Our gardening expert Kim Wilde loves spring flowers, delighting in the first stirrings of life as the garden tries to shrug off its winter overcoat
About this time of year, I start my premature celebration of the arrival of spring. I'm pronc to wandering round the garden in a woolly hat, clogs and dressing gown, looking for signs of life. When I find bulbs breaking through and the buds on many of the shrubs and trees starting to swell, I feel great. There's such an air of anticipation for the year ahead and I find myself awestruck as nature kicks back into gear. And no other flower symbolises that rejuvenation more eloquently than the snowdrop, bravely standing up to the most severe weather conditions - pure, lovely and white.
Large garden centres sell them just after flowering (in the green), or in pots. Avoid buying dried bulbs as these are difficult to establish and may have been taken from the wild. Once planted, snowdrops won't need moving for several years or until they become congested - the best time to split them is just after they have flowered.
Another resilient bulb is the crocus. It's particularly good to naturalise in grass, as the early flowering varieties die down quicker thao other bulbs, so you can cut the grass sooner. Most crocuses are fragrant, so it's a good idea to grow them outside in pots, then bring them in a week or two before they would normally bIoom. The warmth inside will stimulate them into flowering, filling your house with their perfume.
Other favourite early spring arrivals include spring beauty (scilla siberica) and the happy faces of the anenome blanda - especially the blue variety, atrocaerulea. Another blue gem is of course thc grape hyacinth (muscari), which flowers over a long period in the spring. A real head turner is the two-tone muscari latifolia.
A1l of these blue beauties look stunning planted with miniaturc narcissi, in particular the multiheaded varieties such as minnow or the cyclamineus narcissus, February Gold. A beautiful winter-flowering bulb that naturalises effectively is the cyclamen coum, with its distinctively marked leaves and deep magenta flowers. Like the snowdrop, it's best bought in pots and not as dried bulbs, which can be hard to establish.
Err on the side of indulgence when deciding on numbers - 50 bulbs can easily be absorbed in even a small garden just as a hundred crocuses can soon be lost under any tree.
As beautiful as flowering spring bulbs are, it's very difficult to beat that other February favourite, snow. I love the muffled silence of a crisp, white, clear, snowy day, which February so rarely brings nowadays, transforming the landscape into a magical winter wonderland. This year, though, I'll have the prospect of explaining to an uncomprehending two year old, who has not yet learned that snow melts, why his snowman has just disappeared. So maybe a sharp frost would be best after all...
Make sure they'll flower
There are a variety of reasons for bulbs coming up blind (not flowering). Here's how to make sure you get a fantastic display.
- Check that you're planting your bulbs at the correct depth (below). In many cases shallow planting means bulbs will multiply happily but seldom flower, while deeper bulbs will flower well but are unlikely to multiply as quickly.
- Leave bulbs for at least six weeks after flowering. This allows leaves to return all the goodness back into the bulbs, ready for next year. You can help with a light scattering of bone meal. Bulbs whose leaves are cut too soon will suffer.
- Always go to a reliable source when buying bulbs. Cheap can become expensive if you have to replace them, and it is well worth the initial investment, considering bulbs will flower for years and years - and multiply, too.
- Remember to plant your bulbs the right way up!
Secrets of planting
September and October are the best months to get planting, ready for spring. Your bulbs and corms will grow happily and multiply if you fol1ow my guide below.
- Any type of soil will do, as long as you have good drainage. If you have a heavy clay soil, add a 2.Scm deep layer of coarse grit in the bottom of each planting hole.
- Plant bulbs in groups of five or ten, or scatter by hand and plant where they fall for a natural effect.
- Double the height of your bulb and add this much soil over the top. For example, a 2.Scm bulb should be covered by S cm.
- Always water your freshly planted bulbs well.
- When planting in pots, if severe frost is likely, protect your bulbs with a covering of mulch - I use bark chips - or place the pots in a sheltered position.
- Most bulbs will tolerate some shade, but preter a sunny aspect.
Squirrels are a nuisance when they dig up bulbs. So if you have any squirrels in your garden, cover your bulbs with a layer of chicken wire before replacing the soil - that should protect them.
Sow the seeds for a colourful summer
Curl up with a seed catalogue and let your imagination run riot in your garden
A clear blue sky is all the temptation you need to dash outside to plant those seeds you've been hoarding since last year. But even if you start your annuals in the greenhouse, it will still be a long time before it's warm enough to plant them outside in the garden, so don't rush things.
Instead, sit back and select the seeds you want to sow later from one of the many fabulous new seed catalogues. Choosing and planning what you want to grow is almost as much fun as growing it. And the best thing about mail order seed catalogues is that they're free and can provide you with endless inspiration.
Things to do in February
- Cut back and tidy away foliage of any perennials that have died down. Not only will it make your garden look tidier, but it will also deprive slugs and snails of a home.
- Prune very overgrown hedges to remove any straggly growth. This will promote the production of new branches from the base of the hedge. giving the plant more body.
- Treat wooden fences with a timber preservative. Be careful not to spill or splash preservative onto surrounding plants.
- Plant fruit trees and bushes. Now is the time to take hardwood cuttings from blackcurrant bushes.
Totally organic, totally tasty
Browsing through the Suttons catalogue recently, I noticed a new range of organically produced seed, harvested from plants which themselves were grown organically. None of the Suttons normal vegetable seeds have been treated after harvest, but if you want to go down a truly organic route, here are ten new popular varielies you can try.
- Beetroot Detroit 2
- Carrot Nantes 2 Mars
- Cress Sprint Curled
- Leek Winter Atlanta
- Lettuce Enya
- Lettuce Embrace (Iceberg)
- Pumpkin Greenwlch
- Radlsh Saxa 2
- Spinach F1 Poncho
- Tomato F1 Tanaki
In bloom this month
Look out for these winter beauties when you're out.
Iris unguicularis (Aigerian iris)
This winterflowering iris grows well against a sheltered wall and produces stunning, lilac blue scented flowers.
This winter honeysuckle not only looks attractive, but it smells divine. too. It's enough to lure you out jnto the garden even in the coldest of British weather!
Hamamelis mellis (Chinese witch hazel)
The colourful spidery blossom on this witch hazel has an unusual spicy fragrance to lift your spirits. Other colourful varieties are harnamelis x. intermedia 'Sunburst' and 'Arnold Promise'.
Q: How can I protect my New Zealand cabbage palm, whlch is in a terracotta pot, through the winter months?
A: Tie the leaves of plant together to protect growing point, but make sure water can't collect there. Untie the leaves when the weather warms up. Move pot to a sheltered spot, and protect it by wrapping it with hessian, straw or bubblewrap.
This sturdy trowel and handfork from RK Alliston are a great buy at 10.50 each. The wooden handles are so comfortable to hold and I love the shiny metal. For stockists, phone 0207 731 8100.
Weil worth a visit
Benington Lordship Gardens
Benington, Hertfordshire (01438860068). Open during snowdrop time, this is a great place tor the family.
Birmingham (01214541860). Laid out by JC Loudon in 1829, the glasshouses are a good option during winter.
Leeds (0113 267 8240). Winter is the best season to see the beautiful tormal structure of the garden laid bare.