At the FT Weekend festival earlier this month, I was repeatedly questioned by guests who lamented that there were not “a lot” of parks. There isn’t much still enough to enjoy. No place is too small for beauty. Ignore the trendy soundbites. Tulips are not sustainable from year to year but they are too beautiful to miss. Crocuses do not grow wild in Britain, but early pollinators happily visit them. If you don’t mow your lawn, the narcissi will not suddenly sprout: plant it and mow the lawn six weeks after it starts flowering. Define, edit and estimate transitivity. Beauty is fleeting, even your own.
Remember the trick of planting bulbs one level above the other in a pot wide and deep enough to hold three or four layers. As a reminder: Bulbs will give you multi-storey beauty if planted at varying depths in the same container. Somehow, the buds at the lower levels always push a way up through the levels above them. Plant three or four layers, one on top of each other, and double the effect of a tight space. Place the tall tulips in the bottom tier, about four inches above the bottom of a deep pot. Then place some daffodils or lilies about three inches above it. Then put in some March-flowering Iris reticulata, and top with a layer of February-flowering crocuses with about two inches of compost over the worms.
To encourage you, here’s a four-story farmhouse that survived the cold of last year’s winter and has kept me happy from late February onward. The top layer was white-flowered Crocus biflorus, a plant I bought at J Parker’s as Miss Vain’s Crocus chrysanthus: it is particularly good because it has bright yellow-orange stamens in the middle of its pure flowers. The rain did me no favors last February, but underneath it there was Iris reticulata Blue Planet, which emerged a week or so later and proved to be a great introduction to the market. It has pale blue flowers that are clearly marked with light yellow. As the flowers faded, an understory of Junquil narcissi mix came in April, fragrant and beautiful, distracting from the dying crocus leaves. Finally, Darwin’s Tulip Hybrid Olympic Torch made its way from the fourth layer into the light. It grows about 2 feet tall and has fresh yellow flowers striped with crimson: in or out of the pot, I highly recommend it.
When the tulips started to bloom, the dead flowers and aging leaves on the irises and daffodils looked long and messy. However, I have cut off their heads and thinned and reduced their leaves. I also gave them diluted estrogen from a watering can in two doses every two weeks in order to compensate for the reduction I had caused. Reticulated iris divide into smaller corms after flowering anyway: most are best considered one-year wonders. The crocus plants survived and are now in bags, waiting to be planted again this month.
I give this multi-storey example to ask you to improve it. In the window box, I stop at two layers, crocuses on top and tulips on the bottom, chosen so they are no more than about 18 inches high. Last year, I was delighted with the triumphant tulips, which were supposed to bloom mid-season. Called Flaming Agrass, it has glowing lemon-yellow white flowers and is just the right height for a second-story windowsill. Victorious tulips include many plants hardy enough for the job. Couleur Cardinal grows about a foot tall and has gorgeous crimson red flowers. Jan Van Ness is only slightly taller with flowers of a good golden yellow colour.
Spring weather is warmer than ever, causing tulips to appear triumphant in early rather than late April. I plant saffron on top of it, made of the colors I like. The wet weather has spoiled them this year but I still love the white Miss Vain mixed with lavender Vernus Vanguard, a free-range flower that can be lifted and replanted every year.
In a small area of the garden, double or quadruple the layers of spring bulbs. Meanwhile, keep some small pots for special beauty, as erythronium is my favorite. These gorgeous forest trees feel happy in a bowl of compost. It improves year after year if kept in a shady place during the summer. The Yellow Pagoda and White Revolution White Beauty are satisfying, as long as they don’t become too dry. A single bulb in a 4-inch pot will grow from year to year and will be the pride of any balcony as it can be observed hour by hour.
So is the Dutch iris, which has been greatly improved through modern selection and breeding. The bulbs are now more compact, suited for life in a spacious container, and the flowers are more delicate, set on stiff stems in late May before the garden is filled with later flowering bearded iris. I recently found a way to please and keep these beautiful irises. They should be planted in soil mixed densely with horticultural gravel, about two-thirds sand and one-third soil. They persist and form thicker clumps from year to year, whereas in ordinary soil they divide and thin out. It’s still a very cheap option in the catalogues, but there is such beauty in the White Excelsior, in the light mauve and yellow King Mauve and in Symphony, which blends white and yellow in a bold way. A few of them go a long way when the tulips fade.
As for the narcissist, how do I choose? The shorter varieties are best in window boxes, with the white-flowered Thalia being a stunning trumpet variety. Tête-à-Tête yellow is unparalleled, but WP Milner, a pale yellow, comes very close to it. They look good on a windowsill or balcony, while the small-flowered Jonquil varieties are best kept in small pots at ground level. In the fifth section of the Narcissus lists, Huira remains a delicate marvel. Its stems are thin, but each has at least three small yellow flowers. As a small collection in a small pot, too much for a garden never seems to be enough.
Match large, layered pots with smaller pots that are limited to just one set. I’ll come back to the tulips later because they don’t need to be planted until November, but in the meantime, here are my latest finds. It is the white beauty Star of Bethlehem Ornithogalum. Each bulb produces numerous flowers, but, unlike other species in the family, it does not invade the garden. The flowers are pure white mounted on erect stems in late April, and are a recent arrival that grows and lasts without being boring.
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