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October 2007

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Bulb planting, summer baking and ‘Globemaster'

During the months of October and November I usually have chronic backache brought on by bulb-planting. The bulbs are ordered from a wholesale mail order catalogue in late June or early July when it's easy to forget the backache and just visualise great colourful sweeps of crocuses, narcissi, scillas and tulips. I'm afraid: ‘greed rules ok!'

Last year I decided to plant the tulips in large containers instead of in the ground for three reasons. I had read that the ground can become tulip-sick if they are grown in the same places year after year. In our heavy, damp soil they need to be planted at least 15 centimetres deep and I also had a large number of tulips to plant in the one-acre garden in Derry where I have designed the planting.

However growing them in containers wasn't as successful as I thought it would be. I used two different brands of compost and one was definitely inferior so the tulips grown in it were only about half the size of those grown in the good compost. One of my favourite tulips is ‘Dillenburg' which is orange-terracotta and which matches the flowers on Euphorbia griffithii perfectly and the two normally romp through a border in May. I missed out on that this year with the tulips in containers. Setting these in the middle of the border didn't create the same impact at all. This November the bulbs are going in alongside the euphorbias no matter how backaching and laborious it is to plant them.

I am often amused by the cultural instructions given in some bulb catalogues. When it says of certain bulbs like species tulips that they need ‘a good summer baking' that immediately invokes an image of setting the bulbs on a baking tray and putting them into a moderate oven for half an hour. What I think the writers mean is that the bulbs need hot summer sun and dry stony soil. In our climate bulbs requiring such treatment are definitely much better when grown in pots of gritty compost, kept unwatered during the summer and never fed much so that the soil is hungry. So far I've kept the little species Tulipa tarda and Tulipa turkestanica going for three years in the same container.

This November the bulbs are going in alongside the euphorbias no matter how backaching and laborious it is to plant them.

The famous Hidcote Garden in Gloucestershire was a century old this year and several gardening magazines and newspapers ran features on it. I found one photograph inspirational so want to copy the idea. It showed a rectangular bed dominated by two plants - aquilegias and alliums. Aquilegias come in all the Persian carpet colours although dark blue tends to predominate here. They are prolific self-seeders and baby aquilegias can often be found some distance from the parent plant, particularly in gravel paths. I've herded all these together in one bed of cool-coloured flowers and planted ‘Globemaster' alliums at intervals so that they stand tall among them - just as they do at Hidcote.

The rich violet-purple of the alliums harmonises with the aquilegias which, in turn, hide the unattractive allium foliage. The basal leaves of allium quickly become shabby and remind me of a slender, elegant woman in a magnificent hat who has spoiled the whole ensemble by wearing scruffy trainers. ‘Globemaster' grows to about 80 cm tall with perfectly spherical heads and is usually the most expensive of the alliums but it is also the most reliably perennial and the bulbs will even multiply underground.

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