Tag Archives: naturalising bulbs

Notes from the Garden of Jury, September 30, 2018

The early spring bulbs are over and we are now into mid-season. We garden with many, many bulbs and probably find them a great deal more fascinating than most who are less enthusiastic. I could wow a few readers with the Phaedranassa cinerea or maybe the Cyrtanthus falcatus in bloom now, but to the casual eye, a simple planting of bluebells and Narcissus bulbocodium naturalised around the base of an old eucalyptus tree is likely to be far more charming. That eucalyptus dates back to around the 1870s when Mark’s great grandfather planted several around the property. They are messy trees because they shed bark and small twiggy growth all year but look at that interesting twist in the trunk that some varieties develop with age.

Camellia minutiflora – a charming and graceful species

The flowers are delightful and abundant but small – C. minutiflora again

I do a lot of flower and garden photography although I would only describe myself as a gardener and writer who takes photographs, not a photographer as such. And some flowers are really difficult to photograph. I feel I have got to grips with magnolia images but making a series of flower shots of some genus can be particularly challenging. It is mighty hard to make a whole lot of full trussed rhododendrons, japonica camellias or hybrid tea roses look interesting rather than a series of blobs. More on rhododendrons later in the season. But so too is it difficult to capture some of the smaller flowered shrubs, conveying their charm. I have taken many photographs of the dainty camellia species, C. minutiflora, and they remain a dismal failure in capturing the simple visual delight to the naked eye. It is such a delightful plant that we have used it in a number of places through the garden. In the end, I decided I just had to pick a few sprays and lay them on a plain background to try and show just how sweet this little camellia is when you can see the detail.

Daphne genkwa – the blue daphne

Daphne genkwa with its corylopis backdrop

So too with the less common blue daphne, D. genkwa. I photograph it every year and then delete almost all the photos as not doing justice to the plant at all. This may be because it is not a shrub with much to distinguish it other than its remarkable lilac blue flowers. And so too the corylopsis, often referred to as witch hazels. I think we only have two different forms of corylopsis. One flowers earlier and makes a charming haze of creamy yellow behind a Daphne genkwa. The other is flowering now and may be a form of C. pauciflora but we have never taken much interest in unravelling the family. They just occupy a space and remain relatively anonymous for most of year except for their splash of dainty blooms in the two weeks or so when it is their turn to shine. Colder, drier climates appear to get a more extended flowering season on a number of these deciduous shrubs whereas, in our mild conditions, they are more of a fleeting delight. But on their days, what a delight they are.

Corylopsis

And the corylopsis in situ with Rhododendron spinuliferum to the right front and and the burgundy loropetalum behind

It was garden writer, Neil Ross, whom I first heard likening a garden to musical theatre. Don’t plan a garden full of stars only, he said. Those stars need the chorus to make them shine so don’t forget those plants filling the role of the chorus. That is how I see these plants which have a short season – chorus cast with a brief solo in the spotlight.

Just look at the lily border. It never looked like this last year when the rabbits won the battle on the emerging shoots. Mark is getting bored with his daily round of vigilance and looking forward to the time when the stems get tall enough to be out of the reach of the rabbits. But spraying the plant with water and sprinkling just a part teaspoon of blood and bone on each plant is working. The reason for doing it one by one is because it has to be reapplied after rain and we don’t want to be over fertilising the whole border by broadcasting the blood and bone freely and often. Besides, I was a bit shocked at the price last time we bought some. It would be easier to manage if we bought some liquid blood and bone so it could just be applied with one action but we will use up what we have first.

The price to pay for a lily display is clearly ongoing vigilance.

Yes, yes I know the advice is always given not to drive over hoses. Based on experience, it appears that you can get away with it when the hose is still relatively new but there comes a point in the age of the hose when one incident of driving over it can render it a very leaky hose. This of course means that over the course of the next weeks, any user of said hose gets wet legs until the right stage of being fed up is reached and the hose replaced. We haven’t quite got to this point but it is imminent. And I will try not to drive over the next hose length.

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.

Plant Collector: Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus “Pandora”

The first narcissus of the season - N. bulbocodium citrinus 'Pandora'

The first narcissus of the season – N. bulbocodium citrinus ‘Pandora’

Always the first little narcissi to flower in winter, these lemon hoop petticoats are pretty as a picture at the moment. I guess they gained their common name because they resemble those wired underskirts from times past. The bright yellow bulbocodiums flower later in the season. In contrast, the citrinus are very early, coming out with the snowdrops. These are easy bulbs to grow. In fact this clump is naturalised in hard conditions where our gravel driveway meets an elevated concrete path – which is why the flowers show some splash and wear. There is no mollycoddling involved with them but they do need good drainage and full sun. N. bulbocodium is native to the south of France, Portugal and Spain so will occur naturally in relatively hard conditions. Given that the foliage is distinctly grassy in appearance, you just need to make sure you are not mowing it off in the early stages.

Daffodils go far beyond the common big King Alfred types and we like a range of them so we can have them in flower for many months. We prefer earlier flowering ones overall because they are generally finished by the time the dreaded narcissi fly is on the wing. It lays its eggs in the crown of the foliage and each bulb becomes home to one fly larvae (big, fat creamy grub) which spends a year sustaining itself by eating the bulb from the inside out, only to metamorphose and repeat the cycle. A breeder told me that narcissi only need 65 days of growth to build up strength in the bulb for next year’s flowering so you can remove foliage early if you need to beat the fly. We also favour the littlies, the dwarf varieties, which are much more compact and showy in the garden.

Bulbocodiums increase readily by division and some will set viable seed.

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

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.