Of bulb magic and luminous trees…

cropped-wpid-20130427_145635.jpgNow, I’ve got to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of bulbs. Well that’s not strictly true – I like the bit where they flower but planting them, well, that’s another matter, particularly if you’re planting them into compacted ground or grass. The effort of chopping out a big heavy sod of cold wet turf just to put one or two bulbs in has never appealed, particularly if you have a large sack to plant!  Until this autumn that is, when, on a recommendation from Bob Flowerdew on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners Question Time, I splashed out and bought a long-handled bulb planter. A bit of a luxury really as a perfectly adequate hand-held bulb planter lurks in the back of the potting-shed but I’ve never really used this as I found it murder on my wrists and really not much use unless the earth is well dug. My new planter on the other hand is like a small spade and neatly chops out a lozenge of turf and soil with minimal effort. So I’m now very into planting bulbs, inspired by the wonderful wildflower meadow interplanted with Camassia and Tulips that we saw back in the spring outside the front door of Howick Hall, not far from Alnwick in Northumberland (highly recommended by the way, particularly Silverwood in the spring with its amazing rhododendrons and azaleas, and a very classy tea room!)

002Two years ago, somewhat reluctantly, we put the two large vegetable beds in the rear part of the Walled Garden down to grass. Now, grass isn’t the most exciting plant on the planet but the vegetable beds were simply too labour-intensive to keep on and usually ended up as a celebration of all the local weed species.

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To try to bring some colour to this mass of green sward, a couple of years ago we started planting daffodils under the old apple trees that line the ‘vegetable bed’ lawns and this autumn we added in some further varieties: Narcissus Thalia (pure white with slightly whorled petals), Barrett Browning (white petals with bright orange cups), Pueblo (white petals with lemon yellow cups) and Tazetta Pacific Coast (canary yellow). In the lawns themselves we have also planted drifts of Crocus chrysanthus (Blue Pearl, Cream Beauty, Prins Claus and Gipsy Girl).

In the main lawn, we planted the first phase of early-flowering C. tommasinianus running from the old apple tree in the south east corner in a westerly direction; if these are successful, we will continue the planting next year to form a metre-wide stripe of light purple running the full length of the lawn up to the gates, flowering in February/ March. A temporary show, undoubtedly, but I’ve seen this done before and it looks most effective, providing a bright colour statement at a rather monochrome time of year. Talking of the old apple tree, we’ve put in some spring-flowering Cyclamen coum underneath it, again naturalised in the grass. Happily, the corms have started to sprout and there are signs of some early blooms!

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The Secret Garden, featuring old variegated Holly and wall-trained pears (January 2015)

And finally, round in the Secret Garden, we’ve been planting some scented Jonquila daffodils including Martinette (yellow flowers with orange trumpets), Pipit (lemon yellow flowers with creamy cups), Pueblo (again!), Sun Disc (rounded yellow petals petals which fade to cream with canary yellow cups) and Suzy (paired flowers, yellow petals with bright orange cups). I have been uncertain as to what to do with this area as its open aspect has been good for the fruit trees trained on the walls – they used to be heavily shaded by an overgrown beech hedge and didn’t flower for many years; the Secret Garden offers fine views of the hills to the south so I am slightly reluctant to plant it up with more shrubs that then detract from the view and start to block out the light. This year, we’ve been mowing the grass weekly in the Secret Garden to get rid of the more pernicious weeds including cow parsley, nettles and willow herb and by the end of the season the area had turned into quite a reasonable lawn, making the area a bit smarter and more accessible. The Daffodils should give a little spring interest as harbingers to the apple and pear blossom following in May.

