Tag Archives: bulb meadows

The trouble with daffodils

The bulb meadow on Marsland Hill

I headed back to see the bulb meadow in town that I wrote about a fortnight ago to see how it was evolving. My friend Susan had told me that this and another beside the race course opposite New Plymouth Boys High School had both been planted by Fiesta Bulbs about four years ago. The first year, she said, they were absolutely glorious. The second year, there was so little flowering that she thought ‘well that was a one season wonder’. But now they are at least staging some repeat blooming .

Where purple meets yellow – I really don’t like those murky brown tones 

The clear blue that was also used is my preference

The Marsland Hill planting is being carried by the Dutch iris. They are simply splendid and I think I need more of these easy-care bulbs to carry some of our own larger scale meadow plantings. I still particularly dislike the purple and yellow variety with the brown tones (sorry, pcsecretary who left a comment disagreeing with this assessment but at least I found out that you should be able to source it from Fiesta Bulbs, if you live in NZ) but there was also a clearer blue one being used and the pastel variety didn’t look so anaemic with many more of it in flower. So a big ups to the Dutch iris.

Too much leafage! Poor light conditions but you can see what I mean in the planting by the racecourse

But the daffodils – too much leafage. This was even more the case on the racecourse plantings where fewer Dutch iris were used. This is why Mark has never been a daffy fan when it comes to garden plants. Dwarf narcissi – yes, in abundance. Big full-on daffodils, no. The foliage swamps them and the flower heads are too heavy to hold up well in the spring wind and rain.

Pretty enough at home but still too high a ratio of foliage to flower. And the outer blooms all fall over in the weather. 

I came home and looked at my patch on the back lawn and thought yes, there is too much foliage there for the number of flowers. And I don’t think the ratio of blooms to leafage is going to get better.

Big daffs are best as show blooms and cut flowers 

Narcissus x odorus never drowns in its foliage but its season in bloom is brief

The big daffodils are better as show blooms and cut flowers. But as meadow plants, not so much. I looked again at the narcissi we are growing at home. Narcissus x odorus (N. jonquilla x N. pseudonarcissus) is gorgeous, fragrant, does not have a lot of foliage to drown in but its flowering season is brief.  ‘Tête-à-tête’ (I assume it is meant to have the French accents) is a great performer which keeps on blooming well even when left undisturbed for many years – most narcissi respond brilliantly to being lifted, divided and replanted but stop flowering as they get congested. Ditto ‘Twilight’ and most of the cyclamineus types we grow. Bulbocodiums are not so good for meadows because you can’t pick the foliage from grass when it is coming through.

I rather think that meadows may be better with alternative bulbs like ixias, strong growing lachenalias, sparaxis and tritonias. And Dutch iris. Daffs are not compulsory.

Maybe a N. pseudonarcissus hybrid rather than a straight species selection

A Facebook friend posted a photo of her double daffodil which was most likely a form of the wild N. pseudonarcissus. I asked Mark if this one flowering in woodland conditions here was too. He didn’t know on that one but directed me down to the old orchard area established by his great grandmother, where the old classic is growing. Okay, there weren’t many flowers but that patch has been there, undisturbed, for anything up to 140 years, which is quite amazing really. It is the common old double that is often found growing wild alongside snowflakes (leucojums) on the sites of original early settler cottages. N. pseudonarcissus is a wild daffodil throughout the UK and Europe, more commonly single but the double has long been prized as a garden plant. It has the same problem of the weight of the head dragging the flower down but at least this one has some personal history for us.

Great grandmother’s flowers – snowflake (leucojum, not snowdrop), double daffodil (wild N. pseudonarcissus) and grape hyacinth (muscari, not bluebell)

The upshot of all this is that it is entirely understandable that, in this day and age, Council would contract a commercial bulb supplier to come in and plant a designated area. But if you want to establish a bulb meadow at home that has greater longevity, there is no substitute for spending some time observing and researching. And shun selections that are best as cut flowers – unless they are Dutch iris which seem to be able to fill both roles.

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.

The Meadow

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Meadow gardens sound so very romantic yet are not often seen in this country whereas they are de rigueur in Britain, to the extent that I make jokes that it is clearly the law to have one. But not all meadow gardens are the same by any manner of means.
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1) The field sown with wildflower mix is probably what is most commonly referred to as a meadow in this country. These of course are not our native wildflowers – far from it – but the reference is usually to the inclusion of varieties closest to the wild species and consequently smaller and simpler blooms than seen in garden hybrids. The problem in our climate is that favourable growing conditions can make for leggy plants that will be flattened by both heavy rain or wind. It was heavy rain that flattened this wildflower mix at Wisley.

