Five early tulip varieties performing at their best right now

Although the daffodils are still providing colour in the garden they are definitely beginning to go over now. The next bulbs to perform will be the tulips and the first early tulips are now coming into their own. Here are five early tulip varieties that are in their prime in our garden at the moment (9 April 2021).


Tulip Van Eijk Mixed

Van Eijk Mixed provides a sumptuous array of colour. The flowers sit on strong sturdy stems that have held up well against the strong winds we have had at times this spring. They are looking particularly nice against the emerging red foliage of the roses.


Tulip Haute Couture

This is a short stocky tulip that seems to work very well in pots by the front door where you can look down on them. The powdery yellow is very attractive and the flowers sits neatly amongst these interesting mottled leaves.


Tulip Apeldoorn

Most tulips do not seem to be perennial in our garden and we tend to replant new bulbs each year. Apeldoorn is an exception however and these seem to return each year in the relatively dry conditions under our rose arches. They are very attractive planted amongst white multi-headed Thalia narcissus


Tulips Pink Prince and Flaming Prince

We have planted these two varieties together in six terracotta pots on the front steps down towards the lane. They make a great entrance for visitors (lockdown permitting) as they come up the steep steps with the blooms set against the grey foliage at eye level.

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Spring Equinox – a time to take stock

At this time of year it is the little things that you notice. Across the garden it is at times a bit like meeting up with old friends. Many of the bulbs, flowers, shrubs and trees have been in the garden for years yet many have remained hidden or quietly green all summer and winter. Now is their time to shine.

At the same time you have a raft of new arrivals that you planted at the end of last year that you hope have survived the cold, wet winter months. There is a quiet thrill of excitement when you see the first signs of growth breaking through the soil and the first leaves or blossom breaking.

Last Saturday (20 March) was the Spring Equinox here in the northern hemisphere. From now on the days will be longer than the nights, it is the official start of spring and summer is around the corner

To be honest for us the gardening year started sometime ago and the greenhouse, polytunnel, windowsills and dining room are already full of plants and seedlings.

However, the start of spring is a great time to stop and take stock of the beauty in the garden. The first of the pink cherry blossom is particularly pretty at the moment. Over the last couple of years we have been removing a rather thuggish Clematis montana from this tree and it has certainly responded this year with a beautiful show of delicate flowers.

Red leaved Prunus cerasifera
Prunus incisa ‘Paean’

Less successful this year have been the hellebores. Usually they are pretty fool proof providing a wonderful early spring show of colour. This year, for what ever reason, they have all looked very sad. Whether they were hit by a sudden cold spell at a critical time we don’t know but hopefully they will return with gusto next year.

Around the woodland edges there are a number of old favourites that bring a smile to my face as I do the morning tour with my springer spaniel. A simple clump of primroses, a cluster of miniture narsiccus, the small white flowers of the wood anemone Anemone nemorosa, the blues of Anemone blanda and a white Pulmonia ‘Bressingham White’ are all emerging again this year on schedule.

The beautiful simplicity of native primroses
Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone)

One of my favourite views at this time of year is the view across the orchard. The smell of the first cut of the orchard grass alone is wonderful and daffodils around the base of the apple trees shine out in the spring sunshine.

Over the last few years we have had an ongoing battle with the squirrels and voles who seemed to be intent on eating all our tulip bulbs. This year we have tried a different tack focusing our efforts on planting tulips in large pots and containers rather than in the ground. We invested in some fine metal mesh which we secured over all of the pots and it seems to have worked a treat. We have lost very few and hopefully now they are up we will be enjoying a great show in the next few months. The strong mesh, although not cheap, will also last us for many years and should be a sound investment.

Few tulips seem to last from one year to the next in our soil but we have had success with our very earliest kaufmanniana tulips. Variety ‘Ice Stick’ seems to be particularly successful and is the start of a long tulip season that will continue from now well into May.

