Better late then?
March 10th will be recorded as the first proper day of spring for 2015 at Gelli Uchaf. Sunshine, little wind, temperatures nearing double figures, and at last I see my first bumblebee of the year. A fortnight later than usual. But it took nearly an hour of wandering round the garden after lunch to be able to find one, and then get a usable photo. Though honeybees had been visiting the snowdrops, hellebores and scillas, for much of the morning. This did indeed turn out to be a false start, since it was followed by grey wet days, and the weather map was showing colder temperatures and no sun for the next week or so, but at least it would stay dry, which is a boost for the ewes.
Friday 13th, kicked off in an upbeat way with the first lambs of the year, and an added bonus of twins from ‘Loony’ who has previously only had singles. We’re hoping to gradually be able to improve the frequency of twinning from our ewes. But it’s not straightforward.
Suffice to say that it seems that the heritability of twinning in sheep is fairly low, and other flock management influences like nutrition and body condition at mating, are far more likely to influence the number of twins born in a particular year. We shall await the remaining lambs before thinking about this, but the benefit of raddling ‘Doublet’ our ram lamb last autumn has been huge, in giving us a really good idea of when to expect lambs from particular ewes. ‘Loony’ in the end was just 2 days later than the expected due date, and this same slight tardiness has been followed with all the subsequent ewes to date.
Even after all these years, as experiences go, not much beats seeing new born lambs up and suckling so soon after delivery, with those wonderfully responsive wriggling tails encouraging the ewe that all the effort of carrying them to full term has been worthwhile. By the time a few more lambs had been born, there was the unmistakable smell of ewe’s milk in the lambing area, whether through leakage, or simply through tainting the lamb’s first mustard yellow, tinted faeces, I’m not sure.
But a brief seasonal sensory experience I note and enjoy.
However, we’re rapidly running out of male sounding daffodil names beginning with ‘e’. Six lambs by the 20th, all rams. So ‘Eland’ and ‘Elf’, ‘Eddie’ (shortened from Edward Buxton), ‘Eaton’ (Song) and Egard and Egmont (King), (since these are tricky to remember, they’ve become known as ‘poached’ and ‘scrambled’).
Our real daffodils are still very slow in opening their flowers, but I have had an idea for photographing them in pairs, to illustrate relative flowering times and flower shapes, sizes and colours. So here are the first of what may turn out to be a series of Welsh sunrise moments. ‘Crewena’ top, and ‘Rjinveld’s Early Sensation’ below.
Daffodils have a system of flower description which took me a while to fully work out, from our catalogues. They are grouped into a range of flower types or divisions, based on flower form, or origins – not though, frustratingly, on just one of these elements.
Then they have flowering time groupings (e.g. VE stands for very early, L stands for late);
Then the flower is colour coded according to the perianth (‘petal’) colour first, followed by the trumpet colour. (e.g. W – Y, stands for white petals with a yellow trumpet).
With thousands of cultivars available this has been a historically useful quick guide to the identification of certain traits. Now, with internet search facilities, it’s actually quite handy to see real images of any particular flower.
Finally, the height of the flower is also a significant feature in picking a cultivar, as well as the all-important garden worthiness. As always, you’re a little stuck with this last critical aspect. Retailers rarely say how vigorous or floriferous a cultivar is, and to be fair, it probably varies hugely with climate, soil and topography. Whereas most of my snowdrops survive, multiply and flower regularly once settled in, our experience with daffodils is much less predictable. Many disappear completely within a few years of planting, or flower very poorly after year one. (‘Topolino’ top, and Tête-à-tête’ below). Most never set seed. Lifting and division is recommended long term, but for often very deeply planted bulbs, and aging gardeners, this is a chore too many. So, so my current plan, is to base our selections on either AGM cultivars, (awarded by the RHS after serious field trials, which should give an idea of garden merit), as well as some other vintage cultivars, which may have similar advantages if they’re still around after decades. And also, to choose cultivars to extend flowering for as long a season as possible.
Stand back and look, when the bulbs are actually in flower.
Preferably twice a week, and try to work out what has improved from the previous year. And what hasn’t. Photographic records are invaluable to me with this process, as my memory invariably has failed me, months later, when extra bulbs need to be ordered.
