Magic carpet

Snowdrops on a hillside

Snowdrops on a hillside

July may be the bleakest month of winter for us but it is also snowdrop time and these little charmers brighten the greyest of days. You can never have too many snowdrops in my opinion, and the varieties that do well with us are building up to a satisfying level. By definition, that is when we have enough to move them out of optimal garden or nursery conditions and start establishing them in carpets.

It is our interest in what we call “romantic gardening” – others refer to it as “naturalistic gardening” – that we derive as much, if not more pleasure from plants naturalised in meadow conditions as we do from cultivated, tightly maintained garden beds. It is a blurring of the edges in gardening, exploring how far we can replicate the simple charm of wildflowers but in a managed situation.

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

It is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the charming bulbs in their natural environment have conditions which are much harsher than here. Winters that are very cold and often dry mean that most growth stops, as do summers that are hot and dry. But in our dairy-farming heartland, soft conditions keep grass growing all year round and that growth will simply swamp most bulbs. It has taken us some years to learn to manage this. Selecting bulbs that will cope in our conditions has been trial and error.

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

It also takes eleventy thousand more bulbs than you think it will. Even bulk buying a couple of hundred bulbs is not going to create much of a carpet in the short term. To get a quick result using large bulbs like daffodils or bluebells, planting at one every 10 square centimetres means 100 per square metre. I worked this out because I was planting a little mixed area. Using dainties like erythroniums, dwarf daffodils, snowdrops, crocus and rhodohypoxis, it took about 4 of these small bulbs per 10 square centimetres – or 400 per square metre. That is a large number and may explain why we don’t see many bulb meadows in this country, beyond well established fields of daffodils dating back many decades. Obviously, if you plant at greater spacings, you can cover a larger area but you will wait longer for the carpet effect.

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

While planting around tree trunks is not the same thing as naturalising bulbs in a meadow situation, it proved to be a good place to start for us. We have many trees in fairly open situations where it is possible to establish easy bulbs beneath. Most bulbs need sun so these need to be trees with a higher canopy to allow light below. Planting amongst the exposed roots of established trees ensures the bulbs don’t get mown off or trampled as they surface and generally they get established with little competition. It is also an effective way of controlling some of the invasive bulbs like ipheions and ornamental oxalis.

Scattering seed is hit and miss and slower to give any results but much easier. We were delighted this year to see Cyclamen hederafolium showing its colours where Mark had scattered fresh seed several years ago. He had given up hope that it would work but lo, there are rewards for patient gardeners and the older we get, the more patience we seem to be developing.

 Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells are easy and we have used them in swathes around shrubs in the area we call our park. Because they are flowering at the same time as the full flush of spring grass growth, we have to keep them to the side of areas we need to mow. Bluebell, and indeed snowdrop, woods that we have admired in Britain are carpets beneath deciduous trees. Our woodland areas are heavily dominated by evergreens so we don’t get enough light to replicate those carpets here. That is why we have to opt for the margins instead.

The triumph of experience has been getting grassy banks with dwarf narcissi and snowdrops naturalised. To do this, Mark spent some years establishing the native grass, microlina. It is finer and less vigorous so doesn’t swamp the bulbs and can be controlled with minimal cutting – just a pass over with the weedeater from time to time. It is not quite the same as a bulb meadow, but we have learned to work with what we have here.

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

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2 thoughts on “Magic carpet

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am pretty sure what we have are natural hybrids between the Spanish and English species and that is probably true of most bluebells in NZ. It takes some effort to keep the English strain isolated and it probably comes down to a few enthusiasts who have done that.

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