Saturday, September 17, 2016

Gardens: Now’s The Time To Think About Spring Bulbs

When I was 18 I experienced my first UK winter. Growing up in tropical Singapore I’d had the romantic notion of a short three months of snowy Dickensian rooftops and ice skating on village ponds before the sun and warmth returned with a bang on 1 March. Boy was I wrong. I missed being able to sow seeds, harvest fruit and potter around in shorts and flip-flops whenever I wanted.

But one day, wandering home from uni along a grey road on a bleak February afternoon, I noticed a splash of colour in an abandoned front garden. In between the beer cans and plastic bags a clump of perfect crocus blooms had erupted from beneath the earth: an everyday miracle, returning year after year for the price of a bag of bulbs.

I realised that if winter is the price we pay for the wonder of spring bulbs, it’s almost worth it – and right now is the time to start ordering them. Look beyond the gaudy, DayGlo colours of some of the mass-market commercial hybrids and a world of primeval beauty awaits.

Let’s start with the species tulips. One of the very oldest in cultivation is the horned tulip, Tulipa acuminata with its elongated, wispy petals giving the blooms the weird “spider-like” shape that was so prized by the Ottoman sultans, who introduced the plant to the Dutch. Flame red at the tips fading to butter yellow, it is a real showstopper. If you are into cooler colours, the dwarf T humilis ‘Alba Coerulea Oculata’ has ice-white petals that offset a steely-blue base on blooms just 10-15cm high. Both are perfect for a well-drained spot in full sun.

If you are after something even bolder why not try the Afghan foxtail lily Eremurus? These towering beauties look like something straight out of a hotel lobby centrepiece, but given a warm spot will fire out flower spikes up to 2.5m tall in early June, coated in hundreds of tiny blooms, like giant bottle brushes. ‘Helena’ and ‘Joanna’ are excellent choices with rosettes of deep green leaves to complement their floral display.

If you don’t have the luxury of a sunny plot, the dog’s tooth violet Erythronium dens-canis forms a fairytale carpet of glossy purple-spotted leaves with blooms in pale pink and lilac. It even has a coveted RHS Award of Garden Merit, to testify to the good grower that is is.

Similarly, if you have a small, shady garden (and not so small a budget) treat yourself to hardy orchids. Try Calanthes such as C sieboldii or C tricarinata, or slipper orchids like the super vigorous North American Cypripedium kentuckiense and its showier pink hybrid, ‘Kentucky Pink’. These look so exotic it is hard to believe they will shrug off sub-zero freezes to turn a dark, damp British border into a slice of Borneo each April amid the moss and ferns.

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