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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    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.

    Click for larger image

    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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    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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    Planting tulips in a row

    October8

    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 Gardens4you.co.uk 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?!)

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