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!

Growing Sweet Peas – the lazy person’s guide

Imagine it is mid-summer, the morning sun is warming the day and you are gathering handfuls of pretty, multi-coloured and fragrant flowers to bring back into the house.  If this sounds like a heavenly dream then read on.  The dedicated gardener will need no further encouragement to grow sweet peas but for those less keen on gardening or with little time, they are still the perfect choice.

So, even if your idea of gardening is to sit in it with a glass of chilled, white wine, there is a quick and easy way to grow sweet peas for, at this time of year, pots of young seedlings are available from garden centres.  They are usually grown in a single pot with a dozen or more plantlets crowded together.  They nearly always come as a mix of colours but it is necessary to check that they are a tall-growing and scented variety.  Avoid buying the scentless and/or dwarf types, both of which I dislike intensely – why grow these when they should be fragrant and elegant?

Sweet Peas (3) copyright

Sweet peas grown informally on a ‘wigwam’ in the garden border

If the weather is reasonable and the soil not frozen, the seedlings can be tipped out of their pot, teased gently apart and popped in the ground about six inches (15cms) apart.  It is beneficial to make sure that the soil in the pot is moist so give them a good drink an hour or so before planting.  Sweet peas, being climbers, need something to clamber up: the traditional way are hazel sticks. These are ideal for the sweet peas attach themselves readily to the rough and twiggy stems.  If hazel cannot be found, bamboo canes also work well although the young plants may need a little helping hand at first to attach themselves – use any short twigs for this just to prop them up.  The canes, which are traditionally placed into a circular ‘wigwam’, need to be about 7-8ft long so that once in the ground they are about 6ft tall.  Apart from keeping them watered in dry spells and free from slugs and snails that’s it.  They will begin to flower in June and continue (providing you pick them regularly and never allow them to set seed) until the autumn frosts.  Incidentally, they grow well up fences too providing they get adequate sunshine.

Sweet Pea copyright

For more experienced gardeners and those that want to enter the local flower show try growing them as ‘cordons’.  With this method they are grown in straight rows on bamboo canes or strings to a height of 5ft.  A place in the vegetable garden is ideal as they can be readily accessed from all angles without treading on other plants.  The spacing is again six inches apart.  For the best blooms, remove the tendrils and any side shoots as they appear, also any flower stems with less than four flower buds. With no tendrils for self-clinging it will be necessary to tie the plants to the stakes with string or by using metal rings sold especially for the purpose.  When the plants reach the top of the canes and/or the flower quality diminishes, cut the plants free of their stakes and lay them carefully along the ground. Tie in the growing tips to their nearest stake and train as before.  The plants will flourish having been given a new lease of life.

Sweet Peas copyright

These sweet peas, grown as cordons, are now ready for layering

Sweet Peas (2)

The layering process

Sweet peas are readily grown from seed, either sown in pots or the ground in March/April or in pots in October.  I prefer to start them in individual pots regardless of the time of year and to protect them from the worst of any cold weather.  The seed does have a hard coating and many gardening books advise chipping the individual seeds with a knife.  Not only is this hard work and time consuming, I have never found it to be necessary.  The seed is both plentiful and inexpensive and if a few don’t germinate does it really matter that much?

The growing and exhibiting of sweet peas reached a peak in late Victorian and Edwardian times with many specialist clubs holding shows.  With patience and luck, who knows you may become a medal winner at your local flower show?  Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded by a garden full of colour and a house full of scent.

Book Cover

There is lots more no-nonsense advice for gardeners in my book “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?”  To take a peek inside the covers, click here.