It’s hard work planting pots for winter and spring. I dread the work it entails, the heaving about of compost, the potting up of precious tender plants and carting them to the greenhouse and the garage, the sweeping up and then the headscratching problem of which bulbs and plants to put in which pots. But soon I’ll just have to get on with it – there’s a big box of bulbs looking at me accusingly and I know that when spring comes I’ll be glad I did it.
I’ve been poring over last winter and spring’s photos to try to get myself in the right mood, but looking at them reminds me that I encourage my online students at LearningwithExperts.com to make notes of what they have planted and to learn from both successes and failures. So perhaps I should practice what I preach? Hmmm, let’s have a look at my notebook – together with my photos I should be able to learn some lessons for this year’s planting session…
Lesson 1: Get on with it!
I didn’t start planting until mid November but I would have preferred to start earlier. Late planting doesn’t seem to make much difference to most bulbs as long as you can store them cool and dry, but bedding plants do much better if you can get them established before the compost gets too chilly. If they can get their roots down into tepid compost they can withstand the winter much better and well-anchored plants won’t get pushed out by frost heave. Quite a few of my pansies and violas didn’t make it to spring.
Lesson 2: It really is worth thinking about foliage for winter.
For my backdoor pots last winter I chose evergreens and everbrowns, plus the warm tones of a couple of little copper beech trees whose autumn leaves persist until the fresh ones start to emerge in spring. I bought these copper beech seedlings in the Vale of Evesham a couple of years ago and I wish I had bought more. I love the way they change through the seasons (beech is my favourite tree anyway) and so far they don’t seem to mind being planted, dug up and replanted in various pots. I also used lots of brown carex seedlings, descendants of some ‘Curly Whirly’ I grew from seed years ago and allowed to self seed in my gravel. They are easy to pull out and insert into plantings. And, let’s face it, even if they die you can’t really tell.
Lesson 3: A theme helps you to choose plants and bulbs, but don’t let it lead you astray.
I bought Tulipa ‘La Belle Epoque’ even though it was trendy. I normally avoid fashionable plants but I told myself not to be a snob (see Lesson 4) and bought it anyway. I had visions of a 19th Century Parisian Café, all Art Nouveau curlicues, rustling dresses, little cups and dainty apricot pastries, ‘La Belle Epoque’ was to be at the centre of a peach/coffee/apricot indulgence (see list at the end for the varieties I used).
I hated ‘La Belle Epoque’. Freshly hatched, the flowers were lumpy and offered the sickly colours of decomposing flesh (not that I’ve ever seen much decomposing flesh because I’m a vegetarian, but you get my drift). They had one good day then they aged badly, becoming dull and messy. I couldn’t face moving the large pot they were in (see Lesson 5).
Every time I looked out of the window I hated them more. They seemed to suck the colour out of their fresh-faced neighbours. But forty million people on Twinstagram can’t be wrong can they? I left them. They got more and more flyblown.
Eventually I cracked and cut them down because they were taking too long to die. I let them die in a vase in the sitting room, where they looked just as horrible and turned into potpourri on sticks. I hate potpourri too.
Lesson 4: Look into your soul and see whether you are dismissing a plant because you’re being a bit snobbish.
I try lots of unfamiliar varieties each year. I read the catalogue descriptions, do a bit of research online, make a longlist, wish I was a millionaire, then make a much shorter list. This time I caught myself dismissing a multi-headed, stripy, colour-changing tulip called ‘Antoinette’, mentally slapped my wrist and bought it anyway. It was fascinating and I liked all of its bells and whistles. It’s always worth buying something which sounds like it might be fun – in my garden I can have stripy chameleon plants if I want to, who cares what the taste police think?
Lesson 5: Choose a colour theme and then get a little bit careless about it.
This is the only way you are going to find pleasing new combinations – so go ahead, take a few risks and surprise yourself! Serendipity is a very good gardener. And after all, this is container planting – if you don’t like the colours you can move the offending pot out of sight. Did I? No, I just let things annoy me. I found the display constantly engaged me though, I was looking at colours and wondering about my reaction to them: some were toothsome (only one was loathsome) and it definitely wasn’t boring. I remember the first time I went to Great Dixter, back in 2006, I came back to my garden and realised how boring and safe it was. Since then I have constantly prodded myself to get a bit riskier with colour, although my default setting for colour is still cautious.
Lesson 6: There’s a fine line between a gorgeous profusion and overcrowding.
