Arctic April

It has been the strangest month; cold – indeed the frostiest April in sixty years – and desert-dry. Although we’ve escaped spring frosts here on the East Kent coast, it has been bitter day-in, day-out, with desiccating winds blowing in from the north and east. Most days I have returned from walking the dogs feeling like I’ve had a facelift. Our heating is still on and I’m bundled up in my Ugg boots and a thick wool sweater as I write this post. Meanwhile, we have been watering our pots twice weekly since the end of March. (Rain forecast overnight tonight may save me a job later on.) The Meteorologists explain that dry ground combined with clear skies exacerbates the frost situation by encouraging ‘radiative cooling’. If I have learned one thing this year it is that gentle watering actually helps to guard against frost damage at ground level, although that’s of little comfort to those who lost their magnolia and camellia blossoms during the snow earlier in the month.

The impact of the weather on both gardens and the allotment has been pronounced. For weeks plants have grown at a snail’s pace when normally they’d be erupting from the ground with gusto. On the upside, our daffodils and tulips have never lasted longer. They’ve remained bright and unsullied for at least twice as long as normal, rewarding us with a terrific display. Less than half the tulips have coloured up so far, thus as May approaches there is much left to enjoy, including anemones, ranunculus and slipper orchids. I have only dispatched a handful of snails and other pests, since all creatures seem reluctant to come out of winter hibernation. Once again, I’ve not set eyes on a single lily beetle. Long may that continue. On the downside, our tiny greenhouse is bursting at the seams. The first twenty dahlias we potted up in March are now large enough to be planted out, eighty more are sprouting and another twenty have not been prompted into growth at all, owing to lack of space. Despite delaying seed sowing by several weeks we are going to experience a severe case of overcrowding if we cannot move anything outside soon. In the workshop, the gingers, cannas and brugmansias that are usually growing apace by now are only just showing signs of life. Although plants are fiendishly good at catching up, I predict summer will be on the later side this year.

Plans for the allotment ‘bulb field’, made last summer

Regular readers of this blog may recall that in November I revealed our bulb planting schemes for 2021. At the allotment, we went for smouldering purples and fiery reds and yellows. These colours make my heart sing. Through the fence between us and the carpark we hear a lot of ‘Oooh! Look at all those tulips!‘. We hope passers-by find them as joyful and uplifting as we do.

On the whole, I’ve found that the tulips at the allotment have stopped well short of their expected height, I presume due to drought and the openness of our plot. Tulip ‘Cash’ has been a winner, although it’s very close in appearance to T. ‘Apeldoorn Elite’, which I have grown since I was a child. The main difference is that T. ‘Cash’ is 50% taller than my old favourite with enormous flowers. The Beau is in love with T. ‘Ravana’ which is short yet extravagant with flamed petals and variegated foliage: definitely a more-is-more tulip. We have been taken aback by the similarities between some other cultivars. T. ‘Jan Reus’ and T. ‘National Velvet’ are extremely hard to tell apart, as are T. ‘Antraciet’ and T. ‘Uncle Tom’. What this and our other experimental plantings demonstrate is that one can’t go by pictures in a catalogue or website. They are almost always inaccurate, sometimes gratuitously so. One must try new varieties out for oneself, to properly assess colour, stature, flowering time, hardiness etc. etc. We can now select the best of these pairings for our situation and make room for something new and different next time.

From the top: T. ‘Cash’, T. ‘Doberman’, T. ‘Black Parrot’ (in bud), T. ‘Amazing Parrot’ (in bud), T. ‘National Velvet’, T. ‘Ravana’, T. ‘Jan Reus’, T. ‘Switch’, T. ‘Labrador’ and T. ‘Apeldoorn Elite’.

We did not plant enough bulbs for the Gin & Tonic garden, where our theme was ‘ice and lemon’. Having failed to finish planting all our purchases in autumn 2019, we played it too safe and focussed on the Jungle Garden. However, we have lots of favourites here, including the ubiquitous Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’ and the delightful, N. ‘Lemon Beauty’. Much as I love N. ‘Lemon Beauty’, her flowers face demurely downward like a hellebore, making it difficult to appreciate them fully. We planted generous quantities of T. ‘Purissima Design’, which is nicely simple without being boring. Yellow-edged leaves, reminiscent of a hosta, are a good foil for the ivory, egg-shaped flowers. The scheme would not be complete without T. ‘Exotic Emperor’, a flower which lives up to its name in all but colour. You’d naturally expect something rich and jewel-toned rather than off-white and green, but what it lacks in colour T. ‘Exotic Emperor’ makes up for in flamboyance of form. Surrounding a soft, powder puff of petals there are all sorts of pointy bits (botanical term) reminiscent of the tines that hold a jewel in place: unique and well worth growing. I’ve been waiting in vain for Acacia verticillata ‘Riverine Form’ to produce its pill-shaped puffs of yellow, but this feathery little shrub is showing typically antipodean disdain for our cold British weather and is not budging. The Beast From The East has left many other plants leafless until it warms up. Next year we need to think bigger and bolder about this small space, adding some fizz to bring the cocktail alive.