Kaufmanniana tulip ‘Ice Stick’

There really are so many small and delicate little flowers emerging around the garden including Puschkinia and Chionodoxa to name but a few. The latter get their chance to flower before the grass at the base of the hedgerows starts to get going. We have found that the delicate light blue of Puschkinia sits beautifully with the darker blue of grape hyacinths and makes an attractive combination.

It wouldn’t be fair however to finish without a mention of the humble pansy. Planted before Christmas they look rather uninspiring for most of the winter but now they have come into their own.

Small but perfectly formed – Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica

I have written earlier about tough little plants that herald in the new year by flowering in the early spring. Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica is new to us but it is certainly one that I would now add to the list.

There is no doubt that it is tiny (probably just a couple of inches in our garden in Warwickshire at the moment) but it emerged and started flowering in mid-February and is still in full flower (March 8). The flowers and foliage come through together and it certainly needs a place to itself in the garden where it will not be crowded by bigger neighbours. Given space however it is absolutely charming.

Each plant has two leaves that sit either side of a single flower stem with 6 to 10 starry flowers. The white flowers have a delicate blue line down each petal with yellow stamens in the centre. They are members of the family Hyacinthaceae and have a similar appearance to scilla.

Puschkinia originate from Turkey and Lebanon where they grow in grasslands made damp by melting snow at 1900-3700m. They are happy in sun or light shade and should be planted 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart (1).

They certainly appear to be fully hardy having made it through a cold, wet winter here in the UK Midlands. The planting recommendation is that they do not like the ground to get too dry. As we have not grown them before we planted them in two different places in the garden to see where they would fair best.

The first group is in a bed in the flower garden that is in part shade and gets quite wet and boggy in the winter however stays moist all summer. Secondly we planted them in an area in full sun that is much better drained however remains wet all winter but is much drier in the summer. Time will tell where they will naturalise best but it is rather satisfying to report that at the moment both sets have survived the winter and are flowering well.

(1) “Bulb” by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978 1 84533 415 4)

Ageratum houstonianum – a plant with a secret defence mechanism

We have grown Ageratum houstonianum, the Mexican Paintbrush, for a number of years now. Originally we knew Ageratum as one of those short carpet bedding plants that you would see alongside red salvias and orange marigolds in council bedding schemes in the local park.

Some ten years ago we started up Honey Pot Flowers and were trying out new varieties to grow and include in our summer bouquets of British country flowers. We were introduced to the F1 variety ‘Blue Horizon’ which produces flowers on much longer, robust stems and holds extremely well as a cut flower. We have been growing it ever since.

This variety of Ageratum has large, dense flower heads of powder blue. It is not a colour that you find very often in the garden and so makes an interesting addition to both the flower borders and cut flower arrangements. Most importantly, once established it does seem to be a very well behaved plant, growing and flowering reliably throughout the summer.

It is a native of Central America and Mexico and it is worth noting that in some countries it is considered an invasive weed. We have certainly not found this to be a problem here in the UK climate.

I have just sown this year’s seeds (14th February). The tiny seeds are surface sown on a half tray of pre-watered, well drained multi-purpose compost. To ensure the seedlings do not damp off in their early days we mix the compost with a generous amount of perlite. I like to water the compost before sowing so that the tiny seeds do not get washed into the corner.

The half tray is covered with cling film to remove the need for any extra watering before the seedlings emerge. They will sit on a warmish kitchen windowsill now for a few weeks until the green shoots appear at which point we will slowly loosen the cover and acclimatise the small plants before removing the cling film altogether.

Looking at previous years’ records I will be pricking these out into larger trays in about five weeks time (towards the end of March), and will have planted them out into the garden by 6th May. They are not frost hardy so this would need to be adjusted to suit your own circumstances.

Our past records also indicate that we have been picking Ageratum for cutting by mid-June and they then continue to flower right through to the first frosts in the Autumn.

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’ arranged together with Phlox, Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, Liatris and pink Clary Sage

Over the years we have tried them in various parts of the garden but they do seem to grow best in full sun in soil that remains moist all the summer. Our garden soil can dry out rapidly in the height of the summer but there are areas in part shade that retain some moisture in the soil. The Ageratum also seem to thrive in these areas.

