Spring planting combinations that beat the patchy look (and don’t smell like toilet duck)

April12

The resurgence of growth in the April garden is magnificent. But as welcome as spring bulbs are, they can make for a patchy looking landscape.

Gardening experts talk a lot about planting combinations, and I have come to appreciate the importance of using plants together, especially spring bulbs with something more weighty like perennials and shrubs. If you’re an old pro, none of these combinations will be new to you, but for newer gardeners, here are a few spring planting combinations worth trying:

  • Pulsatilla vulgaris and vinca minor: Click for larger imageThe fantastically fuzzy buds of pulsatilla are marvelous in late March and early April. The out-of-focus blue in the background is the ground-hugging vinca minor: this periwinkle is much easier to manage in a garden than its big brother, the greater periwinkle vinca major. Some gardeners will warn you away from any periwinkle as too invasive, but this is quite manageable in my garden and flowers profusely in April if I cut it back hard in autumn.
  • Osmanthus delvayii above plain and parrot tulips:Click for larger imageThis very slow growing shrub is a froth of white for a few weeks in April, and the way it spreads its arms over the tulips reminds me of a tiny flowering cherry tree. Its heavenly, lily of the valley-like scent is fresh and clean, never overpowering. Not to be confused with Osmanthus burkwoodii, which has bigger leaves and smells like toilet duck. The tulips shown here are purple Passionale and the orange parrot, Professor Rontgen, but any pair of contrasting colours would look good.
  • Emerging roses above fritillaria meleagris:Click for larger image The snakes head fritillary picks up the red tones in the emerging foliage of many roses: here it’s the Portland rose, Rose de Rescht. So many emerging perennials offer wonderful foliage which looks great
    next to bulbs and can help disguise their dying leaves. Try to plant the snakeshead where you will see the sun coming through it, so it lights up like an elaborate checked lampshade: otherwise it can look like a dirty purple. I like the white version of the snakeshead even better, and it’s fairly easy to grow from seed; if you can wait a few years they’ll reach flowering size and you can fill a corner of your garden with these elegant little bulbs.
  • Grape hyacinths with aubretia: Click for larger imageSomeone else mentioned this combination and I’m so glad I tried it. The muscari hold their heads above the aubretia, which is that fabulous rockery plant that spills its purpleish flowers over stone walls. “We should get more of that,” was my husband’s one and only comment about the aubretia last year. He doesn’t usually say much, so that means something. If you don’t want to find the grape hyacinth appearing all over your garden, snip off the flower heads before they go to seed.
  • Hyacinth with wild violet, aubretia and vinca minor: Click for larger imageI’m not a great fan of monochrome schemes, but this one sowed itself and was winking at me from the border as I was thinking about this blog post, so I had to mention it. I recall wanting an all-blue border at a certain stage in my gardening life, but I got over it.
  • What I won’t show you today is a picture of my raised bed, which has eight lovely broad bean plants and eight plastic milk bottles (these bottles are God’s gift to the vegetable gardener who needs a cloche or drip tray. I also plant a punctured or bottomless milk bottle next to new shrubs, to give them a good 2-litre drink when I water.) This time, the bottles are covering baby beets and lettuce.

    This is why I was saying last year that I wanted to keep my new vegetable patch in a bit of the garden I don’t see from the window: I hate the plastic, fleece, netting and so forth that vegetable growing so often demands. But I’d like my seedlings to survive, so I’ve rolled out the plastic.

    Like the hosta halos and wire plant supports that have now disappeared beneath the delphinium foliage, the cloches won’t be eyesores for long; they should be unnecessary in a few weeks, when the frost danger has passed.

    What are your favourite planting combinations in your garden? I’d love some more ideas.

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    Grow plants from seed and let the healing begin

    March25

    Click for larger imageTell me something more exhilarating than growing from seed. I’ll bet you can’t. Drop a hard little fleck onto a fertile bed of damp compost, and just days later feel a gasp in your throat when the seed leaves push their shoulders up into the light. At the moment I’m looking at the purple-streaked leaves of baby baby beets, hairlike shoots of spring onions and round carrots, the fleshy heads of robust wild lupines, and the minute green specks of teensy alpine strawberries.

    A number of the experts on some of the US gardening podcasts I listen to have been saying recently that they prefer to buy “starts” (young plants) for some of their gardening. And compared to buying a broad bean seed packet I’ll never use up this year, maybe six broad bean plants would save money. It would certainly save time. But give me seeds any day. In gardening I’m all about the miracle, less about the practical.

    The real world presses in on me, as I’m sure it does on you: this week alone offered me a big dose of unloveliness, including one vomiting bug (mine), then another one (my son’s), the imminent loss of a client (government cutbacks) and the likely sale of the house I grew up in — all against a mustn’t-grumble backdrop of guilt as images of tsunami, war and death scrolled across the TV.

