In bulbs we trust

September6

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It’s not happened yet, but I can feel that the bulb lust will soon be upon me. I work my tiny garden intensively and only manage to get four season colour into the border by packing in bulbs among herbaceous perennials. It’s probably inconceivable for me to stuff any more tulips into the hall border near my office window, but for May through August interest, I’m planning for more alliums, more lilies and possibly my first camassias next year. I saw @lialeendertz ‘s piece in the Guardian about alliums and it underscores the most useful thing you’ll ever want to know about ornamental onions: if you don’t hide their tattered leaves with something, you’ll be sorry. I’ve just tucked mine in among astrantia, nepeta and delphiniums and I’m hoping for the best.

So yes, I’m renewing my commitment to summer flowering bulbs to squeeze maximum colour from my small space, but it’s the late winter and early spring flowering snowdrops, crocus, chionodoxa, narcissus and most of all tulips that cast the real spell over me — and my budget — every autumn.

Do you remember how the Catholic church got into a good bit of trouble some centuries ago for selling indulgences, advance absolution for future sins? Hell was big back then, and folks terrified of dying with unconfessed sins on their conscience paid big sums for indulgences, hoping to guarantee life after death by ensuring they’d die “clean”…or so the reasoning went. Spring flowering bulbs are a bit like indulgences: against reason, gardeners faced with the dying of the light invest too much every autumn, trying to guarantee life for their borders on the far side of winter’s chasm. For me, planting spring bulbs — especially those chestnut brown tulips, fat and perfect — is like casting a rope to the other side of January, where my friendly bulb vendor secures it and talks me across with comforting words about “brave crocus” and tulips “like a Dutch still life”. I can resist the crocus (they may be brave, but they get battered by day two), but the tulips will always have a hold on me.

Actually, my bulb vendor is very friendly; Anne and Jack Barnard at Rose Cottage Plants have never sent me tulips that failed to dazzle or, God forbid, were wrongly labeled, an experience I’ve had many times with other mail-order companies. The blackcurrant tinted late purple parrot “Muriel” they recommended last year was indeed stunning, and this year they’ve sourced “Happy Generation” for me, one of the many I saw in my Keukenhof tour this past April, but not usually available from Rose Cottage Plants, as Anne says her customers often avoid bi-coloured tulips. I’ve ordered 30; who knows where I’ll put them, but maybe in pots at the gate.

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If you’re trying to decide what tulips are worth buying, definitely ask your vendor, or see these two video tours of the Keukenhof tulip tents I made earlier this year. My voiceover rambles a bit, but you will get a sense of how many beautiful tulip varieties look, rather than relying on the hyperbolic catalog descriptions. You can also see still shots of the tulips and other parts of Keukenhof in my Flickr set.

I have scattered galanthus nivalis, a February flowering double snowdrop, among my hall border and would love to plant a short, black centred perennial like Rudbeckia, whose black eyes might hold on through the snowy months to give me a black-and-white effect in late winter. Any ideas? Rudbeckia “Goldsturm” looks good but seems a bit too tall.

Do you have a bulb addiction? Which tulips mean the most to you, and can you get away without lifting them annually?

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Veg: It’s gardening, but not as I know it

March27

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The very last of the snowdrops have just gone over. Delayed flowering has made for the loveliest and unlikeliest of bedfellows: snowdrops on crocus, daffodils and tulips emerging together with the hyacinths, and delphinium foliage that’s now growing like a rocket. With so much noisy life finally breaking the winter silence, I’ll be free of all the planning and the purchasing — mostly bulbs, mostly unnecessary, but what else was I supposed to do in January? — and can start planting.

My enthusiasm for the Eatin’ Project is growing — just. After all the faff with early vegetable seedlings and sorting the raised bed, I’m feeling protective towards these baby plants. That said, I have turfed them into the bed already — heavily protected winter cos lettuce, with a pot of carrot seedlings at the middle — both to see if they’re made of strong stuff and because the lettuce, for one, really did look ready. The carrot container is raised that extra bit above carrot fly altitude, and the seedlings are inter-planted with spring onions to throw any highfliers off the scent.