Then spot the areas of weakness, or no planting at all, and try to work out what you could add in. And even better, try to estimate now the number of bulbs needed relative to the few, or many, that are already there and the impact that these might actually create. The next step for us, has been to try to extend the flowering season, and also intermingle different flowers for a more impressionistic visual effect. Trawling available bulbs in catalogues, or on line, narrows a choice down to a few likely candidates. The bulbs are ordered, planted in the autumn and then flower emergence excitedly awaited the following spring. But since nearly all will flower well the first year, it’s only really two years down the road before one can assess viability in one’s own garden.
Then more can be ordered. This approach has worked well for us with Scilla mischtschenkoana, above. And here is the first scilly mishtake. The genus is named after the Greek goddess Scylla, who could appear beautiful, and then suddenly transform herself into a sea monster. Odysseus opted to steer his ship closer to Scylla, and avoid the equally scary option of Charybdis, who was capable of drowning the entire ship. As it was, Odysseus only lost 6 of the crew – one to each of Scylla’s six heads. All Scillas have 6 tepals (petals) and 6 stamens. And be careful when handling the bulbs, foliage and seeds, since they can have toxic effects. So, at least there are no issues of rodent predation with them.
The second of 3 scilly mishtakes was that this species was originally named after a Russian botanist, Pavel Ivanovich Misczenko (1869–1938). The bulbs are native to the Caucasus and Northern Iran. Somewhere down the line this was transliterated by German nurseries into the currently trickier S. mischtschenkoana. Later still, a few paler forms of the species arrived at the Dutch bulb firm of Van Tubergen, who introduced it to western gardeners in 1936 as Scilla tubergeniana, surmising it to be a novel species, though it subsequently turned out to be just a variant. Whilst the original species is clearly fertile, I’m uncertain whether this commercially supplied clone is. So, 4 years on, we still haven’t planted enough to create the sort of effects we wanted. It’s tricky to find a definitive answer on line, as to whether this cultivar does produce viable seed, and although honeybees certainly love the pollen (and even this year the later emerging bumblebees visited it too) and the bulbs are slowly bulking up as other members of the hyacinth family do, by offsets, I’ve yet to find any seedling leaves. So if we want it in other areas, there’s perhaps no option but to plant more bulbs this autumn. This apparent infertility is of course a bonus for nurserymen, but maybe also for gardeners – you end up buying loads more bulbs, but they’re less likely to be invasive, and if the flowers are infertile, it would help explain why they stay flowering for such a long time.
Iris reticulata, and Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ both work well as intermingled blue flowers. We plant them deeply, as with everything else here with a digging bar, and in part shade. But probably only 20% return a second year, and these then slowly build into clumps with multiple flowers. Are these worthwhile? Again, we’ve been mulling this over for 3 seasons, but they provide such a real ‘dot’ impact of slightly different colour, and height, amongst the masses of Cyclamen coum and Crocus, that we think that it’s worth carrying on with more plantings – they’re fortunately not too expensive, and are small bulbs, so not too much physical effort is involved in getting them into the ground en masse. Since we’ve now had 3 pretty intensive years of mass bulb planting, we realise that when you’re talking in thousands, not hundreds, you have to bear in mind what you can actually manage without serious harm over just a few autumnal weeks.
Using these two Iris in combination, we’ve also discovered that they wonderfully overlap, the earlier ‘Harmony’ just finishing as the darker, thinner species I. reticulata flowers emerge. But this is thrown in the first year of planting, since newly planted bulbs always seem to flower a couple of weeks earlier than older plantings.
But what to use as these early bulbs pass over, just about mid-March? Since daffodils are only just beginning, there’s a slight flower gap, and so a more recent planting has been Chionodoxa forbesii, (below, in pink and blue forms), which is just beginning to flower as the Crocus finish. And Scilla bithynica, below, which flowers at much the same time, but with paler duskier starry blue flowers and these certainly do seem to seed around nicely. Might this even turn out to be invasive? It’s such a lovely blue, and since the flowers seem to last over many weeks, I think I could forgive this, should it occur.Even Anemone blanda is slowly bulking up from hand pollinated flowers of a tiny few survivors of some bought in tubers a few years back, and just beginning to flower in the last week.
Finally, on our magic terrace, we’ve tried a couple of hundred Muscari latifolium. These look really promising as the flowers are just emerging surrounded by a much broader mid green leaf, not unlike those of a Tulip (to the right). The hope is that they will complement the pink and white streaked flowers of our only reliable Tulip, ‘Flaming Purissima’, which has performed well in the ground for over 5 years, without lifting. But the frustration is that it will be at least another year before we can assess whether the Muscari has long term viability, and then buy more to roll out the effect. For many more ideas on other early, and later, small bulbs to consider, most of which are indeed blue, click here for an excellent RHS trial on ‘Little Blue Bulbs’, and their characteristic features.
