A selection of tough little plants that give a spark of colour in the early spring garden

I am full of admiration for those flowering plants that can take all that winter can throw at them and emerge pretty well unscathed when the snow melts.  Here is a selection of some of the stars of the moment.

Iris reticulata

Originating from Russia and the Causasus mountains Iris reticulata comes in shades of blue through to white.  They have been flowering here at Waverley since January and are still producing good quality flowers now in late March.  Named after Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, the shot of yellow and white along the centre of the blue petals I think fits this derivation beautifully.  The species name ‘reticulata’ relates to the netted tunic which covers the bulbs and is unique to this group of Iris.

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note'
Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’

These beautiful early spring bulbs prefer sandy soils in a sunny position.  In theory, once established, they should keep coming back year after year but we have struggled to keep them going in our soil which gets rather waterlogged in the winter.  For us, they do much better in terracotta pots where we can control the drainage.  It also gives us the chance to plant the bulbs with other plants to make striking spring combinations. The blue goes particularly well with the contrasting orange crocus ‘Orange Monarch’.

Iris reticulata 'Alida' with Crocus 'Orange Monarch'
Iris reticulata ‘Alida’ with Crocus ‘Orange Monarch’ growing through a backdrop of the black leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

In preparing for this article I was interested to come across a point about planting depth in Anna Pavord’s book ‘Bulb’.  She indicates that in open ground Iris reticulata should be planted at least 10cm (4 inches) deep.  Anna suggests that this helps prevent the bulbs splitting up into masses of bulbils and so encourages the bulbs to flower again the next season.   If bulbils develop they will take at least 2 years to grow back to flowering size.  This is quite deep for a small bulb and something we might try next autumn when we come to plant the next batch.


An area of emerging spring crocus is such a lovely site.  Planted en masse, these tiny plants can be spectacular.  For us it is usually the yellow flowers that emerge first with the purple shades following later.  We plant our Crocuses mainly in grass where they can get the warmth of the spring sunshine yet the corms stay relatively dry and undisturbed throughout the summer when they are dormant.

Yellow crocus
Yellow spring crocus

The crocus is a native of Turkey and south-eastern Europe.  It is a member of the Iris family and grow from corms (rather than bulbs).    Whereas true bulbs are made up of modified leaves that store food, a corm is a modified stem which is solid and does not have rings or scales.

Spring crocus
Spring crocus

Not satisfied with crocuses in the springtime alone we also have autumn flowering crocuses planted around the garden that emerge in October/November.

Miniature daffodils

Although we love daffodils it is the miniature varieties that perform particularly well when subjected to rain, sleet, hail and snow.  Whereas the taller varieties seem to get battered down by the snow and don’t bounce back well, the miniature varieties like tête-à-tête and Jenny seem to be hardly touched by a blanket of heavy snow and emerge virtually unscathed.

Miniature narcissus
Miniature narcissus


The happy little faces of viola grace the patio pots in the garden all winter.  We tend to find that the viola flowers withstand the ravages of the winter weather much better than larger flowered winter pansies.


In the autumn we usually buy viola plug plants which we will add to our tubs when we plant them up with a lasagna of narcissus, tulips, Muscari Paradoxum Bellevalia and crocuses.  Once completed we top with the violas which will provide colour throughout the winter whilst the bulbs are developing under the soil.

When the temperatures rise and the bulbs begin to emerge the violas also start to develop providing a dense cascade of flower and foliage which softens the surface of the tubs and also hides some of the dying foliage from earlier bulbs.

Planters of tulips and viola - Late April 2011
Planters of tulips and viola – Late April 2011

Primroses and Hellebores

Last but not least we must not forget the primroses and hellebores which continue to look good despite the tough winter conditions.  We have written in previous blogs about these wonderful and fascinating plants so rather than repeating ourselves take a trip to visit these earlier articles (Primroses and springtime, Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)) for more pictures and background.

