On Tulips

The story of the craze for tulips in the 17th century, Tulipomania, is well documented and oft repeated.  Suffice to say, that favoured, single tulip bulbs were selling for thousands of pounds/dollars before the tulip ‘bubble’ crashed.  Today, we are fortunate in having many hundreds of varieties in an unimaginable range of colours and forms to choose from and at remarkably low prices.Hidcote - tulips in the Old Garden copyright

Over the years, my work has taken me to gardens of all sizes and styles, from formal parterres attached to country estate houses to ‘pocket handkerchiefs’, to planting thousands in grassland to planting a score or less in pots.  It has given me the opportunity to experiment with colour as well as variety.  Below are some of my favourites.

Hidcote (11) copyright

The formal parterres of this Victorian Italianate garden (by Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament) required very restrained planting both in colour and quantity.  Here, I used the variety ‘Spring Green’, which stands well even in harsh weather conditions. After flowering, the bulbs were lifted and dried off to be replanted again later in the year.  It is always desirable to do this as it helps to prevent disease and deterioration of the bulbs.  In practice, it is often easier just to leave them and add a few additional bulbs each autumn to bulk up the numbers, especially when time is short.Kiddington Hall 2001 copyright

Also in a large estate garden but at the opposite end of the style and colour spectrum, three thousand red (‘Bing Crosby’) and white (‘Diana’) tulips were planted on a meadow bank.  Tulips when planted in grassland deteriorate very rapidly – to maintain this display new bulbs were added each year.  However, they do look very beautiful when grown this way – try the almost black tulip ‘Queen of Night’ with blue Camassia bulbs for a magical combination.Tulips bing crosby & diana in grass copyright

Even when planting smaller beds, cramming in as many bulbs as is possible between other plants makes for a beautiful display.  This stunning border was only one metre wide and four in length but there was still room to have plenty of early colour from ‘Purple Prince’ and the lighter ‘Candy Prince’.Tulips Purple Prince & Candy Prince copyright

For formal displays a bed of tulips takes a lot of beating.  They can be single coloured as in this image of pink tulips under-planted with yellow wallflowers (seen at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland) or mixed colours and planted so densely that no other plants were necessary or desirable (seen at Lismore Castle, Ireland).Tulips - pink copyrightTulips Lismore Castle copyright

For those of us with limited space and budgets, tulips grown in pots are ideal for we can still cram the bulbs in to give a magnificent display.  The images below show how the first layer of bulbs are placed before a second layer is planted above them.  Avoid planting directly over the first bulbs by leaving their tips showing – this will give the bulbs space to develop with much better results.  Top up the plants with potting compost and nature will do the rest; it couldn’t be simpler!  I like to use the more ‘exotic’ looking varieties in pots as the blooms, by being lifted closer to the eye, give more opportunity to admire their spectacular detail.Planting tulips copyrightPlanting tulips in pots copyright

Perhaps the easiest of all tulips to grow are the wild species* and their varieties.  Their delicacy of size belies their toughness.  If they like you, they will increase in number year after year.

 

Tulipa 'Peppermint Stick' copyright

Tulipa ‘Peppermint Stick’

 

 

Tulipa acuminata copyright

Tulipa acuminata

All tulips benefit from being planted as late in the year as possible, November is ideal but even if later they will still flower.  The pot grown ‘Green Eyes’ were planted mid-January this year and have just finished flowering.  They will be planted in the garden in due course to flower again next spring.

Tulip 'Green Eyes' copyright

Tulip ‘Green Eyes’

 

In England, tulips are flowering at their best right now: take the opportunity to visit open gardens to see which ones you like best.  Make notes of their names so that you can order the bulbs when the catalogues drop through the letter box mid-July.

*always ensure that any bulb is purchased from a reputable source and have not been gathered from the wild.

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A Host of Golden Daffodils

If you want to see, as Wordsworth did, a ‘host of golden daffodils…beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze,’ in your own garden now is the time to plant them. What’s more, you don’t need a lake or rolling acres to have a spectacular show. The secret is to plant them in quantity and with a little thought on position.

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Daffodils (Narcissus) are incredibly easy to grow for every full sized bulb that you buy already has next spring’s flower formed within it. All you have to do is pop them in the ground as soon as possible after purchase and nature does the rest.Daffodils (2)   copyright

A general rule is to plant any bulb twice the depth of its height: so if your bulb is two inches high, your planting hole needs to be four inches deep. When they are tucked safely below ground at that level the bulbs aren’t so likely to get damaged when weeding. To get the ‘host’ look don’t plant singly or in tiny groups of twos and threes. Think big, think twenty-five, fifty or even a hundred or more. This may sound an expensive option but daffodils are readily available in bulk mail order and many garden centres offer a ‘cram as many as you can into a bag’ deal. It is worth remembering too that the bulbs will continue to increase in quantity and flower for many years making them incredibly good value for money.

Naturalised Daffodils   copyright

Because daffodils flower early in the year, before most other plants in the border have got going, it is not necessary to plant them at the front. If they are planted further back, later their dying leaves will become hidden by spring growth. You will find that when planted too far forward, they are both unsightly and a nuisance.