At this point I shall raise, as evidence of my bulb obsessions have been laid bare, the perhaps appropriate subject of “Stuffocation. Living more with less“, which is the title of a recent book by James Wallman. Click here for more. The book examines the quite recent rise of materialism in modern societies, and the consequent accumulation of stuff, or clutter, which fills many people’s homes. Has this trend reached crisis levels? Are people any happier as a result? Should we chuck it all out, and spend our dosh on experiences rather than things? Would this make us happier? You’d have to read the book to find out more, but as habitual hoarders and squirrelers, the theme struck a chord with us.
But what about in the garden?
Are you a ‘plantaholic’? Can you over plant? I’m sure you can with shrubs, trees or perennials, particularly with poor plant choices or placements. We certainly have in areas.
And what about bulbs?
Can you create bulbocation, or be overbulbed?
Currently my sense is that it’s actually difficult to achieve this with these geophytes (basically bulbous/tuberous plants), if the right choices are made. All bulbs seem to me to look much better en masse, rather than with just a few different forms dotted here and there. But what about if intermingled?
Can these massed effects then continue in waves, over weeks, as one finishes and another takes over the baton, using the same bit of ground?
There’s always a risk that one will dominate, but many bulbs have a growth habit of fairly short lived, mainly vertical, strappy foliage quickly doing its productive work before dying down as other taller plants get going later in the year.
What are the limiting factors here – unlikely to be water or nutrients with us (with regular wood ash applications), so if leaves emerge in sequence as the flowers do, will a succession work, within the same small patch?
Do any secrete inhibitory chemicals which impact negatively on other bulbs’ success if growing nearby? Or do subterranean root associations form mycorrhizal, and even multicultural links, as bulbs from all the continents mesh in harmonies never experienced in their native landscapes?
Factories of underground endeavour, fuelling floral emissions.
Maybe there was extreme serendipitous foresight on my part, when I plonked 3 incongruous chimney pots on our fledgling terrace garden years ago – to add a bit of height to the scene – since they now act as metaphors for this unseen exuberant process, in an increasingly bulb stuffed part of the garden.
Perhaps this leads onto the much bigger questions of why we garden, and what we are trying to achieve or create in our own patch?
I guess for us, the aim is not the biggest range of plants, or even plants grown to perfection, but more the challenge of the visual aesthetic we can produce. Can we create a changing, evolving, almost pointillistic (click here for more) visual feast each year, or even on those occasional fleeting moments when the light is right, and the scene sings, to accompany the surrounding birds?
And can we do this with flowers for as many months of the year as possible? And can we do this in harmony with the landscape around us, and encourage insects, which will visit many of these flowers, and in turn help to support the higher life forms dependent upon them?
Perhaps I’m just a frustrated painter, digging holes, and taking photos, since I don’t have any brush wielding skills, unlike Fiona.
We saw a great example of a pointillistic effect at Giverny years ago with 3 tulip cultivars and forget-me-nots, but what did the bed look like before or after these flowered? At least with bulbs, there’s also a fair chance that if the bulbs selected are fertile and seed around, then a continuing display is reasonably assured over the slightly longer term, when our tenure of this plot passes on to a fresh set of hands and eyes. Though woe betide the incomers if they don’t like the colour schemes!
There’s nothing like setting yourself an unachievable, or at least unmeasurable, target to strive for, though.
Finally the third scilly mishtake.
Great delight that a pot of saved seed from the only surviving bulb of 3 original Scilla peruviana, had germinated earlier in the year – having been left outside uncovered. This stunning large purple blue flower is native to Portugal and other southern European countries, not Southern America. But it first arrived in Britain aboard a ship called the Peru – and the name’s stuck.
Now, since the third fabulous red sun beckons in a new, and very rare sunny day, with the partial solar eclipse due in an hour, I must abandon the keyboard until later.(Later). Lack of filters made good photos of the eclipsed sun impossible for me. But to experience the strange dimming of light under clear blue skies, the relative hush that fell over the landscape, the darkening shadows and the dramatic cooling on a sunny morning was a very special moment.
A time to stand. And stare. And contemplate.
And since it was the first spring eclipse in Northern Europe for nearly 300 years, I thought that the daffodils and the reflected partially eclipsed sun was an appropriate Welsh record of this one-off event.