What we particularly like about Ageratum is how trouble free it is. It does not seem to be attacked by pests which is ideal if you want to grow good quality, clean stems for cutting, arranging and/or selling. In researching the plant this year I was surprised to find that it has its own secret defence mechanisms when it comes to fending off insects.

Ageratum has evolved a method of protecting itself from insects by producing a compound that interferes with the insect organ responsible for secreting juvenile hormone during growth and development. The chemical triggers the next moulting cycle prematurely and renders most insects sterile. Fascinating stuff!

Small blue and white arrangement combining Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’, chincherinchee and scabious seed heads

The joy of making petal confetti

Over the last year we have been having fun preparing for the marriage of our daughter. The plan is to have a large informal country wedding out in the garden amongst the flowers and trees. Alas, one or two pandemic issues have got in the way but the preparation continues for a rescheduled wedding in 2021.

In many respects the delay last year has allowed us to try a few things out in the garden. Some have worked, some have been less successful and in this new year we will be able to build on the successes of this year’s planting combinations and ditch those that did not work.

With the pressure off somewhat we have been able to play a little. One of the most enjoyable and relaxing activities is to wander around the garden in the warm sunshine picking flowers to make petal confetti. It is so satisfying.

Along the way we have learnt some tricks which we thought it would be nice to pass on if you plan to do this yourself.

First of all you may need a large floppy hat and Sussex Trug to really feel the part! Choose a warm, dry day if possible and certainly wait until any dew has gone. The flowers that you choose to pick should be fully out and mature. Good quality blown roses are fine to use.

We collected petals in cardboard trays lined with kitchen paper. If possible you want to create a single layer so that they dry well. You certainly don’t want piles of petals or they will not dry successfully.

The trays of petals were slowly dried in the airing cupboard for 2 days. Once dried we placed the petals carefully and loosely into air tight storage jars (we re-purposed washed Douwe Egberts coffee jars). In each of the jars we put a home made sachet of silica gel created using unwanted, emptied herbal tea bags.

It is important to store the jars in the dark. As you can see from the pictures the petals have kept their colour well over the months. Although you cannot smell them they have also retained their wonderful scent if they had one originally.

We have labelled each picture so that you can see how the different types flowers have turned out.

Dark purple Rose
Deep pink rose
Pale pink Rose
White and yellow Rose
Geum
Dahlia David Howard
Crocosmia
Calendula
Pink Larkspur
Blue Larkspur

So what have we learnt along the way:

  • White flowers are less successful as the petals tend to dry an unattractive brown or dirty white.
  • Many of the dark red flowers turned almost black and lost their attractive colour.
  • Very fleshy petals (eg. hemerocallis) don’t seem to dry well.

We have also been advised that taking good wedding day photographs of confetti throwing takes some practice so we had a really fun afternoon in the summer throwing petals and taking some pictures. Timing the release of your treasured petals is everything and unfortunately some of your guests may not be up to the task on the day – but that is half the fun.

Finally we think we should offer a word of warning for the big day. Some darker coloured petals will stain if moistened so we suggest you don’t throw these at the bride in her beautiful dress if the weather is at all damp!

Almost like a fairy tale

The garden and surrounding countryside have suddenly been cloaked in ice crystals this week. Due to a third national lockdown our single track lane is free of cars and most people are keeping warm indoors by their house fires.

It is all really rather beautiful and looks as if an ice wand has been waved across the trees and put the whole garden to sleep. Here are my Six on Saturday for this week which try and capture the feeling of the moment.

Happy New Year everyone!

One: Heuchera with violas
Two: Himalayan Fairy Grass
Three: A winter rose bud
Four: Rose leaves
Five: Ornamental cabbages
Six: Sedum

This post is a contribution to the Six on Saturday meme which is hosted by The Propagator. Click on the link to be inspired by what other garden lovers are enjoying this weekend.