Missouri Meadow June 2014

Missouri Meadow June 2014

As we saw it in June 2009

As we saw it in June 2009

2) We were entranced in 2009 by the new Missouri meadow garden at Wisley, designed by Professor James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield. This style is now often referred to as being of the Sheffield School of planting design with its focus on ecology and sustainability. Five years later, it has developed into a huge perennial bed and much of the original detail has gone. It is still most attractive and low maintenance but it has lost the meadow feel. I have not seen prairies but I doubt that it is a prairie reinterpretation either.

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

Same month, back in 2009

Same month, back in 2009

3) The wildflower meadow at the Old Vicarage Garden in Norfolk was delightful in its flowering simplicity in 2009. This is it at the same time of the year in 2014 although the flowering appeared to be delayed this year. The yellow corn marigold and grasses have swamped out most other plants. The owner told us he keeps trying to get the corn poppies re-established but without great success. Meadows evolve over time. To constantly spray off and resow in flowers, as sometimes recommended in New Zealand, does not give you a meadow. It gives you a garden of annuals.

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

4) Maximum ecological brownie points are earned by those who have the patience to allow a natural meadow to develop with no over-sowing or management of plant content. What is present has arrived naturally and is allowed to stay. No sprays are used and no stock grazes the area. However, most meadows will be cut sometime in late August, left to lie for two weeks to allow seed to fall out and then the hay raked off, to prevent a build up of fertility.

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

5) Dry grass has charm. This is a bulb meadow being allowed to dry off naturally – quite possibly bluebells, daffodils and snowdrops in spring. Those are allium seed heads showing which are just passing over, heading into early summer. In our more fertile conditions with higher rainfall, we are more likely to get less attractive rank, wet, green growth heavily infested with what we call weeds. Maybe it is time to reconsider our classification and attitude to many such weeds.

yellow rattle (2)

6) Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is an integral part of English meadows. It is a parasitic plant that weakens grass growth and allows other plants to establish with reduced competition, increasing the diversity. Obviously we do not need this plant to escape into our farming pastures and I do not even know if it is in New Zealand. We have seen something similar growing wild on our road verge and will be having a closer look this summer. We think it may be a broomrape rather than a Rhinanthus.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Bulb meadows

Colchicums in the park

Colchicums in the park

The demise of two of our grand old pine trees a few weeks ago has necessitated a fairly large clean up. They were about 140 years old and had been on a major lean for much of that time. Clearly they passed the point of balance. But, as happens in gardens, their collapse also opened up an opportunity. Suddenly there was a nice little area which had been dense shade and more or less left to its own devices but was now light, open and clearly of potential.

“Bulbs,” I thought, “I shall plant it in a succession of bulbs to take it through the seasons.” I started with what was already there – a congested but large clump of snowdrops, a few cyclamen and some valiant pleione orchids which were battling on despite choking ground cover plants. Then I raided the nursery where we still had quite a few pots and trays of suitable bulbs, particularly dwarf narcissi of various types. By this point, I was already committed to using minis and dwarf growers which would co-exist and not choke out their growing companions.

So how many bulbs are needed to fill an area?

So how many bulbs are needed to fill an area?

    As I continue to raid suitable bulbs from wherever I could find them, I started to do the maths. We are not talking a large area here. It is maybe 10 square metres (5x 2) at the most. Do you have any idea of how many dwarf and mini bulbs are needed to fill that space? Allowing maybe 5 bulbs per 10cm square, that adds up to a massive …. 5000! Okay, so the cyclamen are not planted at that density, but many of the others are.

Had I chosen to start with larger bulbs of stronger growing varieties – full sized daffodils, bluebells, tulips, colchicums and the like – I could have planted them at maybe 10 cm spacings so would have only needed about 1000 bulbs. It is still a lot.

The lesson is that if you are besotted by bulbs, as we are, it helps to learn how to look after them so that you can increase the supply for other plantings. Having depleted the nursery of spare bulbs that are suitable for this situation, I am now taking apart beds in the rockery to thin the bulbs there and get the surplus for my new area. So far, as well as the types already mentioned, I have added rhodohypoxis, blue brodiaeas, various different lachenalias and crocus. I am aiming for mix and match in the hope that there will be something seasonal and dainty flowering in that particular section at all times of the year. It will take some tweaking over time to get it right.