Narcissus 'Salome'

Narcissus ‘Salome’

One of the best ways of growing daffodils is to grow them in grass or under trees – just as Wordsworth saw them. The simplest way to do this is to simply throw the bulbs and plant them where they fall. Some will land very close together and some further apart which makes them look as if they have been growing there forever. Make the throw gentle, a cross between underarm cricket and bowls – you’re not trying to win the Ashes. In grass, the bulbs will be easier to spot if you mow the grass as short as possible beforehand.

Naturalised Daffodils (3)   copyright

Which varieties to select is only difficult because there is almost too much choice. For naturalising I tend to select three standard varieties that flower at slightly differing times, thereby extending the flowering period. In the borders I just choose those varieties that I fancy.

Narcissus 'Chanterelle'

Narcissus ‘Chanterelle’

Although daffodils are best planted during August and September, I usually find I’m too busy with other garden tasks then. I have found they can be planted right up to December without a problem providing wintry weather hasn’t closed in. If the thought of planting large quantities sounds rather daunting remember you can always plant year after year until you’ve achieved the aimed for look.

Nine thousand daffodils!

Nine thousand daffodils!

John Shortland is the author of Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? a jargon-free and easy to read gardening manual, available from Amazon and good bookshops.  To take a peep inside click on the image below.

BOOK COVER FROM AMAZON

Images at Easter

So the Easter holidays are with us once again: a time of our gardens and countryside bursting with new vigour, the smell of fresh, green growth, gentle, warming breezes and longer daylight hours to enjoy it all.

Primroses and violets are the traditional wild flowers of Easter and our lawn is dotted with dozens of them. We avoid mowing them when in flower, after that we don’t worry yet the numbers increase with every passing year.


The pretty, native Wood Anemone, Anemone nemerosa, blooms in profusion in favoured places – usually in sheltered woodland. Sometimes they are found on banks, perhaps showing where ancient woodland once stood, for Anemone nemerosa is one of the ‘indicator’ plants. Ancient woodland is classified in England as woodland growing prior to 1600 and although a number still stand many were cleared centuries ago.

The Snake’s Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, is an extremely rare plant in the wild although there are water meadows around Oxford and the Cotswolds where they carpet the ground – a spectacular sight. Fortunately, they grow quite easily in our gardens and the corms are readily available from reputable bulb merchants, who only source them from grown stock. Sadly, there are still occasions when bulbs and corms are marketed from illegally collected wild stock.

They make fine, if somewhat short-lived house plants. We like to have them indoors at Easter and they can afterwards be planted in the garden to bloom again another year. When seen close-up, it is obvious from their markings why one old name that country folk give to them is Chequers.
It is not only flowers at Easter that should be thriving. The wild birds are singing and building their nests and sheltered beneath a large clump of Oat Grass, the wild Mallard duck, lay their eggs each year in our garden. As soon as they hatch, their mother leads them to the safety of the river below the house.

This is the joy of Easter – or it usually is. Not in 2010. The primroses and violets may be blooming but the weather is more of winter than spring with the season up to six weeks behind this year. There is hardly a leaf showing on the trees and bushes of the secret valley and the river has burst its banks with the continuous rain we have had the past few weeks. Any duckling that ventured onto the water would soon be swept away in the torrent our gentle stream has become.

However, She-dog is thoroughly enjoying running through the flood waters – especially where it is shallow enough to admire her reflection!



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It’s daffodil time!

One of the first signs of Autumn isn’t the changing colour of the leaves but the arrival of spring bulbs in the garden centres and the dull thud of the catalogues landing on the doormat.

Daffodils, or Narcissus if we want to be technical, are one of the first of the bulbs to be planted for they start to send out their roots early in the season as we discover when we dig them up by mistake when weeding. Like all bulbs, they need to be planted in generous quantities to look their best. The photo above shows several hundred lining the old lime avenue of the house I described in an earlier blog ( 21st August 2009: The House my Parents Built 200 Years Ago). This is a mix of similar looking daffodils, which open at slightly different times, chosen to extend the flowering period.

I am not keen on double varieties – they tend to be top heavy and spend most of their time prostrate. However, I find the Orchid flowering types don’t do this and are quite fascinating to look at. The one above is Dolly Mollinger, the one below Chanterelle.

Bicolours can also be tricky to my biased eye. I don’t like Scarlet O’Hara (below top), so vulgar in the border! But Jetfire, which is a similar colour combination works well in this wilder setting and is beautifully enhanced by the white bark of the Jacqmontii birch tree (below bottom).

Scent is all important in any flower and in narcissus it is especially welcome after the bleak winter months. Few scented winter flowers have the freshness of the smell of a vase full of Cheerfulness – a stonger coloured version is Laurens Koster.


But perhaps the best daffodils of all are the ‘bog standard’ yellow ones. That’s what spring is all about. (Although to be honest, I don’t totally agree with that statement – my favourites are the miniatures but I don’t have any photographs! I will have to take some next March and persuade you all then……)