Primula vulgaris
Primula vulgaris
Helleborus orientalis
Helleborus orientalis

Further reading

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


Man cannot live by flowers alone – time to start sowing the Broad Beans

Believe it or not our life is not all about colourful flowers!  The vegetable garden also plays an important part in our enjoyment, getting us out in the fresh air and harvesting what we grow.  As it is now the 6 March and the sun is out it seemed perfect for sowing the first broad beans of the year.

Each year we tend to grow a mix of old favourites that we know will do well in our soil and we also have fun trying out some new varieties.

This year we are growing three (descriptions by Marshalls Seeds):

  • The Sutton – “perfect for small or exposed gardens on account of the bushy, compact plants which grow to a manageable 35-45cm (15-18in) tall.
  • Masterpiece Green Longpod – “a reliable and popular long pod Broad Bean variety with up to 6 or 7 flavoursome beans per pod  … excellent for freezing and have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit for its great qualities.
  • Scabiola Verde –  “vigorous spring-sown, longpod variety of broad bean that produces pods up to a whopping 40cm (16in) in length with up to 10 beans per pod.

Although you can plant direct into the ground we always have much more success by sowing in pots in the greenhouse and planting out when the soil is warmer and the new plants are more robust.  We have more luck in staying on top of the mice and voles this way.

We plant two seeds to each 3 inch pot filled with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.   When the seedlings emerge I remove the weakest one and let the other grow away strongly.  I hate to end up with some pots with nothing growing in them.

Broad Beans are sown in 3 inch pots with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite
Broad Beans are sown in 3 inch pots with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite

The trays of pots are watered well, covered with cling film and placed in a cold greenhouse to germinate.  I cover the trays with cling film so that I do not have to worry about watering again until the seedlings emerge.  The seedlings are uncovered immediately the shoots break the surface.

The strong plants will be planted out in neat (very satisfying) double rows in April/May. The beauty of growing in pots is that you get complete rows with no gaps.

As the summer moves on the bees will come and the beans will form usually cropping from around May until August depending on when they have been sown.  For me the beans are best picked young and eaten fresh.

I have to say it is an extremely pleasant activity just sitting in the evening sun with a glass of wine, quietly podding the beans ready for supper.  I am looking forward to it already!

Further information

Scientific name:  Vicia faba

Family: Fabaceae

Origin:  Western Asia  (ref:  Kew Science)


Primroses and Springtime

Spring would just not be spring without Primroses in the garden.  These low growing hardy perennial plants with their pale yellow flowers grow freely at the base of hedgerows along English country lanes and on the edge of woodland.

Primroses not only grace the British countryside but also have a much wider distribution across western and southern Europe.  They have a range which spans from the Faroe Islands and Norway in the north to Portugal and North Africa in the south and eastwards to Turkey and Iran (ref:  Wikipedia).

Although Primroses (Primula vulgaris) do come in other colours it is the pure, delicate pale yellow that we prefer.  These are distributed in natural, informal plantings amongst the fallen leaves at the base of the trees and hedgerows here at Waverley.  They seem to grow best in part shade and in areas of the garden that remain reasonably moist.


There are a number of plants in the garden that remind us of particular people, places or times and our Primroses are no exception.  Many of our Primroses originated from the charming country garden of the late June Runnalls at the Old Smithy in Blisland on Bodmin Moor.  Every year when the Primroses begin to flower we remember ‘Auntie’ June (and her cooking) with affection.  Such a lovely lady.

June Runnalls in the gardens at Tregenna Cottage, Blisland, Cornwall
June Runnalls in the gardens at Tregenna Cottage, Blisland, Cornwall


The clumps of Primroses can be lifted and divided in the autumn.  Gently separate the fleshy stems so that each piece has a visible bud and plant immediately to make sure the stems do not dry out.  Primroses can also be sown from seed.

