Sandy tulips are happy tulips


Click for larger imageAs you may or may not know, I went to Amsterdam recently for the tulips, and stayed for the volcano. Stupid geothermal activity. The delay has thrown my work schedule completely, keeping me away from the blog for some time. But I had to post something this evening because, looking over my pictures from the trip and especially the visit to Keukenhof (a huge spring garden in Lisse, in the midst of the bulb fields south of Amsterdam, open until this Sunday), I’m stunned again at the growing conditions of tulips in Holland.

As the proud Dutch will tell you, God made the world but the Dutch made Holland, systematically draining tracts of land (which they call polders) for agriculture, and keeping the land drained with their network of dikes. This is reclaimed, thoroughly sandy soil: passing some builders digging up a sidewalk, I marveled at the spoil they’d dug out, exactly like children’s play sand. I’d always heard that tulips should sit on a little nest of sand at the bottom of the planting hole, but truthfully they’re happy in a very sandy environment, a realisation which will definitely inform where and how I plant this autumn.

It was a cold spring in Holland, just as in Scotland, and only some of the large single early tulips were out, along with miles of hyacinths. Keukenhof isn’t to be missed if you get over to the Netherlands in spring; growers each take a section of land around the lightly wooded lawns of the garden, planting their own displays with thousands of bulbs each autumn. The mature trees are just coming into leaf as the flowers emerge below, creating that dappled sunlight effect that, along with the occasional babbling stream and the dreamy scent of narcissisus and hyacinth, deliver a pretty good approximation of my mother’s idea of heaven.

I don’t know about you, but every October I develop such a strong bulb lust that all memory of the sad, fading foliage of tulips in June disappears, and I can think only of those goblets of colour lit up like Tiffany lamps. This year, I’m thoroughly smug at how well a new combination has turned out: I’ve added the single purple “Passionale” tulip alongisde the wavy orange wonderfulness of the parrot tulip, Prof. Rontgen. Those reliable folk at Rose Cottage Plants recommended (and who was I to resist, browsing their offers during the depth of That Winter) a parrot called Muriel, a sumptuous purple thing which is supposed to marry my Passionale with the Professor. Muriel is just about to make her appearance — I’ll let you know how she fares.

Oh, and those tulips I planted in a row beneath my window? Fabulous. They give exactly the 17th century colours I was looking for, although after seeing at Hortus Bulborum (a bulb “zoo” outside Amsterdam which keeps the greats alive) the wee Duc van Tol tulips that fueled tulipmania way back when, I think my soaring, 24 inch high Mickey Mouse single early tulips have much more majesty.

Click for larger imageAt Keukenhof, planted in the ground under cover were a selection of tulips from each grower, and many of these were almost over when we saw them, but enough were in good shape to give me that October feeling. The perfection of “Happy Generation”, a red-on-white striped Triumph tulip, far outdoes the fluffy “Carnival de Nice” which I’d had my eye on. Red and white will fit fine into some parts of my spring colour scheme…just. But really I need a bigger garden.

Would you like to see the videos I took inside the Keukenhof tulip tents? I’m in the process of publishing them here on the Stopwatch Gardener channel on YouTube.

Do you get bulb lust? How have yours performed this strange spring?


Fake tree is a real relief


Click for larger imageIf Christmas was part of your childhood and your memories of it are generally positive, you’ll probably look to replicate what you can of Christmas past when you’re all grown up. For me, a favourite memory is lying down and looking up through the boughs of my parents’ Christmas tree, with red and green lights casting a glow on the ornaments, and breathing in the pine scent. I’m not sure if I did this before or after seeing Pluto’s Christmas Tree, a 1952 Disney short (you can watch it in full here — thanks, YouTube), where Mickey Mouse and his dog are thwarted in trimming their tree by the chipmunks inside it. Watching Chip and Dale leap about, loosening lights and stealing ornaments, I was sure nothing could be better than living inside a Christmas tree, and I always imagined myself as one of them when I peeked through the branches every year.

So it’s extra strange that, this year, I’ve bought my family’s first ever fake Christmas tree.  I’m stunned at how happy I am with it. There is no scent of pine. Its boughs are too thickly woven to see up through. It’s unnervingly symmetrical. But even with all its conical artificiality, I dig this tree. So many things about it save me time and hassle, this year and in future Christmasses, and so it hits the bulls’ eye for me.

It has great clearance at the bottom for presents; our old real trees have been so crowded at the bottom that presents spilled far into the room. Its shape may be too perfect, but it reaches to the ceiling while keeping to its corner, and I don’t miss the real trees that thrust their fat rumps into the room, begging to have needles knocked off. The kids love the tree’s tall twinklyness, and with the “night” setting on my Fuji, I can capture endless Disneyesque, inside-the-tree shots. Most important, I’ve avoided hacking down a young tree to create a decoration that is only briefly perfect. This tree will last, and I am already appreciating how fresh and festive it still looks after 10 days. With all its Christmasy aroma, the real tree and its slow death inside the house is a downer, and the decline is visible so quickly, even with TLC. And did I mention we’re not running the vacuum cleaner every day to erase signs of decay? Plus, no more two-hour tree-hunting trips in December, the month when I can least spare the time.

Instead maybe I’ll get to spend a few hours in December as many other gardeners do, laying plans for the next season. My mother phoned from Boston yesterday to say she had sent us some money for Christmas, so I found myself in Dobbies this afternoon with a budget in mind and a list in hand. I now have the essential ingredients for The Eatin’ Project, as I’m calling my first proper attempt at growing vegetables in a 1m x 1.2m raised bed. I have been rubbish at growing vegetables but I will make it happen this year. If I teach my kids nothing else about the garden, it should be basic skills about how to turn seeds into food, just in case the climate goes to hell sooner than we think and commercial agriculture simply can’t support us all. If I invest five or 10 years making all my mistakes now, maybe I can help them get a better start.

Merry Christmas to all.


Planting tulips in a row


Click for larger imageYes, I’m doing it, though I’ve read a dozen times that I shouldn’t. But I really want to go old-style: I want the lineup to be a nod to old New England colonial front gardens, and the painted red-on-yellow of these single earlies to lend a Rembrandt vibe. They’re Mickey Mouse and I haven’t grown them before, but they’re now in a double row under my office window. (Digging a trench for the tulip lineup was also a much faster way to work — in they went, each nestled on a bit of sand.) It’s the squat gable end of the cottage, which supposedly dates to the 1600s, so the whole combo should look righteously retro. The antique rowans overhead should be blazing with blossom by the time the tulips are over and distract from their decline.

I’m going less traditional with the back garden tulips, adding a bunch of violet Passionale through the stunning orange parrot, Professor Rontgen, delivered last autumn from Rose Cottage Plants. RC is my only choice now for mail order — orders from J. Parker’s, Sarah Raven, even direct from the Dutch at all got me dozens of the wrong thing, and make-goods still don’t take the edge off, especially when it’s wisteria…the wrong wisteria…that’s taken four years to flower. (I better not start on mislabeled stuff…why do so many vendors get this wrong?!)