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At the start of September I thought we would all be planting bulbs with crowbars. The ground was rock hard after nearly six weeks’ drought. It has now softened and there is still time to make a great carpet of flowers for next spring.
I add to my crocuses every year, wiser, now, to badger battles. On the first night of the official British cull, my resident old Brock decided to have a retaliatory assault on the crocuses planted in grass. Engaging his stripy front paws, he ploughed into group after group of the one little crocus which I know he hates. He realised eventually he hated it but not before he had left me with trial pits, like a frustrated fracker, all along the front of the crocus-edged beds. He then retired to his labyrinthine home under my garage and growled. If you worry that your London neighbours are excavating below their basement in order to install a swimming pool, be thankful they are not badgers. Badgers do not use surveyors. Mine has constructed a vast underground shelter against terrorist attack. One day, I will fall into it when the floor above gives way. Meanwhile, prayers for badger welfare are being said in the local Church of England benefice centre, formerly known as the village’s church hut. In the 18th century vicars used to offer cash in return for badger skins according to agreed tariffs. Adjusted for inflation they would quickly reverse the attendance crisis in rural parishes.
Badgers are least keen on Crocus tommasinianus because the corms are so small. I recommend all the varieties, especially Ruby Giant, which is deep violet, and Whitewell Purple, which has a rosy tint. The dark colours are very pretty in sunshine against lawn grass and the corms will persist for years if the leaves are not mown down when they are still green. Plant them at intervals in separated groups of 20 or 30. These groups brighten much more of an area than a mass coverage. The tommasinianus varieties are still the cheapest.
Anyone beset by marauding “wildlife” should major on narcissi instead. My spring garden risks becoming too yellow as a result. As ever, I am planting the superb hardy late winter daffodil, Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, otherwise branded as January Gold. It has a pale yellow outer circle of petals and is immensely cheering early in the season. To avoid over-yellowing I then plant plenty of cupped narcissi with white outer petals or perianths. Some of the newer ones are too brash for me. My top choice remains Sempre Avanti, creamy-white with a good orange-yellow cup. Its flowers last very well too. Altruist is a newer favourite, one which combines cream-yellow backing with a good red-orange cup. Barrett Browning is an excellent companion, having a clear white perianth and a snub-nosed central red-orange cup as a contrast. It pays to be selective. The ingrained reaction of Financial Times readers seems to be to buy narcissi by the sack-load. If you choose a brash one, you end up with a comment on your taste, which you will not bother to eradicate next spring. Try planting one called Professor Einstein and you will see what I mean. The Professor’s central cup is broad, flat and an unsubtle shade of orange.
In city gardens small narcissi are the ones to patronise. They are marvellous value and the best will last for years. Jack Snipe, February Gold and the free-flowering white Tresamble are a backbone for any thoughtful garden. Just recently I have lost my touch with narcissi in window boxes. I plant either ones which are too tall or ones which are too pale to show up against the upper parts of a house. This year I am trying Narcissus cyclamineus Jenny, planted more closely than before. It has a longer trumpet than many and is still only a foot high. The colour, admittedly, is cream-white, fading to white as it ages. I am copying the Jenny I saw looking great in Mayfair window boxes beside an array of implausible brass nameplates. Last year, I planted jonquils which were too tall and too small-flowered.
Tulips are a magnet, alas, for badgers. In reply, I cover their beds with wire-netting and find that they grow away neatly through the mesh. I prefer it to the advice of a practised reader, to scatter leaves off a holly bush all over the surface of the soil. It is windy in my part of the world and the badgers would not be the only ones to end up with sore paws. When protected, a tulip mix is the best antidote to too much spring yellow. I make up my own mixture from selected varieties which I like, tumbled up together before planting. The suppliers’ ready-made mixtures are usually too full of purple and rose-pink.
As a deep-red bedder that is widely available, Tulip Cassini is hard to beat. The flowers are only about 18in high and hold up well in rain and spring storms. White Dream is an excellent match or mix with it, though slightly taller. I would not mix in either Gavota or Helmar as they are already two-toned, combining yellow and ruby-red or purple-red. However, both are excellent in groups in the spring gaps in a mixed border, far better than their photographs suggest. All these varieties are supposedly “midseason” but the recent spring weather has made an unpredictable nonsense of their timing.
When they go over, the torch passes to a taller Darwin hybrid, Olympic Flame. Like its fellow hybrids it has vigour and its flowers last well. The colour has impact too, a fresh bright yellow flecked with “feathering” of a clear strong red. Again, the effect is far prettier than photos imply. It is not tall and floppy. It is excellent in large pots seen at a distance.
The fun then comes with what the lists call “miscellaneous bulbs”. Alliums do not have to be purple-flowered, fritillaries do not have to be sombre purple, and anemones also come in heavenly shades of sky blue. Fritillaries have actually come down in price in the past 10 years. I will be trying a tantalising one called Golden Flag which has hanging flowers like a snakehead but a basic colouring of clear yellow spotted with red. It will go into pots where its stamina can be assessed but it is said to be no problem. If you can pronounce it, Fritillaria michailovskyi is another easy variety and just the one for pots in a town front garden. It has brown-purple hanging flowers tipped with strong yellow. Each stem may produce as many as three or four flowers. It looks madly exotic but is as easy as a narcissus. So far, wildlife has yet to develop a taste for it.
In five months’ time we can all have flowery gardens. Bulbs are such a wonder and I am in no mood to economise. The planting takes time but the tulips can wait till mid-November. As you set about the others, remember that four weeks ago, the job would have been 10 times more difficult in rock-hard ground.