Belladonnas beneath the gum tree at our entrance

Belladonnas beneath the gum tree at our entrance

    I have a mix and match of large and some invasive bulbs beneath a huge old gum tree at our entrance. Invasive bulbs are easily contained there and there is room for sometimes scruffy performers like the belladonnas to put on a good show.
Bluebells to the left and common old Lachenalia aloides in front

Bluebells to the left and common old Lachenalia aloides in front

    Elsewhere, we have tended to keep our bulb plantings separated by variety. This may be our nursery background – keeping the option open to start selling bulbs again if need be. But a big show of a single variety can be striking. We sometimes use the root zone at the base of large, specimen trees, usually on the sunny side because most bulbs enjoy light but are adapted to surviving quite harsh conditions. This gets them out of the way of the lawnmower.
Drifts of bulbs are harder to manage here

Drifts of bulbs are harder to manage here

    But really what we covet most are drifts of bulbs – informal, randomly organised rivers of seasonal colour flowing through. In harsher climates where the grass stops growing in winter (too cold) and summer (too dry), it is possible to do it in grass. But not here. Without significant management, the strong growing grasses overwhelm the bulbs and need mowing before the foliage has had a chance to carry out its function of replenishing the bulb.

It is easier to work with bulbs which shed their foliage quickly. There are big differences in how long different types keep their leaves – anything from 4 to 6 weeks up to 11 months. Fortunately the pretty snowdrops (galanthus) are light on foliage, because what we really want over the next decade is to develop proper drifts of snowdrops. Not a few hundred. Thousands. They will be a fleeting wonder lasting a mere week or two each year. But it is the sheer frivolity of self indulgence that will spur on the snowdrop dream. At least we know which ones perform well in our climate – without snow or much winter chill – and we will just gently work on it by continually dividing and spreading the existing clumps. I am guessing the one clump of Galanthus viridapicis in my new little bulb garden yielded upwards of 300 bulbs. That is a good return.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

In the garden this fortnight: June 7, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Naturalising bulbs in conditions of rampant grass growth

Naturalising bulbs in conditions of rampant grass growth

Meadows of naturalised bulbs are a complete delight and a contrast to the highly cultivated type of garden most of us have. But they are best suited to places where there isn’t vigorous grass growth and regular rain. This means that good dairy country like Taranaki is by definition not suitable for bulb meadows. All that grass overpowers and hides them. But we are undeterred. Mark has been working on a bulb hillside in recent years where we have a native microlaena grass (probably M. stipoides) which is much finer and less vigorous than introduced pasture and lawn grasses. He likes the bulbs on a hill because it is possible to get closer and to look up at the flowers from a pathway. He is very pleased with how the dwarf narcissi, species cyclamen, colchicums, snowdrops (mostly Galanthus S. Arnott) and pleione orchids have settled in over the last three years and started multiplying. The bluebells (hyacinthoides) are more robust and build up well in open areas under the trees where we can control the grass with a weed-eater. The exercise is getting the last grass trimming round done before the bulb foliage is too far through the ground with flower spikes formed.

Lachenalia bulbifera

Lachenalia bulbifera

In a different area of the garden, in recent years I have been planting surplus bulbs around the trunks of large trees where the grass won’t grow because the ground is too dry and poor. These are ideal conditions for some bulbs and the lachenalias from South Africa, stronger growing dwarf narcissi like the bulbocodiums and peacock iris (Moraea villosa) don’t mind at all. There is plenty of light because these trees have dropped all their lower limbs over time. It is not quite the meadow we would like with big drifts, but it is what we can manage in our climate.

The Theatre of the Banana

The Theatre of the Banana

Top tasks:

1) Get the winter cage erected around the bananas. They are the only plants we wrap up for winter but we are very marginal banana growing territory and we are willing to work at trying to get a home grown banana crop. I refer to the construction as the Theatre of the Banana.

2) Sort out the compost heaps. We make quite large quantities of compost but at the moment, the waste is accumulating faster than we are layering it into compost piles. We work a three heap system – the heap we are currently using, the heap that is curing and the one we are building. At the moment there seems to be enough for two new compost heaps.