Pin and Thrum Flowers

An interesting feature of Primroses is that the flowers take two forms (dimorphic).  These two forms are differentiated by the position of the sigma (female structure) and anthers (male structures) in the flower tube of the Primrose flower.  The two forms are known as ‘Pin’ and ‘Thrum’.    In ‘Pin’ flowers the stigma is at the top of the flower tube with the anthers positioned halfway down. In ‘Thrum’ flowers the stigma is positioned halfway down with the anthers at the top.  Individual plants have either Pin flowers or Thrum flowers.

These different flower types were studied by Charles Darwin no less and his paper of 1862 is in fact very readable.  He also observed that crosses between plants with thrum flowers and those with pin flowers were more fertile than those between the same type.  Sarah Shailes reports that this may be one of a number of mechanisms that encourage cross-pollination in Primroses and prevent flowers being self-fertilised with genetically identical pollen.

Rather charmingly Darwin highlights the importance of the different forms to country craft pursuits   “Village children notice this difference, as they can best make necklaces by threading and slipping the corollas of the long-styled flowers into each other.

Distyly primula

A – Pin form, B- Thrum form  (Legend: (1) corolla, (2) calix, (3) anthers, (4) style).

Image By berru (English: self-made Français : travail personnel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Crystallising Primrose flowers

Primroses are really too short stemmed to be very useful for floristry although they do make charming posies and are often picked by children as a gift for Mother’s Day.  Single flowers in water can also make a pretty addition to a table setting.

Because the flowers are edible they can be crystallised and used to decorate a wide range of cakes and other dishes.  Using a fine brush paint the flowers with egg white on both sides of the petals and then sprinkle caster sugar carefully over them.  Knock off any surplus sugar and allow to dry and then store in an air tight container until required.  According to Maddock Farm Organics these flowers will last a couple of weeks.  They also indicate that using diluted gum arabic instead of egg white can give a longer shelf life.

Further information

Hardy  perennial

Origin:  Western and Southern Europe

Latin name:  Primula vulgaris  (derivation Primula:  First flowering, vulgaris: Common)

Family:  Primulaceae

Hardiness:  RHS hardiness rating H7  (Hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20))

Height:  c. 10cm

Flowering period:  February to April

Toxicity:  Edible

Floriography:  First love, childhood, innocence and lover’s doubts

References and further reading

“The pin and thrum of primroses” by Sarah Shailes


Darwin, C. R. 1862. On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. [Read 21 November 1861] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 6: 77-96.


“100 flowers and how they got their names” by Diana Wells (ISBN 1-56512-138-4)

“The language of flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (ISBN 978-0-230-75258-0)

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.)

There is one flower above all that signals the beginning of the new gardening year and the promise of great things to come. In the garden here at Waverley some varieties of snowdrops (Galanthus) begin to start to flower in early in December with others flowering right through the winter months and into March.

All snowdrops prefer cool, moist conditions in the spring followed by a dry summer dormancy in the shade. Planted in the right conditions about 4-5 inches deep, snowdrops seem to love the growing conditions here in Warwickshire.

Often seen as a symbol of purity and chastity these delicate looking flowers are really tough pushing through the winter soil and emerging like white pearls. Alternative names include ‘Fair maids of February’ and Candlemas Bells however the French name of Perce-Neige (snow piercers) seems particularly apt.

The love of these tiny flowers I think must run in the family with Carol’s uncle, snowdrop expert Colin Mason of Fieldgate Snowdrops, providing us with a number of varieties and species that have now established throughout the garden. It is a lovely thing that your individual garden plants can remind you so vividly of friends and relatives and the times that you have spent together.

Galanthus elwesii
Galanthus elwesii

Snowdrops and Snowflakes

Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Snowflakes (Leucojum) are closely related species. Whereas as Snowflakes have six equally sized petals, Snowdrops have three larger outer petals surrounding three smaller inner petals typically marked with green.