It just doesn’t feel like gardening. In my greenhouse are glossy hellebore seedlings, hair-like snakeshead fritillary seedlings that have just emerged after a year in pots, and white cosmos planted just weeks ago which is already pushing up its first leaves. I look at them and I feel actual joy. They’re all sharing the greenhouse with the newer cos lettuce seedlings — but I look at them and I feel nothing.

I think it’s because the lettuce has no prospect of being beautiful. This afternoon I let out a yelp when I saw my first morning glory “Grandpa Otts” seedling raise its heart-shaped head. I consider this the most beautiful seed-grown plant in my garden, with violet flowers so intense they make me feel my vision is being pulled to the end the spectrum. My passion for roses, too, is down to the aesthetics: the first time I saw the David Austin Roses catalog, I couldn’t believe anything could be so beautiful.
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I do like the ferny carrot foliage, and the strawberries I’ve edged the bed with (thanks for the idea, Grace) are pleasingly pleated. But the aesthetic aspect of the vegetables I’m growing is pretty rubbish. The two pear trees I’ve put in are a different story: I love the progress of their lengthening, pointy buds and I know blossom is on the way.

I need to persist with this project. And last weekend it was a bit thrilling to plant some vegetable seeds with my three-year-old daughter. “I’m a gardener!” she said. That’s my girl.

What’s your feeling about the beauty of vegetables? Do you need beauty in the plants you care for? Can you give plants the love they need if you don’t admire them?

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Garden design for the clueless

November8

Click for larger imageI’m not much more than an absolute beginner in gardening terms, and something I’ve hardly tackled yet is designing with plants — that business of attaining visual cohesion in different areas of the garden (and, hopefully, in the garden as a whole), with pleasing associations of colour and form. Just getting to know how plants work, and persuading them not to die, took so much time at first. In our old garden in Dublin, I planted an entire bag of daffodils upside down, and when we came to Scotland, I remember feeling annoyed when windowboxes I’d filled with red pelargoniums shriveled. (I had not watered them. At all.)

That was the year I resolved to stop growing flowers and start growing roots. I would prioritise the underground happiness of the plants, but I’d also start planning the garden around who I am, ie a neglector of containers. Except in winter, when a small pot of snowdrops sits by the back door to cheer us up, my only containers are huge ones which need just a little from me, and not very often.

Designing with plants has come so slowly, which is a major frustration, because all I’ve ever wanted from gardening is a live version of my first job at a florist’s: choosing the prettiest cut flowers and arranging them in bunches. I understand that developing a garden which looks abundant in every season can take a lifetime, but I’d like some abundance now — as well as visual cohesion. I visit gardens when I can, but mostly I’m gleaning design insights from books. Here are the top three most helpful design principles I’ve internalised:

  • Control the use of colour: flowers of similar colour tones planted together are restful and harmonious to the eye — like the restrained palatte in the picture above, showing our small main border. I no longer buy “mixed” colour tulips, pansies, seeds or anything else. A single contrasting pair of colours, like blue and orange, is also pleasing and looks lively to the eye as opposed to restful.
  • Foreshortened views suggest abundance: you don’t have to wait until your borders are overflowing like a botanic garden to get a feeling of abundance. Position garden seats (or your plants, if you’re starting from scratch) so that you have a foreshortened view down along the border, instead of across it. That way, to your eye, plants not located near each other will seem to come together, giving the impression of an overflowing garden, and bringing colours right up next to each other.
  • Hide parts of the garden from view: paradoxically, even a tiny garden feels bigger if you find ways to hide part of it from immediate view. The hedge or fence with a gap in it, a plant placed to partially obscure a view, a path that winds away from the eye so you can’t see its full length, or even a false door in a boundary wall that leads nowhere — all these suggest an undefined “something more”. Subconsciously your brain speculates and projects about what it could be, and the garden ends up feeling bigger.

Too many design books offer blueprints and drawings instead of what I really want: inspiring garden photography where the plants are all identified, and clear, contextual explanations of design principles. At the moment I’m in love with the practical and beautiful Fabulous Flowerbeds by Gisela Keil and Jurgen Becker. If you have a design must-read book, or a design golden rule you’d recommend to me, I’d love to hear them.

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