Lilac Perfection. In areas that needed to be more vibrant Tulip Orange Princess can be planted with Havran. And finally I have half a dozen very large terracotta pots which are clustered around various doorways. The art of planting these pots is to try and create as long a spring flowering season as possible. I remove about 35cms of soil from the pots and at this level I plant a late flowering tulip such as Black Hero (a double black). Adding a little compost to cover these bulbs I then place a mid
season single tulip such as Caf Noir. Adding again another layer of compost I plant early single tulips such as
Christmas Sweet. And finally, on top of more compost, white Hyacinth multiflora. The effect of this is a long
display starting with the hyacinth - then the pale pink Christmas Sweet with its dark stems flowering with the hyacinth, then as the hyacinth comes to an end the dark Caf Noir combines well with the still flowering Christmas Sweet. And then finally as the Christmas Sweet finishes the Caf Noir is in full bloom with the wonderful fat buds of the double Black Hero - which ends in the most amazing finale of rich black purples.