Few of you, I bet, engaged with the garden at soil level in Britain in the remarkable cold spell on either side of this early Easter. I admit to funking it too. My snowdrops still looked excellent on April 6. They have never been out to welcome a new tax year before. We will now have a memorable spring as everything will catch up at once.
I will not be short of new initiatives. Nor are my neighbouring rabbits. They have had some spectacular nights, digging holes in the main lawn wherever they can rip out bits of moss. I have no idea what they are looking for and even if it is sexually related I believe that they have no idea either. I cannot fence the entire garden with electrocuted wire, but several of you have written to recommend peeing on areas of lawn that are at risk. On Good Friday I tried your advice under an icy moon but on the following night more lawn was ripped up than ever before. Do Easter bunnies like urine?
Meanwhile, I will out-plant them. On a bitingly cold London day I went to the Royal Horticultural Society’s big spring show to see if other gardens are as retarded as mine. My fellow visitors were beset by cold and late flowerings, but the exhibitors use plastic tunnels and have much more on display. As ever they make me more willing to experiment. I will be checking my tulips against the best, reconsidering my hyacinths and putting in postal orders for plants that will give me a lift both indoors and out.
Indoors in bowls, my hyacinths have had a great year, not least because the house has been chilly in all the grim weather. Like everything they last far better in cold conditions. They have been very good but not as good as the hyacinths that were exhibited in London by a Dutch grower. Level-headed bowls of a white hyacinth called Aiolos and a fine pale pink called Pink Elephant are what I need in future. The website behind them is www.pennings-de-bilt.nl. Almost all British bulb suppliers buy their stock from Holland, so I like the idea of buying direct from the Dutch too.
For the first time in 10 years my tulips have nearly reached flowering size without a badger driving through them like an uncontrolled rotavator. Evidently the rabbits have not invited him to the party. I, therefore, have a hundred or two of the deep red Tulip Couleur Cardinal waiting to set buds, but they are only one good variety in the crowd.
In London I rated them against the varieties being shown and offered by HW Hyde & Son, growers from Reading who are also excellent suppliers of lilies (www.hwhyde.co.uk). Their bright red Tulip Bourbon Street would be brilliant in a big pot away from animal attention. Queensday is another winner, a late-flowering double-flowered tulip with a yellow edge to its orange flowers. HW Hyde & Son can export bulbs worldwide as its one Dutch supplier is certified as a disease-free grower. Prices are £3.50 for 10 bulbs, but 10 go a long way in two pots on a terrace. At the same time you can order their excellent hybrid lilies for 2014.
Maybe the cold has put me in the mood for indoor planting. I have slipped way behind the game, as a study of the fine display from our top growers, Dibleys of Ruthin, north Wales, made only too plain to me (www.dibleys.com for online ordering). They made their name in the late 1970s by showing new types of big-leaved streptocarpus, one of the best of all flowering house plants and easy, too, to increase from leaf-cuttings. Since then they have not slipped from their prime medal-winning position but their range has multiplied and other families have had their attention. With their guidance I picked out the stunning deep violet-flowered Streptocarpus Targa and the beautiful pale violet Spirit. They are covered in flowers and have been bred in Germany by Fleischle Gartenbau. They are as easy to grow as all the other classics in Dibleys’ great list, but like them they hate to be overwatered or overpotted in too big a pot. So many owners see the leaves of their streptocarpus wilting and then soak the poor plant with water even more. Quite often the wilting is the result of being too wet already. Streptocarpus hate to be too wet, contrary to amateurs’ practice. Otherwise they are the dream house plant, my first choice for anyone trapped indoors.
It has been a vile winter for the fashionable restios. They began to appear at flower shows from the warm West Country about 12 years ago, looking like a shapely cross between a grass and a bamboo. They fitted beautifully with the fashion for ornamental grasses but had more structure and a more architectural, solid stem of flower. The problem is that they are not hardy for most of us (-6C is their limit, really) and they are best on acid soil. I classed them as ideal for drabbies but not for me when there are so many beautiful flowering plants available. I now see that they have scope, especially if you have an expatriate house on lime-free soil without frost. Restios are mostly at home in South Africa on the west side of the Cape. In London they were often shown by Churchtown Nursery of Penzance, which won more than 20 Gold Medals for some striking exhibits. I am glad to discover that one of its main growers is now running Kelnan Plants, a Chelsea gold medallist last year. The business has a fine list of restios and as it is family-run, focused and small, it even sells plants at the nearby Truro Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Alternatively you can go to www.kelmanplants.com for the full list and advice on delivery and supply. Restios are badger- and rabbit-proof.
Is my campaign for the utter beauty of the chrysanthemum gaining ground? There are plenty that will grow and flower until the first heavy frosts outdoors. These wondrous plants transform my cut flowers from late August onwards and look so stylish when staked and lined out in a cut flower bed. They are not difficult and yet gardeners still shy away from them, perhaps confusing their range with the pot-grown yellow-flowered variety that turns up in florists’ shops. There are so many other shapes and colours, even if the ones with “anemone” flowers look a bit odd. The problem is to remember to pre-order rooted plants if you have lost last year’s selection in the winter or are starting from scratch. The answer, now, is to send off to the medal-winning Chrysanthemums Direct, which grows and supplies more than 300 varieties from a famous nursery in Cheshire. Unlike other nurseries they continue to meet orders for rooted plants of named chrysanths well on into April or even later. Many of them flower well outdoors, even in Cheshire, but I personally have had the best results from the Allouise series, double-flowered beauties in orange or white or an excellent pink. None of them has to be grown in a greenhouse. Orders can be placed at www.chrysanthemums direct.co.uk. It is easiest to take delivery in later May when the frosts are usually over. Insects love the young silky leaves, so a simple spray is essential when the plants first go out. There is one compensatory blessing, however. They are totally unpalatable to rabbits. As for badgers, my old boar will not even get out of bed for a bite of one.