SWG002 Early February in a Scottish cottage garden

February6

Galanthus Nivalis flore pleno

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a sunny February walk around the garden. If you use iTunes, there’s a link to subscribe at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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The Scottish daffodil without a name

March5

double yellow daffodil from Mull stopwatch gardener

For six years I’ve been trying to identify this sophisticated double daffodil with the shredded, egg yolk-yellow centre. I found it growing just outside the walled garden of my mother-in-law’s house in Mull, off the west coast of Scotland.

The helpful David Wong of Plantedd has suggested it looks something like Narcissus “Glowing Phoenix,” and it may well be, but I’m going to have another look when it flowers this year and compare it against the Phoenix pictures. My mystery bulb also resembles Narcissus Eystettensis, which has the same shredded centre but is one colour throughout.

I like to imagine a romantic past for this unique flower: maybe it joined the other spring flowering bulbs that I know this Scottish garden used to provide to the ancient abbey on the island of Iona, about an hour away.

I’m really keen to identify this flower for my mother-in-law. If you are (or know) a narcissus connoisseur or other bulb expert, I’d be grateful for your help.

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posted under Bulbs, Gardening | 1 Comment »

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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Sandy tulips are happy tulips

May13

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?

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The small mercy of snowdrops and other survivors

January21

Click for larger imageMassive snow melt and rising rivers have come with the big thaw, now that our deep snowfall has turned liquid. Watching our local river rise 5 feet, it made me think about how snow locks up water the way trees lock up carbon dioxide. Gardening hard, as I’ve done the last few seasons, has done this to me — make me watch every aspect of the changing seasons and think about what it might mean for my garden. My poor, pummelled garden, now free of that heavy snow but looking squashed, like a flower flattened between the pages of an encyclopedia.

Which is why I felt my mouth fall open today when I saw a single snowdrop — Galanthus elwesii — white and perfect and definitely alive. I took a walk around and checked on the other signs of life which have been thrilling me out of all proportion to their size. A tuft of striped crocus leaves, 2 inches high? A few battered narcissus leaves breaking through the soil? I’ll take it — it’s January, and my standards and expectations for the garden are at their lowest.

The desk where I write gets sun for two hours in summer, and much less in winter when the sun can’t be bothered to rise very high. This time last year I wrote this poem during one of the sun’s rare appearances at my desk. Do you ever get poetic about your garden? If so, I’d love to hear some.

shine

The winter sun doesn’t mean it;
it cracks an eye over sodden ground –
the damp remains of brightest days,
the ceaseless hunt of birds,
the lilacs’ empty grasp –
and is unmoved.

It cannot be enough.
But braver things are in the earth
and they rise, swords first,
to take back the day
and call forth the legions
that come after.

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