Sometimes I am asked for the overarching secret to making a good garden. My answer, in one word or fewer, is quiet, simmering, ever-present obsession. Are you shopping for socks? Ooh look, there are secateurs on sale. Do you need smalls? Next door have bargains on shovels. You should not be surprised that I have been making acquisitions from the nurseries, rather than the local couture house. I have filled the shed with half priced pots and cheap bulbs. With the addition of a sack of compost, a bag of pea gravel and a handful of fish, blood and bone meal, I am going to make my garden sing.
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’
Buy for flowers without excessively long juicy stems. Spring time winds can be fierce and I don’t want you waiting for five months, only to have your lanky daffodils breaking their necks when the buds are about to burst and the performance is imminent. Bung a few broken crocks in the bottom of the container and scoop in the first batch of soil, mixed with a little fertiliser. Place the biggest bulbs thereon and cover them with more compost. Repeat the procedure as often as will fit, finishing off with a layer of closely packed (but not touching) crocus. Cover with earth, then a layer of grit and add a discreet label, since neither you nor I will remember what is within, come February. Put the pots in a quiet corner where children, pets and clumsy adults won’t trip over them. Keep them out of the route where tipsy first footers will stumble, on New Year’s Eve. Move the plants into sunlight, when shoots of green growth show.
Ammi majus (bishop’s flower)
Think about the colours that you are using. If you would hesitate to wear a shirt in those shades, why would they look cohesive on the front doorstep? I prefer to keep bulbs separate from diminutive winter displays. If you would like some height, use a small shrub such as Skimmia, Elaeagnus or Pieris, all of which can take a bit of a battering. Modest conifers are tough and make strong scaffolding. Gaultheria procumbens (checkerberry) is low growing and good for scarlet fruit with colourful aromatic foliage. These can be livened up with cyclamen, violas, ornamental cabbages, ivies or whatever you see that floats your boat. If you have laid your plans with care and perhaps a modicum of fixation, the succession of miniature Iris, Narcissus and tulips may be placed in timely triumph, for seamless brightness.
Get busy now, for forced bulbs in the home. Especially prepared Hyacinth and Narcissus should be potted up, kept moist and left in the dark for roots to establish. If you leave them outdoors to get started, you may find a tide of earthworms infesting the kitchen, just when you hoped to enjoy the blooms. If you keep cats, you’ll want to explain to them that your troughs are not an extension of the litter tray. When the show is over, dig a hole in a border and replant with leaves intact, in the hope of a come-back in the future. If you have overspent on horticulture and are subsequently short on underwear, avoid draughts and try not to catch cold.