Although it’s hard to have too many bulbs in your garden it is possible to squeeze too many bulbs into a container and to lose the form and habit of the flowers. Over the years I have curbed my enthusiasm a bit and I think I generally achieve quite a good balance between plants and bulbs within my pots now. But I still cram too many pots into the space and there are times when it gets overcrowded and some potfuls are somewhat obscured. If it wasn’t for having to get the car into the yard I’d simply pull the pots outwards when they are at their peak to give them a little more breathing space.
Lesson 7: One is better than none – or is it?
That rule of planting in threes and fives, beloved of horticulture instructors, can make a garden look dreadfully boring. When planting bulbs in pots I often use fives or tens purely because that’s how the bulbs are sold. Sometimes I might, for example, put seven tulips in one pot and the remaining three in a pot nearby, mixed with something else. That’s how I rock. In the ground I would always supplement five/three groups with scattered twos and ones just to make the planting a little more random/natural looking.
Generally, however, I avoid planting two of any bulb in a pot. This is partly because a group which looks rounded is better in a circular pot (it’s so hard to explain this without drawing it!) and a pair is linear, however much you play around with it. When two hyacinths come up in a pot they look like the ears of a mutant rabbit emerging and this year I was reminded that if one of that inadvisable pair fails or gets broken you get an even worse solitary prong. I should have jammed all five of the Hyacinths into the same pot.
I did buy just one Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’ because that was all I could afford. It was beautiful but it looked like a unicorn horn. Three or five would have been much better.
Lesson 8: Those fresh spring greens are the best foil for flowers.
In summer the sap of Euphorbia bites me so I leave it well alone but it is less likely to burn me in the cooler months and I frequently use this plant in my winter-spring pots because nothing beats those vivid green bracts, especially when low spring sun lights them up. No matter how garish your colour choices tulip-wise, if you have planted perennials and evergreens among them they will be fine. Bright buxus tips and general fresh limey growth is a fine buffer between bright colours, making them sing harmoniously. Except for ‘La Belle Epoque’, which is tone deaf.
Good foliage also provides a framework for emerging bulbs and takes over when the bulbs start to die back.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the creamy fresh growth of Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’, which matched Tulipa ‘City of Vancouver’ even better than I had hoped. This Fatsia was a plant rescued from the Nearly Dead Bargain Corner of a garden centre, I’ve always been a bit dubious about ‘Spider’s Web’ because it tends to look as if it has a bad case of red spider mite but I’m glad I suppressed my prejudice.
Lesson 9: Put your pots where you can see them.
Again this is something I emphasise in lectures: it may seem obvious but winter/spring pots need to be positioned where you can see them from indoors, or at least where you can see them as you scurry in from work. I love gardening but when it’s cold I suddenly find more things I need to do indoors, even the washing up gets done in a relatively timely fashion. This display lifted my heart as I looked out of the kitchen window. It made me even happier after I gave blinking ‘Belle Epoque’ the chop.
Lesson 10: Net curtains are awful/pay attention to the background of your display
I am definitely taking those horrible curtains down this winter. They date from when we used to rent out that part of the house and I can’t think why we haven’t got rid of them. Domestic inertia, I suppose. Anyway, what I’m on about is backgrounds and surroundings – a bit of tidying and attention to detail around your pots can make a world of difference.
Think Parisian café: Art Nouveau swirls, taffeta dresses, coffee, caramel, chocolate, peach and apricot, with the odd splodge of cream, blackcurrant, lemon, vanilla and strawberry.
Tulipa Antoinette, Apricot Beauty, Apricot Emperor, Apricot Impression, Apricot Parrot, Armani, Black Jewel, Brown Sugar, Brownie, Café noir, Candy Apple Delight, Candy Corner, Charming Lady, City of Vancouver, Creme Flag, Elegant Lady, Gavota, La Belle Epoque, Little Star, Mango Charm, Peaches and Cream, Stunning Apricot, Sunset Miami, World Expression.
Narcissus Bellsong, Blushing Lady, conspicuus, Minnow, Reggae, Salome, Sophie Girl, Yellow Cheerfulness
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’, sieberi ‘Spring Beauty’, ‘Yellow Mammoth’
Misc: Anemone blanda, Camassia leichtlinii ‘Semiplena’, Chionodoxa sardensis, Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells, Hyacinth ‘Gipsy Princess’, Muscari botryoides ‘Superstar’, Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’