In addition to the snowdrops we have also been increasing the number of summer snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) that we have around the Honey Pot Flowers garden. These flower much later (May to June) and because of their longer stems prove much more useful as cut flowers than the shorter snowdrops.

Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)
Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)

Leaf morphology

The arrangement of the paired leaves at the base of the snowdrop plant is helpful in identifying the different species. For example, in the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) the two leaves are pressed flat together (applanate) whilst in Galanthus elwesii one leaf is clasped around the other (supervolute).

Galanthus nivalis leaf morphology (applanate)
Galanthus nivalis basal leaf morphology (applanate)
Galanthus elwesii leaf morphology (supervolute)
Galanthus elwesii basal leaf morphology (supervolute)


We find, if you have patience, that the snowdrops bulk up very effectively throughout the garden with little effort on our part. When the clumps get too dense we lift them when they are ‘in the green’, gently separate the bulbs and distribute them more widely throughout the garden. In particular we have started to develop a snowdrop walk through the copse at the north end of the garden providing a fresh splash of white on dull February days.

It is also possible to bulk up plants more rapidly through chipping, twinscaling and micropropogation. Galanthophile Colin Mason’s article on Galanthomania, Chipping and Twinscaling explores this in more detail.

Galanthus elwesii (Geoffrey Owen)
Galanthus elwesii (Geoffrey Owen)

Use as cut flowers

If you believe in such things it is worth noting some of the common folklore around snowdrops. In her book Snowdrops , Gail Harland reports that there is a country belief that it is unlucky to decorate a room with cut snowdrops and that these should not be brought into one’s house until after Candlemas Day (2 February).

Whereas this mythology, and the wider meaning associated with giving particular flowers (floriography), are less widely understood these days, it is worth bearing these aspects in mind when preparing bouquets and giving flowers. A bouquet of flowers, buttonhole or gift of flowers with inherent meaning is always a nice touch.

The short stem length of snowdrops really only makes them suitable for small posies and arrangements. We have found that they make charming place settings for dinner parties in tiny clear glass vases (but only after the 2 February of course!).

Snowdrop Table Place Setting
Snowdrop Table Place Setting

Hardy Perennial Bulb

Family: Amaryllidaceae (ref: Royal Horticultural Society)

Floriography: Purity and innocence

Origin: The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) has a distribution from the Pyrenees to Balkans however there are also some 20 species of Galanthus in total occurring in a wide variety of habitats.

Further reading

“Snowdrop” by Gail Harland (ISBN 978-1-78023-492-2) – an interesting account about the biology of snowdrops, collecting and their appearance in poetry, art and music.

Tulips – planning and planting for 2018

The clocks may have changed and the nights are drawing in but there is still a great deal of planning and preparing to be done in the flower garden before the winter sets in.  Work done now will reward us in the spring.

There are so many tulip varieties available that you can almost create any colour effect or combination that you want.  What’s more, as a cut flower grower, choosing the right varieties can provide you with blooms from late March through April and into May.

Not only do tulips come in a stunning colour palette but there are a wide range of shapes and sizes including singles, doubles, lily types, fringed and parrots.  Anna Pavord in her book “Bulb” lists 15 divisions of tulips and provides a fascinating background to the history and development of each type.

Spoilt for choice

So where do you start when the choice seems to be endless?  Probably the three key things to think about are colour, height and flowering times.

Do you want muted complementary colours in a range of shades/tints or striking, contrasting colours to give impact on dull spring days?  Do you want to plant in flower borders with tall stemmed varieties at the back and shorter ones to the front or perhaps plant up tubs with some of the more dwarf varieties?  If you will be cutting for flower arranging you will probably want a stem length of upwards of 45cm and ideally 55-60cm.

