Glad to be a rebel

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Flowers go in and out of fashion and after many years of being brainwashed. I wonder why. In the 1960s we were supposed to go pastel and pallid. Green flowers crept in from flower arrangers and nobody who was supposedly civilised would ever plant a red hot poker. In the 1970s, dahlias were in the dumps and cannas belonged only on French seaside roundabouts. In the 1980s, hot colours started to creep back but only in segregated “hot beds”. In the 1990s, plantsmen remembered there is more to a poker than red and orange heat. In his garden at Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd even began to put cannas into his shallow pond. In the brave new millennium dahlias are the stars of autumn gardening and the modernists are mad for the plumes and airy stems of ornamental grasses. Maybe if I moved to acid soil I would look again and plant great sweeps of winter flowering heathers.

Pundits encourage prejudices and I cannot say I have done much for the fashion for Eurograsses. Associations also play a role, as do mothers and ex-spouses. People still associate chrysanthemums with death, hospital-shops or cheap potted plantings of yellow flowers. Begonias are an uphill struggle after so many multi-coloured beds of the little fibrous-rooted varieties in city councils’ care. I know women gardeners who refuse to grow hostas because they remind them of their mothers. I know one who refuses to grow Love-in-a-mist since she found her unhorticultural husband trying to pick a bunch of it for what turned out to be a hair-band for a younger femme fatale. I know few, if any, who will wholeheartedly welcome gladioli.

What ever is wrong with the wonderful gladiolus? Admittedly, the inimitable Barry Humphries used to represent his comic Dame Edna as La Dame aux Gladiolas, but this year she is being retired. This summer I want even more of them as a floral tribute to the grand old lady of comedy. Some colours are better than others but in the open air they have none of the staleness of a few rose-pink varieties in a vase in a hotel lobby. They fill gaps, enliven the months from early August onwards and are a brilliant answer to the challenge of a newly planted garden that will be full of bare soil until the owner panics and buys over-priced marguerites to fill the spaces in June. Now is an excellent time to be planting gladioli and the shops are still full of corms, which are not selling as fast as the dried-out lilies. They are still mercifully cheap and a new, bare garden could be transformed by an intelligent, staggered planting of several hundred.

Gladiolus White Prosperity

I went back to them after a magical film clip 10 years ago in an execrable BBC TV programme about the Chelsea Show. All we viewers wanted was to see the show itself and hear from the valiant exhibitors, but all the BBC’s narcissus of a producer wanted was to take us at vast expense to locations “behind” the exhibits and then to celebs who agreed to be filmed in their gardens at home. Between a trip to Brunei (“over to Sophie on location”) and a hilarious interview with the fading cricketer David Gower on his lawn tractor beneath a Leyland cypress, somebody, somehow had found a great gladiolus grower and filmed him among rows and rows of the most brilliant, beautiful spikes of flower. They were lined out on his sandy soil in, I think, Surrey. The flower spikes were 3ft high or more and were supported on lengths of proper garden twine stretched between proper garden canes. There were purple-blues, blood-reds and ruffled cream ones with yellow centres. Their genius of a lover was just telling us how he grew them and what type of manure he preferred when the BBC reverted to celeb mode. We were taken off to see Princess Michael of Kent walking out of her house with a basket and a gardener and telling him to pull out a piece of bindweed when it was chickweed instead.

Those gladioli haunt my mind’s eye. I have planted mini-rows of my own, setting the corms three inches deep in soil into which I have mixed rotted manure from the horses. I have had good results but not the great results of the genius seen in flashback. For two years now I have been more daring and ended the segregation. I now put gladiolus corms in the middle-to-front rows of some of the main flower borders and if possible I tie them unobtrusively to low canes in late July. Surrounding clouds of heleniums and mildew-free monardas hide the long lower stems and I am left with the much-needed vertical line of upright gladioli in exotic shades of green-yellow, blue-purple and white. When the flower stems start to fade from the bottom up, I deadhead the lower florets and enjoy the squashy feel of the remains. The tips then fade too and the whole spike can be cut down, leaving little trace in the late autumn picture.

There are some wonderful varieties out there and I urge you not to rest content with tasteful green colours or only the small-flowered near hardy midgets. The dark reds are stupendous and last year my winner was the glowing red Mexico at a height of nearly 4ft. This year I am trying Burnt Sugar from the mail order list of Thompson and Morgan down in Ipswich and am told to expect the flowers to smoulder. The deep purple-blues are a colour that is virtually unmatched in any other flower. White Prosperity is a massive white, a proven favourite. I could not resist the ultimate paleish pink, an oldie called Happy Weekend. It is far better than any variety that comes out of the wings in bouquets for the stars in the world’s opera houses.

These tall varieties are not supposed to be hardy. They should be lifted in November and stored in compost in a box away from frost. The old shrivelled corms at the base should be pulled off and then the remains can be replanted from late March onwards. It is clever to plant a few in sequence staggered over the weeks till mid-May. There will then be flowers for many weeks without one magnificent climax in August.

Such is what the middle managers now call “best practice”. Refreshingly, worst practice sometimes works too. In autumn 2010, I forgot to lift an ink-blue marvel of a gladiolus and, despite the freezing winter, the corms sprouted all over again in 2011. They are set to do the same this year. Good gladioli like plenty of fertiliser as they have to do so much so quickly. They are no worse on inorganic fertiliser from a bucket, placed under the corms when planted. Manure is fine but not essential.

Hot colour is in fashion but gladioli are not. Vertical lines are craved by classy designers but vertical gladioli are not. Gladioli are so cheap and easy to grow but we all coo over pricey and moody gardenias instead. I will present myself with a bunch of Happy Weekend this summer and everyone will at least be glad that I have not tried to sing to deserve it.

Thompson & Morgan,

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