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October/November 2011

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Autumn angst, planting tulips in a scree and frost-hardy bulbs

No matter how hard I try I can never work up much enthusiasm for autumn. A few things compensate like nerines, the late blooms on Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor', leaf colour on Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Stewartia pseudocamellia and all the acers. But the best way, I have found, to alleviate autumn angst is to focus on spring and that means planting bulbs. I really enjoy planning the planting and colour schemes and trying out new bulbs.

Tulips used to be planted in borders but I've found it's much easier to plant them in containers. Digging the 20cm deep planting holes, that tulips need, in heavy damp soil is sore on my back and knees so they're planted twenty-five to a large pot. A loam-based compost, such as John Innes No. 3, is better that a peat-based multipurpose one because tulips prefer limy to acid soil. When the tulips flower they can be placed in beds or borders. Sometimes I don't do this because the containers are heavy big things to lug around. I keep meaning to buy a skateboard for this purpose.

In early autumn 2010, I read in a fairly old gardening book about an experienced grower of alpines who made a raised bed nearly 40 cm deep. It was filled entirely with pea gravel and a sprinkling of bonemeal and in this he was able to grow successfully plants that like scree conditions. There is a bed in the stackyard where I have tried to grow alpines but, even though the soil is not rich, some plants, geraniums in particular, spread themselves and seed everywhere. I decided to experiment with grit 30cm deep and to plant small species tulips in it.

Many of these are natives of mountainous regions of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey where they grow on screes and rocky slopes so true grit should have been suitable. Because this was an experiment I bought a cheap collection of species tulips from a catalogue and planted them last November. They grew and flowered in the spring but they must have been labelled wrongly because they turned out to be the most hideous, unbalanced blend of colours. I haven't given up on the idea so I've bought better ones from my usual supplier Peter Nyssen Ltd and know exactly where I'm going to place the different colours.

Many daffodils do well in the soil and weather conditions here and are reliably perennial - tulips are not - but here's a strange thing. All tulips, exotic creatures they may be, are fully hardy but not all daffodils which you would think are as tough as old boots. Last autumn I planted 25 Narcissus ‘Jumblie' and 25 Narcissus ‘Hawera' but only a few of each appeared in March. I discovered in Anna Pavord's wonderful book Bulb that these are frost hardy. In my ignorance I had believed that this meant they were hardy in frost. Instead it means that they will only take a minimum temperature of -5° Celsius. Other frost hardy bulbs are Allium schubertii, Ipheion ‘Rolf Fiedler', Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola' (shown) and Muscari latifolium. Hopefully we won't, but it is possible that we could be in for another vicious winter like the last two and so we should be prepared for it.

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