In Need of Winter Cheer – and how to get it

With the long, dark nights now upon us (and the gloomy daily news) we could all do with a little cheer to take us forward.  It isn’t too late to take a small step towards obtaining it for there is nothing quite like flowers in the house to lift the mood.  Now is a good time to plant bulbs for indoor flowering.  The choice is surprisingly large and some can have quite exacting growth requirements but the simplest of these – that anyone can succeed with even if they don’t have green fingers – is the sweetly scented, white-flowering Narcissus Paperwhite.

The delicate looking bloom of the Paperwhite Narcissus

Unlike the majority of Narcissus (Daffodils) they do not require a period of complete darkness to encourage them into growth.  In fact, they do not even need to be planted for they will happily flower just anchored in a bowl or pot of gravel that is kept moist.  However, I think they are better planted in potting compost and look far more aesthetically pleasing.  I never bother with special bulb fibre that is sold for the purpose mostly because I tend to have half-open bags of compost kicking around the place that need to be used up.  If you plant the Paperwhites now and bring them straightaway into the house they can be in flower in six to eight weeks.  Those in the photos below were placed in our conservatory and, with the unanticipated warmth from a week of late autumn sunshine which accelerated their growth, have come into flower in just three weeks from planting.  So much for having them in bloom over Christmas!

Note the use of twigs to provide natural looking support

The secret to the planting is to cram as many bulbs as you can into the pot, either in a single or double layer.  If choosing the latter don’t plant directly over one another but stagger them a little so they all have freedom to grow without struggling to push past.  The bulbs in the glazed earthenware pot here were planted in a single layer all touching one another – that way I was able to squeeze in twenty-eight bulbs into a container measuring just twelve inches in diameter. 

Put as many bulbs in the pot as you can squeeze in

Paperwhites have a tendency to flop just when they look their best and the quickest way to prevent this is to push twigs into the compost.  If you do this at the time of planting or very soon after the plants grow strongly through them and look far more natural than when you try to rectify it once they have collapsed.  It is also far less fiddly than using canes and string and looks more natural too.

I have always found hyacinths far more difficult to grow well although I know plenty of people who never seem to have any trouble whatsoever.  They need to be kept in darkness until the flower bud just shows.  I have found them to be rather erratic with their growth and, in the days when I had to provide huge displays for the big country houses I worked for, I grew them in individual, small pots.  By growing more than I really required I could select those of matching height, remove them from their pots and then replant them into the display pots.  They never failed to impress and I never let on how I managed to get such a uniform display!  Far easier are the little grape hyacinths, Muscari, growing here in a glass bowl – an idea I copied after I was given them one year as a gift.

Grape Hyacinths are often sold under the name Muscari

Perhaps one of the loveliest bulbs I have planted in recent years is the miniature iris, Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’ (I have spelt that right!).  Once, again, very easy to grow – just keep them in the dark until they start to grow and then bring them indoors.  After they have finished flowering they can be planted in the garden where they will flower each spring for many more years.

Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’
The Iris’ beautiful markings can be more readily admired when they are indoors

Amaryllis or Hippeastrum are spectacular giants that aren’t to everyone’s taste.  I’m not too keen on them as an individual plant grown on a kitchen window sill although they will bloom there quite happily.  I prefer to use them as cut flowers and for this I tend to grow them in a greenhouse, although a light windowsill would work just as well if you have the space.  They are very straightforward, do not need to be kept in the dark and are often sold complete with pot and compost in gift boxes.  When used as I suggest, several stems placed together in a tall vase look superb.

home-grown Amaryllis used as a cut flower

I have found tulips to be less successful as indoor bulbs although the shorter types should work; I’m just not very keen on those so have never bothered to try.  However, if you have an unheated greenhouse that lies idle through the winter plant the exotic double types there.  Protected from the worst of the cold and rain they flower weeks earlier than normal and can be harvested as exceptionally beautiful cut flowers.

I find tulips for indoors are best grown as flowers for cutting

The secret to indoor bulb growing, as with all forms of gardening, is to experiment and find what works best for you.  Over the years, I have tried all sorts, some surprisingly successful and some, if not quite disasters, they certainly weren’t worth bothering with a second time.  With success, you will have an endless supply of colour and scent for your home and, of course, they make great Christmas and birthday gifts.  This last sentence also gives me the excuse to remind you all that my book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  is still available from Amazon or through booksellers and also makes a great gift!  In it you will find all sorts of hints and shortcuts that I used during my years as a Head Gardener when it was essential that the displays both in the house and the garden were as good as they could be.  Happy bulb planting!

