Like most of you I am late in planting next spring’s flowering bulbs. The big push into the ground will begin this weekend, a month later than the old books advised. My defence is that the seasons have changed since the first RHS dictionaries laid down their autumn lore. The truth is that I have been travelling and the intervening bits of September were too stormy for us to want to be burying daffodil bulbs while water streamed down our necks.
As a veteran of delay I can testify that it does not matter. It matters least of all for tulips, which can perfectly well wait until early November. When you look today at a sprouting crocus corm or a daffodil with new basal roots you may feel guilty that you have been holding their progress back. In fact they grow away perfectly well but flower a little later next spring … This delay is a blessing in our new accelerated spring seasons so long as you are prepared for it. Established crocuses will be well into flower by the time this week’s newly planted ones start to show. In February I suffer a week of fear that my entire new intake has been eaten by a midwinter squirrel, but then it comes into full belated glory. Best of all, even if crocuses and daffodils are late-planted, they continue to appear year after year. They are particularly persistent if you sprinkle a dusting of plain bonemeal under each corm or bulb when you first plant it and then scatter another over their clumps just after they have flowered. This fertiliser does wonders for their sustained health, especially if they are competing with grass. It does nothing, of course, for nature’s great disappearing act, the fancy varieties of tulip. They fizzle out after one good year on almost every British soil.
Here are some of my hot tips among smaller outlying varieties. I have come to rely on blue-flowered forms of Iris reticulata to brighten up my later February. Unlike crocuses they are not devoured by squirrels and unlike tulips they are not decimated by badgers. In well-drained soil the excellent clear blue variety Harmony is my favourite and many of the corms will survive, with the fertiliser-treatment, for several years. The expert owner of the specialist Broadleigh Gardens nurseries, Lady Skelmersdale, told me at a recent autumn show that she had even found these irises to be better in slight shade. No doubt she is right in the balmy West Country conditions where she grows her stock, but last year, on dry Oxfordshire soil, the shade experiment was a flop.
I had excellent returns this June from a cheap variety of Allium, which would be worth trying by those of you with warm overseas gardens. The fashionable alliums are the ones with big globular heads of mauve-purple flowers that are reliable mainstays for designers of gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show. I do not like the colour and so I was delighted by simple Allium roseum, whose little flowers on foot-high stems vary from white to a pale pink with age. It is a good choice in hot gardens and I have found it long-lasting and entirely charming.
After 20 years of success under lime trees in Oxford, there is one stunning tulip that I feel secure in recommending for naturalising in grass. Little Tulipa praestans has persisted for years and looks sensational against the fresh green grass of spring and a surrounding sea of simple blue Anemone blanda. It is the six-inch-high tulip with the most intense clusters of scarlet flowers, aptly named Fusilier for the volley of bright colour that it sends off like a guardsman on parade. Regular dressing with bonemeal may have helped but I have kept clumps of this wonderful little tulip in lawn grass for many years, planting it in well-spaced little clumps to allow the scarlet to be set off by the surrounding green. A hundred bulbs go a long way if planted in this fashion.
City dwellers may be thinking this grandiose advice is all very well in the countryside but what use is it for the owner of a few pots, a front yard and a cats’ playground behind the house? The answer is that they have far more scope for bulbs than most of them realise. In deep pots, several varieties can be planted one above the other in layers. Start with the crocuses or irises on top, then put little March-flowering daffodils such as the wonderful Hawera underneath them and then, lower still, plant Angel tulips in shades of green and white if you are trendy or tulips like Couleur Cardinal and Seadov in good deep reds if you prefer impact. Underneath the tulips, a further layer of June-flowering tall alliums is also an option. Somehow the layers all reach to the light without unsettling the one above, on a principle which commuters on packed city Tube-trains will best understand. Obviously the upper layers should be deadheaded and trimmed when they are over. The result is that every single pot becomes a multi-storeyed apartment and the space for bulbs is four times bigger than you thought. This past year, I used the divine Crocus chrysanthus Blue Pearl as the top layer, out of reach of badgers’ paws, the lovely pale Narcissus WP Milner underneath it, then red-and-yellow bicoloured Tulip Gavota underneath and a final few bulbs of the tall Allium siculum with drooping flowers in early summer. My multi-storeyed planting looked pretty for nearly four months.
Recently I have been out of form with window boxes. Five years ago I got them right by mixing pale yellow and pale blue Universal pansies and interplanting them with a pale yellow and white narcissus whose name I have since lost. Even a visiting French scholar congratulated the result for its “touche feminine”. I have not changed sex since but I have not hit the same spot. I have chosen narcissi that are too small-flowered, the great mistake in window boxes that have to show up against fine masonry walls, and meanwhile the early spring seasons have played havoc with planned flowering times. This year it is back again to the Universal Pansy, one of the great additions to gardeners’ palettes in winter and spring. Select plants only of the colours you want and by limiting the range to the paler shades of pansy you will intensify the effect. These superb bedding plants will flower on and on into June and last even longer if you cut them back in early May and drench them then with strong liquid fertiliser. A spring-bedded garden without Universal pansies is missing the greatest recent trick.
Finally, a job I have already done but which most of you have forgotten. Give all your hellebores a good soaking with diluted Phostrogen or even Tomorite, aiming not at the leaves, which will soon die away, but at the centre of the root-clump. This dose has a brilliant effect on the volume of flowers on these wonderful plants next spring. It has transformed the show on my varieties of Helleborus orientalis in the past three years. Get out there and do it. I have not been wholly idle although most of the daffodils are still unplanted in their paper bags.