Managing meadows or drifts of bulbs

The bulbocodiums are the highlight of the narcissi world this week

The bulbocodiums are the highlight of the narcissi world this week

We are bulb fanatics here. It doesn’t matter how large or small your garden, there is always space for bulbs. They mark the progression of the seasons in a wonderfully detailed manner, often little pictures of ephemeral delight. We have been charting the narcissi here this year, tracking which ones flower for long periods of time and which ones give us a succession of blooms to extend the season as others are just finishing. We don’t grow many of the big, show daffodils, preferring instead the dwarf and miniatures, both species and hybrids. It is the bright yellow hooped petticoat type that are the showiest at the moment (bulbocodium citrinus). The best early variety, flowering over a long period, has been Peeping Tom. The single best mid season variety has been the cyclamineus hybrid, Twilight.

Now the erythroniums or dogs tooth violets are opening, as are the veltheimias (big bulbs which resemble lachenalias on steroids), the early arisaemas are through the ground and the bluebells are coming into bloom. Early to mid spring is peak bulb time and that is because we do best with South African bulbs whose growth is triggered by the autumn rains. It is not that the autumn rains are significant here. Most of us get winter rain, a great deal of spring rain and some summer rain too. It is more a case that the autumn rain bulbs are in full growth during our rather wet winters so they don’t rot out as readily.

Bulbs are easiest to manage in pots and in designated areas such as a rockery. Sometimes I combine the two and plunge the pot to sit flush with the soil level in the rockery (a good technique for confining invasive bulbs as well as keeping track of vulnerable treasures). They can be a bit problematic in garden beds and borders where it is all too easy to find their location by severing them with the spade.

Not perhaps the most obvious candidate for Mark's hillside of naturalised bulbs - pleione orchids

Not perhaps the most obvious candidate for Mark's hillside of naturalised bulbs - pleione orchids

But the real challenge here is to extend the meadow drifts of bulbs and that has taken a great deal of thinking and planning. It all comes down to grass growth. Areas of the country which are suitable for intensive dairy farming tend, by definition, to have more fertile soils and an abundance of grass growth for most of the year. Most bulbs naturally grow in opposite conditions – often dry and poor ground – and are triggered into growth by seasonal change. Romantic woodland drifts occur in open, deciduous forests where enough light gets through during winter to allow the bulbs to flourish while in summer, a canopy of foliage creates shade which reduces rampant grass growth which can choke the bulbs. After years of experimentation, the lessons we have learned include:

1) Only plant bulbs in areas which won’t need mowing during their growth season. This can be easier said than done with bulbs which coincide with the spring flush of the grass. We have been working on extending the bluebell drifts but have taken care to site the bulbs closer to the trees and shrubs, so to the side of the main mown areas. They still look as if they are drifting naturally but it is a managed drift.

2) Don’t use bulbs which are going to need frequent lifting and dividing to keep them flowering well. For this reason, we have pretty well given up on the big daffodils. They look great for one or two seasons but in our conditions, it is all downhill from there to the point where they can be mostly foliage with very few blooms. They do better in harder conditions.

3) Control the grasses. Mark (the husband) has gone to considerable lengths to eliminate strong growing grasses from his bulb hillside in favour of the weaker growing, fine native grass, microlina. We can get away with only needing to weedeat the microlina occasionally so the bulbs are not disturbed and we can manage a succession over several months.

4) It takes a lot of bulbs to get a drift. Many hundreds of bulbs, not tens. We multiply ours by dividing existing clumps but also gather our own fresh seed each year to increase the numbers.

5) The most successful bulbs so far are: bluebells (also pink bells and white bells), colchicums or autumn crocus, cyclamen species (hederafolium, coum and repandum), proper English snowdrops (galanthus) and some of the dwarf narcissi. Pleione orchids and assorted lachenalias (especially the more desirable blue ones) take a bit more work but are worth the effort. All except the pleiones disappear entirely below ground when they are dormant.

6) Large bulbs which grow with their necks above ground include the belladonna lilies, crinums and veltheimias. These can never be mowed over or walked on so have to be placed in areas which don’t generally grow grass. This means they are not suitable candidates for meadow drifts.
There are those for whom gardening is all about controlling nature and those for whom it is about emulating nature and managing it. We fall into the latter category. Meadow bulbs and drifts of spring delights are an important ingredient for us.

Managed drifts of bluebells

Managed drifts of bluebells

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.