A perfect gift!

How To Grow Tomatoes With Little Effort

It may seem odd writing about growing tomatoes at the time you should be harvesting them but it is often the case that when you see a plant growing somewhere that is the time you wish you knew how to grow them.  As regular readers of my garden articles will know, although I love gardening I also like to achieve great results with the minimum of effort and tomatoes are not an exception!  Effortless gardening doesn’t mean bad horticultural practice for you can hardly expect great results from shoddy workmanship wherever your interest lies.  All the photographs below demonstrate that it is possible to have superb tomatoes without devoting every spare moment to growing them.

Tomato 'Moneymaker' watermark

Perfect tomatoes can be grown quite easily using my method

As is often the case, I discovered this easy way to grow tomatoes out of necessity: a client wanted them but they only visited their country house irregularly and I could only devote one day a week to maintaining their grounds.  That left about fifteen minutes a week for the tomatoes.   This method, by the way, only works for plants grown in containers.  Although they were grown in a greenhouse there is no reason why the same method could not be used for growing in pots outdoors although they are more at the mercy of the usually variable British summer weather (not variable this year, 2018!).

Tomato 'Golden Sweet' watermark

Tomato ‘Golden Sweet’

All garden plants, whether grown in containers or in the garden border require good growing conditions and this starts with getting the soil or potting compost right.  Tomatoes are greedy feeders and books and articles always advise feeding the plants on a regular basis as soon as the first flowers show signs of turning into fruit.  That is far too time consuming for my fifteen-minute rule!  Instead, use a quality compost.  I used Carr’s potting compost which is made from composted farmyard manure; although not the cheapest it is well worth paying the extra cost for the results that are obtained.  There are, of course, other manufacturers that do something similar which, I daresay, will achieve similar results.  To this compost I mix in several handfuls of horticultural grit and double the recommended amount of water-retaining granules – these swell upon contact with water, and release it gradually thereby reducing the necessity for regular watering.

Tomato 'Cherrola' F1 watermark

Tomato ‘Cherrola’

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, sowing in gentle heat in February and there is a huge choice of variety.  For ease and speed, I purchased young plants from a garden centre once I had no concern of late frosts killing them.  The pots were filled to within a couple of inches of the brim with the compost mix which I had pre-moistened.  As a guide, the compost should feel damp but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out of it.  Plant three tomatoes in a 20/25 litre plant pot placing a sturdy cane by each plant.  Stand the pot on a watering saucer or tray and water well.  Gardening rules state that tomatoes don’t like standing in water but I found that by using the saucers I could leave them with a good supply to last them the week.  By the time of my next visit, the compost and tray were dry but the plants unaffected by either the standing water or the drought.

Tomato 'Tigerella' watermark

‘Tigerella’, an heirloom variety of tomato with striped fruits

Tomatoes grow in two different ways depending upon the variety – bush or cordon.  With bush tomatoes you just leave them to grow as they will; with cordons it is recommended that you remove side shoots and tie the plant upright onto the cane.  Although the latter method sounds time consuming and fiddly it is a simple and quick task once it’s been mastered.  The secret is to remove any shoots that grow out of the union of the leaf stalk with the main stem – if done early enough they snap off with the fingers.  If you leave them they will need to be cut out with a knife or scissors.  Although it is possible to leave them in situ I find that the plants become very congested and difficult to manage which, in the longer term, means they are more time consuming to deal with.

Tomato 'Sungold' watermark

Tomato ‘Sungold’ – note how the plant has been ‘stopped’ when it had grown as tall as I wanted it to be.

And that’s it!  Just tie the plants to the cane as they grow and give them a really thorough watering once a week from the top of the compost until the saucer begins to overflow.  There’s no time-consuming feeding for the compost will provide all the necessary nutrients. And because the plants are growing strongly and healthily you are far less likely to be bothered by pests or diseases.  All the tomatoes in the photographs received no chemicals or other additives; all we had to do was to eat them.  If you’ve never tasted a home-grown tomato eaten the moment it is plucked from the vine then you’re in for a real treat!

Tomato Big Boy 1979 watermark

A photograph from 1979!  Tomato ‘Big Boy’, a beefsteak variety living up to it’s name!