Ideally you want to create a show that progresses smoothly through the season with one or more varieties flowering in the same period and look good together.  We have listed some of the varieties that we have used in the past in our Flower Library portfolio on Pinterest.  As well as some of the tulip varieties we have grown, the March and April flower libraries also show other flowers that are out at the same time and, when planted together with the tulips, create more interesting flower combinations of texture and form than simply using tulips alone.

If you are interested in cutting for the house or doing your own wedding flowers our selection of spring bouquet examples on Pinterest will also show how these might be put together for great effect.   If you are a grower and event florist and selecting flowers for next years’ weddings then you need to choose colours that are currently popular with brides.  Keep an eye on emerging trends.

Tulips and anemones
These orange tulips with a blush of red create a striking combination when set alongside seasonal anemones

Planting for 2018

One of the difficulties of writing a blog post about planting tulips is that we have no pictures yet of how our vision is going to turn out.  Next year when they flower we will post again on this!!

In anticipation these are some of the combinations that we are planting out at the moment across the garden:

Burgundy “Jan Reus” and orange “Ballerina” tulips together with “Blood Red” and “Fire King” wallflowers.

Orange lily type tulip “Ballerina” with “Princess Irene” and “Jenny

Tulip “Merlot“, with creamy white and strawberry red “Marilyn” and cardinal red  “Pretty Woman

Double apricot tulip “La Belle Epoque” with violet purple “Recreado“, red-purple “Slawa“, “Black Hero“, “Apricot Parrot” and burgundy “Jan Reus

Orange/brown “Cairo” tulips together with dark blue Bellevalia, crocus “Orange Monarch“, Crocus “Spring Beauty” topped with Viola “Honey Bee“.

Fragrant caramel apricot tulip “Brown Sugar” together with Crocus “Orange Monarch“, “Spring Beauty” and “Pickwick” mixed with white narcissus and topped with Viola “Sorbet Morpho“.

Lilac tulips “Aafke“, soft pink “Christmas Pearl“, deep purple “Caravelle” and double pink and white “Finola” together with narcissus “Misty Glen” and topped with Pansy “Matrix Cassis

Tulips in shades of pink
Tulips in shades of pink arranged with deep burgundy hellebores, white narcissus and flowering currant

Further information and tips

Perennial Hardy Bulb:  Planted in November tulips will certainly be hardy enough to come through the winter.  However, we have found that very few of the tulips come back with the same vigour in subsequent years and it is worth digging them up after flowering and planting a new set the next year.  Many small scale British growers of tulips have reported that replanting in the same area over a number of years can lead to catastrophic problems with tulip diseases.

Origin: Central Asia

Family: Liliaceae

Height:  35-60cm.  It has been our observation that in warmer winters our tulips tend to have short stems than if they experience a colder winter.

Flowering period:  March to early May

Planting:  We plant our tulips around November time.  If you plant too early then the bulbs may be more susceptible to disease.  Tulips like to be planted quite deeply (at least 4 inches) and in tubs you can plant in deep lasagna layers to get a success of flowers over a longer period of time if you choose your varieties carefully.  The squirrels also love to dig them up and we have found that spraying or dusting the bulbs with mammal repellent before covering works extremely well.

Cut flowers:  Yes, long lasting.    Something to remember here is that tulips continue to grow once arranged.  Beware that if you create a wedding bouquet the day before with tulips in it you may find that in the morning all the tulips have extended.

Conditioning:  Standard conditioning in cool clear water for at least 2 hours.  Keep the stems straight by wrapping bunches in paper as they can bend very rapidly.

Holding back:  It is possible if cut early to hold back tulips.  After conditioning, wrap in newspaper and place in a refrigerator.  Make sure that they do not freeze.  We have held tulips back like this for at least a couple of weeks when we have needed them for a later wedding.  When you want to revive them (they will look limp and uninviting at this point) place them in fresh water with flower food (in their wrapping) until they are turgid and looking fresh once again.

Early tulipsCF3045
Large orange and white Purissima tulips alongside Blood Red fragrant wallflowers

Further reading: 

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