Switch onto bulbs: If you’re hoping for drifts of daffodils or beds brimming with bold tulips in spring, then now is the time to plant them, say MONTY DON
Planting spring-flowering bulbs in September is good practice – after this the bulbs lose precious growing time. It is also an essential gesture of hope, throwing a lifeline across the gulf of winter to the promise of spring.
‘Bulb’ is a generic word to cover plants that store their next season’s flower within a self-contained capsule that can survive until the following growing season without nourishment or roots.
Everything about the flower, all it needs to know to become its full self, is contained within the squat bulb.
Planting spring-flowering bulbs in September is good practice – after this the bulbs lose precious growing time. It is also an essential gesture of hope, throwing a lifeline across the gulf of winter to the promise of spring. Says Monty Don (pictured)
True bulbs – such as tulips, alliums and daffodils – are essentially a much reduced stem made from concentric layers of fleshy scales with a protective dry outer layer.
Each scale is the base of a leaf or the thick scale leaves that stay below ground. The outer layer is last year’s scales.
There are three distinct forms of bulb. In the most common – such as tulips or alliums – the bulb shrivels and dies after flowering and is renewed from buds at the base of the scales at the point where they join the basal plate.
Narcissus bulbs, on the other hand, do continue year on year, producing offsets rather than wholly renewing.
True bulbs – such as tulips, alliums and daffodils – are essentially a much reduced stem made from concentric layers of fleshy scales with a protective dry outer layer. Each scale is the base of a leaf or the thick scale leaves that stay below ground. The outer layer is last year’s scales.
This is why you get ever-increasing drifts of daffodils whereas tulips increase more reluctantly, with a loss of vigour – it takes two or three years for most tulip bulbs to flower.
The final form is like a Hippeastrum (amaryllis) and has embryonic bulbs for three years ahead within each ‘parent’ bulb.
How to take box cuttings
- Box propagates very readily from cuttings and September is the perfect time to obtain hundreds of free box plants.
- Choose healthy new shoots and cut just below the new growth so there is a base of harder wood. This stops them drying out too fast.
- Trim each cutting just below a leaf node, using sharp secateurs or a knife so they are all the same length, and remove at least half the leaves from the bottom of each.
- Fill a plastic pot with a gritty cutting compost mix and gently insert the cuttings around the outside, between the pot and compost so that the bare stem is fully buried.
- Label clearly with the date, water, and place the pots on a heated bench (if you have one) or the corner of a greenhouse or coldframe.
There are two rules when planting bulbs.
The first is to allow at least twice their depth of soil above them and the second to put them pointy end up. But as with all rules, there are exceptions – the imperial fritillary, for example, needs to be fully 15-23cm deep and planted on its side, and tulips can be planted just below the surface if they are to be lifted later.
However, the guiding rule is that you will do less harm by being too deep than by being too shallow.
Another general rule is that bulbs need good drainage and this is vital for tulips, alliums and Iris reticulata.
Mix grit into a general area or container (50:50 grit to potting compost) that they are to be planted in, or add a dollop of grit in every planting hole.
As ever, there are exceptions. Snowdrops and the snake’s head fritillary need damp conditions.
Snowdrops are best spread ‘in the green’, which means digging a clump up and dividing it thinly while still in flower or just after.
Snowdrops can be planted as bulbs too, but you’ll have a much better success rate this way.
When planting bulbs into grass, take out the holes individually for larger bulbs or, for little bulbs like crocus, cut squares of turf, place the bulbs on the soil and put the turf back over the top.
The best way to plant larger bulbs in grass so that they make a natural spread is to throw a handful onto the ground and plant them wherever they land.
With containers, pack small bulbs in tightly and use shallow alpine pans that are perfect for crocus, snowdrops, fritillaries, iris, Muscari.
Give them some sunshine when dormant.
Plant all bulbs as soon as you buy them – the risk of fungal disease and rotting increases the longer they’re stored. I once bought 200 Erythronium bulbs and only 50 survived the two weeks that I’d waited.
Your kitchen garden: Hazelnuts
Hazel wood is the main source of bean and pea sticks, and all the fencing at Longmeadow is woven from coppiced hazel. But at this time of year the hazels exist for their nuts.
Growing nuts for deliberate harvest is rare in modern gardens, but until the Second World War a ‘nuttery’ was a feature of many large gardens, and I have seen miles of hazel plantations in Italy, north of Rome, where the nuts are harvested for their oil. The biggest nuts are produced on old wood, so the hazels are pruned to get the right amount of light and air to them, fixing them in a perpetual maturity where coppiced wood is always reinventing itself.
The wild hazel you find in woodland is Corylus avellana, or the cob. It carries its nuts in clusters of two to four, the squat nut sleeved by a short husk. To get the best nuts, hazel, rather like fig, needs to grow on poor, stony soil. If the ground is too rich and damp, the goodness will go into the wood rather than the fruit.
Hazelnuts will store until Christmas if kept in their husk, which stops them from drying out too fast. If collected while green, leave them in a dry place and they will ripen by November.