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Ornamental Plum (Prunus cerasifolia Nigra) with sunflowers behind (August 2014)

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Ornamental Plum, with Box plants added

Back in the grassed- over vegetable areas in the Walled Garden, we took advantage of an excellent bare-root tree offer from a certain German grocery chain to purchase two Ornamental Almonds (Prunus dulcis) and two Flowering Plums (Prunus cerasifolia Nigra). We have put one of each in each grassed area to give a bit of height and interest. The different foliage colours (light green for the Almond, dark purple for the Plum) provide excellent contrast, particularly with the midday and afternoon sun shining through them) and I look forward to their delicate pink flowers emerging before the leaves come the spring. This autumn we have dug out a one-metre radius planting circle round each tree to allow a ring of Box (Buxus) to be planted; as this grows it should provide some architectural winter interest. In between the tree stems and the Box we may plant some autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium; we have some young plants over-wintering in the Greenhouse which we grew from seed during 2013.1273

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Seeds of Discovery

In a month or two’s time or so, the seed-sowing season begins. Here at the Scottish Country Garden, we wait until the sun’s rays provide a decent heat in the greenhouse, which usually means getting going mid-March to early April.

This year’s seed-order comprises a mixture of the instant (hardy annuals, flowering this year) and the longer-term – hardy perennials. We try to grow all our perennials from seed, if we can. This year, some of the things we’re going to have a shot at include:

Aquilegia x hybrida ‘Firecracker’: we grew Aquilegias a couple of years ago from seed and they provided a long-lasting and very colourful show. A real cottage-garden favourite, I wouldn’t be without them. Even their early spring foliage emerging from the ground cheers me up!  This one should inject some oomph into the borders!

Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Mixed’: the marvellous little autumn flowering Cyclamen File:Cyclamen hederifolium Flowers BotGardBln0906a.jpgwhich you can naturalise. We might try some of these at the foot of our free-standing apple trees.

File:Dierama pulcherrimum 1.JPGDierama pulcherrima ‘Slieve Donard Hybrids’, the “Angel’s Fishing Rods”, this variety originating from the marvellous Irish Garden of the same name. I’m not sure how easy these will be to grow, but even if we can germinate a few, that will be well worth it.

Echinops ritro subsp. RuthenicusEchinops_t&m use only : you might have worked out that we’re quite a fan of thistles here! This is the blue, spikey thistle, a herbaceous classic which I grew up with but which we don’t have here, yet!

File:Meconopsis grandis1.jpgMeconopsis grandis: the iconic Himalayan Blue Poppy which does very well in the wetter, milder west of Scotland. We’re going to see if we can grow this in our shade border but Meconopsis does have a reputation for being temperamental and short-lived! But it’s a real topper and we’re going to have a go!

We’re also going to try Astilbe arendsii ‘Showstar’with its wonderful ferny spring foliage, and more Candelabra primulasFile:Fairhaven Water Gardens 2 - geograph.org.uk - 251605.jpg in the shade border too. We tried to grow the latter last year but it had a poor germination rate, so I’m going to start them off sooner to see if this helps.

Phormium ‘Rainbow Striped Hybrids’: no, I didn’t know you could get seed for them either, but you can (Thompson and Morgan are our suppliers). I really like the tall strappy leaves which grow to 5 to 8 feet. They have a real jungley feel, augmented by the exotic-looking flowers come out on long poles in the spring.

I used to think that Agapanthus only grew in the warmer south of England but, perhaps helped by a combination of global warming and plant breeding, they can now be grown up here in Scotland, so we’re having a shot at ‘Headbourne Hybrids’ from seed. Fond memories of these growing in the Walled Garden at Alnwick, Northumberland, one of my favourite gardens, and by the side of the roads growing wild on the island of Madeira.

Talking of Madeira, and this is being a bit ambitious, we thought we’d have a go at the “Pride of Madeira”, Echium fastuosum.File:Close-up of a "Pride of Madeira".jpg This will be a challenge as the south east of Scotland has a slightly different climate from the garden island in the Atlantic! Echium is a half-hardy biennial so we will need to plant it in a warm, south-facing alcove and give it some frost protection in the winter. If we succeed, our prize will be towers of purple-blue flowers reaching 12 feet! Dust of dreams indeed…

(Special thanks to Thompson & Morgan Ltd. for their permission to use certain images in this post)