Tulip ‘Jack Snipe’ in the Gin and Tonic Garden

The main event at The Watch House is the Jungle Garden. We were inspired by the National Trust’s Emmetts Garden near Sevenoaks in Kent after a visit in September. Here, tulips ‘Pink Diamond’, ‘Kingsblood’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ are planted in the grass beneath cherry trees. I had never contemplated mixing pink, red and purplish-black before, and went to town on a full spectrum of colours from blush (T. ‘Poco Loco’) to ebony (T. ‘Continental’). We planned everything out on paper, including flowering times, to ensure we had a long succession of bloom. That part of the scheme worked; the palette is more of a happy accident, with a mix of pinks and reds that turned out to be too yellow or too blue alongside a few outright bad choices. Back to the point about trying things first hand, next year I am determined to perfect this scheme by planting more of the same cultivar and sticking with either warm pinks and reds or cool ones. The stand-out tulip, by a country mile, has been T. ‘Albert Heijn’. It is all too easy to be dismissive of established, popular varieties, but there is generally a good reason for their elevated status. T. ‘Albert Heijn’, unromantically named after a Dutch supermarket chain, has a chiselled silhouette and blooms that for last weeks. If you’re looking for a good pink tulip, you cannot go wrong with this one. T. ‘Czar Peter’ did something very peculiar and developed flowers which never properly opened, instead puffing out like Chinese lanterns, every petal seemingly fused at the tip. This is not normal, but looked marvellous.

Tulip ‘Czar Peter’

One thing I did get right is the quantity of hyacinths. Every year I chastise myself for not growing enough, but this year I cracked it. Ten pots, each planted with twelve to fifteen bulbs, have filled the garden with intoxicating scent. First to bloom were H. ‘Anne Marie’, followed by H. ‘Carnegie’ and H. ‘White Pearl’. Then came H. ‘China Pink’, H. ‘Miss Saigon’ (totally wrong colour, but a gift, so I can’t complain) and now, H. ‘Dark Dimension’, which has the darkest navy flowers I have ever seen.

I had been waiting for the perfect moment to photograph some of my favourite tulips for you. Fearing my stars may never align, I took the plunge today, ahead of tonight’s rain, despite some only just developing their true colour. Below, from left to right are: T. ‘Claudia’, T. ‘Attila Graffiti’, T. ‘Alison Bradley’, T. ‘Albert Heijn’ (almost gone over), T. ‘Poco Loco’, T. ‘Continental’, T. ‘Fantasy Lady’ and T, ‘Lasting Love’. If I had to choose three I would plant again, they’d be T. ‘Attila Graffiti’, which is the most fabulous, shimmering fuchsia-pink, T. ‘Continental’, with petals richer than Macassar ebony, and T. ‘Lasting Love’ which, as its name suggests, is lovely and lasts for weeks. If I had a sophisticated garden full of silvers and greys then T. ‘Poco Loco’ would be a sublime choice, but in this company it looks inspid.

The class of 2021

Here, at the tail end of April, we are in a strange situation where our display is halfway through rather than at an end. The buds of narcissi including N. ‘Calgary’, N. ‘Salome’ and N. ‘Cotinga’ have yet to burst and the list of tulips still to bloom is extensive – T. ‘Supri Erotic’ (what a name!), T. ‘Hemisphere’, T. ‘Capri Dream’, T. ‘Design Impression’, T. Black Hero’ and T. ‘Pretty Princess’. I must conclude that despite the weird weather it’s been an exceptional year for growing spring bulbs. Having invested a pretty penny, we’ve really got our money’s worth. TFG.

Our bulbs this year were sourced from J. Parker’s Wholesale and Dutch Grown, who are currently offering a 15% early bird discount to organised gardeners. As new kids on the block, selling direct from The Netherlands, this family-run company is definitely worth a look.