Redwing – a winter visitor that feasts on the garden berries

Every year we are delighted to see the Redwings (Turdus iliacus) arrive from Scandinavia. Part of the thrush family the Redwing has a striking white supercilium above the eye and a white submoustachial stripe. It is however the bold rusty red patch under the wings that allows you to identify these birds with confidence.

In our garden they tend to come for the berries. This year they seem to have started on the holly berries which they finished off well before Christmas. They are now working their way through the Pyracantha (pictured) but as yet they have not started on the Cotoneaster. In a week or so when all the Pyracantha have gone I suspect we will see them sitting in the tall cotoneaster at the end of the garden picking away at those berries as well.

These birds are rarely on their own and we typically see a small flock visiting together calling each other with a sharp ‘tseep’. Once our berries are finished they will wander off across the fields and hedgerows searching for other berries and worms.

According to the RSPB website Redwings migrate by night in loose flocks. In autumn, redwings gather along the Scandinavian coast at dusk before launching off on their single 500 mile flight across the North Sea to the UK.

Some redwings also come from Iceland to winter in Scotland and Ireland. Others come from Russia and Scandinavia to winter in southern England and further south in Europe.

Redwing call

Audio Credit Patrik Aberg Xeno-canto

Festive Colour

I thought it would be nice to add a little festive cheer to my Six on Saturday post this week. Despite the rather grey days of December there are some beautiful berries and seed pods around the garden this week.

Some I am sure will be cut for Christmas decorations whilst the remainder will be enjoyed by the birds. The Redwings have arrived in large numbers and are now regular visitors.

One: Pyracantha


Two: Variegated Holly


Three: Hypericum


Four: Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Rothschildianus’


Five: Iris foetidissma


Six: Cotoneaster X watereri ‘Cornubia’


The Six on Saturday meme is hosted by The Propagator. Click on the link to be inspired by what other plant lovers are enjoying this weekend

The promise of summer raspberries and strawberries

One of our main lockdown projects this year has been the purchase of a new fruit cage and the planting of fresh strawberry and raspberry plants in a different area of the garden. We have grown strawberries and raspberries in the vegetable garden in the past but the plants have gradually got weaker and weaker and produced less and less. Time for a change we thought.

In the first lockdown back in March and April we decided to clear a new area on the edge of the orchard in full sun but also sheltered from the north winds by the hawthorn hedge.

The fruit cage

Having cleared the area we purchased a 5m x 2.5m peak roofed steel fruit cage from Harrod Horticultural in Suffolk. We were looking for something that would create an attractive feature in the garden rather than purely being a square box covered in netting. This certainly fits the bill.

With plenty of time on our hands and some nice weather we set about the task. The instructions were good and it all came together very well. With just two people and a large ladder we did manage to put it together ourselves although I think putting on the roof would have been much easier if more people had been available to help with the final lift. With only two of us the peak roof had to be carefully lifted into place in the centre by climbing up the ladder whilst the other bolted it into the frame.

We really only had one hick-up when we discovered that the two top finials were poorly welded and wouldn’t slide into place. It is always irritating to have to wait for replacement parts to come but there was no problem in getting them even though many were working from home at that time. In total it probably took us a week to put up with plenty of time for cups of coffee and lunch along the way.

The task that took most patience was whipping in all the netting to make sure there were absolutely no gaps that would allow the birds to get in. This took pretty much a whole day of careful sewing. The time has been well spent and we have had no birds inside during this first year.

Once complete we decided that half the cage was be put to strawberries and the other half to raspberries.

Strawberries

We were keen to get planting as soon as possible but recognised that we would have to wait until November to plant the bare root raspberry canes.

The strawberries were another matter and so we were able to get hold of cold stored strawberry plants from Ken Muir in early summer. These were lovely, strong, healthy plants and grew away beautifully once they were planted in the ground. Having prepared the soil we planted the bare root plants through weed suppressing membrane. As this was virgin land we knew that we would be fighting the weeds for some time and this gave us an opportunity to keep the weeds at bay as well as keep the strawberries off the soil. The theory was that the black material would also warm up quickly in the sun and aid ripening.

