Now, 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!)
Two 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.
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!
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.
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.