    I need my gardening to be as absorbing and as miraculous as possible if it’s to be an adequate salve against the real world. Those seed trays may give me beets in June. But right now I see a windowsill full of hope, and that’s the food I need.

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    Briefly California

    July25

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    Until now, I’d never bothered with seed sowing in summer. The seedling fatigue of spring usually leaves me uninterested in repeating the whole affair during July and August. But two things have come together this year to change all that: my sharper awareness of the way the garden grows like mad in July; and the Eatin’ Project, where my early success in growing edibles has inspired me to try to keep the crops coming.

    I listen to the folksy “Gardening with Tim and Joe” from BBC Radio Leeds, and a few weeks ago gardener Joe Maiden was encouraging everybody to sow more French beans and carrots right away to get strong young plants developing. I did, and they have. This evening I planted out some of the young dwarf French beans “Masterpiece” (thanks for the recommendation, Marc Diacono): their little root balls were full and raring to go.

    The growth in all corners is rampant. I was stunned to see a fab root system on a bit of pelargonium that I’d knocked off the plant and had thrown into a cup of water. I planted it up and it’s flowering now – the whole process took just a few weeks. So I tried the same with a bit of Aster Frikartii Monch I’d yanked off the plant and sure enough, voila, roots. Today I’ve also sown dianthus seed; cuttings would be easier, but it’s my mother’s favourite flower, and these fell from the pinks I’d cut for her bedside when she was staying with me earlier this month. It is always hard to see her go back to Boston, and I couldn’t throw these seeds away when I was clearing up her bedside table this morning. If I can get some of these to germinate, that’ll mean something to me. Click for larger image

    This is the first year I’ve tried to exploit these few weeks when Edinburgh is briefly California: long bright days, warm soil, and easy abundance everywhere in the garden. In past years I’d noticed how the borders went ballistic during July, but I’d never used it. July is a wave I’m riding this year instead of a flood that’s swamping my borders, and I like it. This is the first time that I’ve slashed my aquilegias to the ground in June, and I wasn’t afraid to do it, knowing it would give everything else more space during July and August.

    It’s been a revelation to sow and nurture seedlings in summer: nothing like the slog of sowing in the dim days of spring in Scotland, where equal parts willpower and liquid seaweed are the only thing that keep the seedlings going.

    Do you ever feel that your garden is a mute entity whose signs and moods you spend years studying? I think I’m starting to speak her language.

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

    March27

    Click for larger image
    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.
    Click for larger image

    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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    Pause for the cos

    March1

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    Two weeks is much more of a gap than I’d ever expected to leave between posts — sorry. January-February were a bit alarming in work terms, and I now know what the clock on my desk looks like when it strikes 11 PM and beyond. My gardening has been confined to stolen moments of web research, so it was a thrill last week to pause my work schedule to visit a garden centre for the Eatin’ Project. My mission: find liquid seaweed to fortify my thin-necked cos lettuce seedlings and another tier to raise my raised bed.

    Am I the only one who struggles with garden maths? Turns out my Haxnicks foot-deep raised bed isn’t. It’s six inches deep. My topsoil calculations were hilariously wrong. No one is impressed with the gigantic sack of topsoil I’ve left idling in the neighbour’s driveway, but finally I have another raised bed tier. Gordon the gardener will now help me distribute topsoil mountain all about, and if the weather plays ball I may get a few of those cos in, probably under cloche, probably after warming the bed a bit. (Note, I never saw a reply from Haxnicks following my query to their website about tiering, despite the jolly auto reply that promised immediate gratification. @haxnicks, for shame!) My Parmex carrot seeds have also germinated; next stop, spring onion junction.Click for larger image

    Have I talked enough about vegetables? Can I move on to something more beautiful? See the greenhouse to the left of the picture window? It’s going to be shifted to liberate its wonderfully sunny wall for trained fruit. After much soul and web searching, it won’t be a cordon, espalier or fan, but a duo of so-called minarette pears from Ken Muir: the varieties are the agreeable Concorde and the king of juicy, Williams’ bon Chretien. (Concorde is partially self fertile but don’t expect great things without a pollination partner.)
    The minarettes can be planted as close together as two or three feet, trained straight up or (as I’m planning) on an angle. I came so-o-o-o close to quince “Vranja”, with its intoxicating tropical scent, but finding a dwarfing rootstock proved extremely difficult, and I didn’t fancy years of hard pruning to keep a more vigorous “A” rootstock specimen in this tiny space.

    Wait, can you hear it? The grindstone is calling me back, and I need to put in a few more hours’ writing before I sleep.

    But please, please do tell if you have experience with “Concorde”, “Williams’ bon Chretien” or any minarette fruit. Did it perform for you? And is the taste of Williams’, in particular, going to be worth my three years’ wait?

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