We planted three different varieties to give us a crop over a longer season. These were:

Vibrant – an early variety

Hapil – a mid-summer variety

Fenella – a late summer variety

In theory this should provide us with a crop from mid-June through to late July. What is particularly nice about planting cold-stored plants is that they crop in the first year – and it worked! There is nothing nicer than enjoying the fruit of your labours (with cream).

In this first year the three varieties grew quite differently. Vibrant produced the most fruit whilst Hapil grew a huge amount of foliage and produced less fruit. Our aim is to encourage plants with multiple crowns and so we spent a lot of time this year cutting out all the new runners that emerged.

Strawberries planted through weed suppressing membrane ( as the raspberries were not going to be planted until the autumn we kept the free area cultivated by growing courgettes and sweet corn)

Raspberries

In November we received our bare root raspberry canes from Pomona Fruits. In this instance we have gone for the two varieties Glen Ample and Tulameen. Both are summer fruiting varieties.

We did debate whether to have both summer and autumn fruiting varieties but concluded that we preferred to get one substantial crop and freeze any excess rather than risk never have enough for a good meal with friends. and family.

Prior to the canes arriving we prepared the ground and installed three strong upright posts and supporting cross wires. One thing we learnt for next time is that if the posts are too tall there is no enough room underneath the netting to effectiveky use the post rammer to drive in the supports.

One downside of planting summer fruiting varieties is that the fruit is produced on last year’s wood. Planting short, bare root canes this year means that we will not get fruit next year and only begin to crop in 2022. Far too long!

To overcome this we were delighted to see that Pomona Fruit provided ‘long canes’ of Glen Ample. We should therefore get our first crop of Glen Ample next summer whilst the Tulameen will grow fresh canes next year that will fruit for the first time in 2022.

Cordon Redcurrants

Browsing through the fruit catalogues is always fatal and as usual I was tempted by something we had not tried before. We do grow redcurrants and blackcurrants in the vegetable patch but the birds always get to the redcurrants before we do.

There was not enough room for a normal sized redcurrant bush in the new fruit cage but I did spot a cordon redcurrant Jonkheer van Tets. I convinced myself that there would be room to plant this alongside one of the end raspberry support poles. And so it was purchased. It looks great in the catalogue and it would be lovely if it can be kept well trained and produce lots of fruit. We enjoy redcurrants but don’t really need huge amounts so a single, productive plant (where we get most of the fruit instead of the birds) should more than suffice.

Photo credit: pomonafruits.co.uk

Hemerocallis – three new Day Lilies for the garden

Hemerocallis seem to be such trouble free plants in our garden that we are keen to expand our collection and add some new ones to the borders.

We ordered three new varieties from J. Parkers (dutchbulbs.co.uk) and the first of these arrived as bare rooted plants late yesterday afternoon.

To give them a fighting chance we have decided to pot them up and keep them in the greenhouse over winter. Once they emerge and the soil gets warmer we will be able to plant them out into their final positions. We have ten of each of three varieties so they should make a real impact in the coming years as they bulk up.

Hemerocallis Longfields Anwar (photo credit dutchbulbs.co.uk)
Hemerocallis Longfields Pearl (photo credit dutchbulbs.co.uk)
Hemerocallis Wild Horses(photo credit dutchbulbs.co.uk)

We think that these should be a really exciting addition and look forward to seeing them start to bloom next year. We are realistic that it may take one or two years before they really come into their own but I think you’ll agree they will be worth waiting for.


Hemerocallis are native to Eastern Asia, primarily China, Korea and Japan. They flower through June, July and August and produce neat fresh foliage as early as February. They are hardy perennials that die back in the winter and grow new fresh growth each spring. Although each individual flower only lasts for a day the plants can go on flowering for months.

Once established they can form large clumps of fleshy roots. These can be lifted in the winter or early spring, and easily divided to multiply up your stock of plants for the garden.