The never-ending spring and its positive effect on bulbs
Last weekend my hopes were raised that spring had finally sprung: it was sunny, the temperatures were at long last pleasant enough that one could sit outside. It did not last. No sooner was Tuesday there, and we were back to grey, cold, damp weather. As gardeners, we should be pleased as these are ideal planting conditions, but after the severe night frosts that seem to have battered many plants in large parts of Europe at the end of April everybody has just become weary and all are fed up.
I have been missing the sunshine and my vitamin D reserves are low, but secretly I am not all that displeased with it all. The rain has been much needed. In the last six months the rainfall in Germany has been below the average and starting the season on a low is always particularly worrying in Berlin as here we tend to have a continental climate, where summers can get very hot with prolonged periods without rainfall.
Early spring charmers
The upside of this cool weather has been the wonderful bulb season. It’s been long and slow. March was lovely so that the early ones were quick to show. Scilla have become firm favourites of mine as grassy roadside strips turned into sheets of luminous blue along Berlin’s streets as Scilla siberica flowers. Much earlier is Scilla mischtschenkoana with its refreshing pale icy blue flowers and a little charmer is Scilla bifolia ‚Rosea‘. Chionodoxa forbesii have done well in my garden. I am allowing all of these to set seed, so that they can slowly increase their population in the coming years. For thise who are patient, this is the easiest way of establishing larger drifts of small bulbs: just let them spread by seed.
Grape hyacinths – Muscari
Like with all these smaller bulbs, their beauty lies in the detail of the plant. It is worth looking at them closely. The Grape Hyacinth Muscari armeniacum ‘Touch of Snow’ is just such one, with its frosted topping. A very unusual one is Muscari macrocarpum ‚Golden Fragrance‘. It may not fit in the category „pretty“, „unusual“ is more appropriate with its greenish yellow, somewhat larger flowers, with an unusually strong scent.
The early tulips such as Tulipa kaufmaniana ‚Ice Stick‘ were a great gain to our border. Tulipa praestans ‚Shogun‘ is a favourite I also grow in my shady home garden, where it flowers before the oak and chestnut come into leaf. They seem to get enough sunshine and gather sufficient strength to return from year to year. Tulips seem to like the root-filled areas on the sunnier edges of shrubs, where during the summer months the soil is baked and dry as the shrubs absorb excess moisture.
Subtleties in Tulips
Each season I discover „new“ favourites. They are not necessarily newly introduced, they are just new to me. Having always had a soft spot for the eccentricity of parrot tulips, I have fallen in love with Tulipa ’Snow Parrot’. For a parrot, it’s a very descent one, flowering off white. Its charm lies in the back of the petals: they have a very subtle lavender-blue shading, which is particularly lovely when still in bud. Tulipa ‘Light and Dreamy’ also has this subtle lavender coating on the rear of its petals, and a dark Flowerstalk. She is also quite early, but has a rather large flower which proportionally can be tricky in amongst the other smaller-shaped tulips. Another one I have been struggling with for similar reasons is Tulipa ‚Orange Emperor‘, though these have been great this spring, planted in amongst masses of sturdy Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis).
Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
It is the first year I have been happy with my Crown Imperials. In the past I have always made the mistake of planting just a few, which makes them look somewhat forlorn as the “big guys” in amongst the much smaller bulbs and emerging perennials. Planting them in masses with tulips, the just hover above the tulips in an additional layer and just look right.
The real winner for me this season were the narcissi. The slow cool spring has meant they flowered for ages. Narcissus ‚Cocopelli‘ completely captivated me with its fabulous scent, and N. ‚Elka‘ is absolutely charming in its simplicity. I have also re-discovered the joys of Narcissus bulbocodium in recent years. These dainty bulbs I have always associated with my early student days working in the alpine departments of Kew and Wisley where they were to be found in the early spring displays of the alpine houses. I have discovered they are much more robust than that, and have been enjoying N. ‘Stint’ and N. ‘Julia Jane’ in the garden.
Some remain old favourites, and nothing will change my mind. N. ‚Peeping Tom‘ is one of these with a delightful long snout and folded back ears that cheerfully greet me every morning and never fail to put a smile on my face. For those who are allergic to yellow, N. ‘Thalia’ is a beautiful variety that has been particularly good in our border this year.
Even though the early ones have finished flowering, the bulb season is far from over. There are still several favourites due to start. ‚Blue Parrot‘ will be the last one to drop its petals as the alliums get cracking. I can’t wait for it all!
Isabelle Van Groeningen
6th Mai 2017