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Here is how to make a lovely little garden even in a small space: scour the major bulb lists and plant flowers of your own choosing for next spring. They can go into pots, bigger containers, window boxes, old buckets and unwanted dustbins. They can then be placed on ground that the previous owners have covered in concrete or decking. They can be dug up, stored and replanted if you move house next summer. Jacques Amand’s list is one place to start, the winner of many gold medals (jacquesamandintl.com).
At the FT Weekend Festival earlier this month, I was repeatedly questioned by guests who regretted they did not have “much” of a garden. Not much is still enough for enjoyment. Nowhere is too small for beauty. Ignore the fashionable soundbites. Tulips are not sustainable from one year to the next but they are unmissably lovely. Crocuses do not grow wild in Britain, but they are visited happily by early pollinators. If you no-mow your lawn it will not suddenly sprout narcissi: plant them instead and cut the grass six weeks after they begin to flower. Select, edit and appreciate transience. Beauty is fleeting, even your own.
Remember the trick of planting one level of bulbs on top of another in a pot wide and deep enough to accommodate three or four layers. To remind you: bulbs will give you multistorey beauty if they are planted at varying depths in the same container. Somehow, shoots in the lower levels always push a way up through the ones above them. Plant three or four layers, one above each other, and multiply the impact of a confined space. Put the taller tulips in the lowest layer, about four inches above the bottom of a deep pot. Then put in some narcissi or hyacinths about three inches above them. Then put in some March-flowering varieties of Iris reticulata, then on top of them put a layer of February-flowering crocuses with about two inches of compost above the corms.
To prompt you, here is a four-storey planting that survived the cold winter last year and pleased me from late February onwards. The top layer was made up of white-flowered Crocus biflorus, one which I bought from J Parker’s as Crocus chrysanthus Miss Vain: it is especially good because it has bright orange-yellow stamens in the middle of its pure flowers. The rain did it no favours this February but underneath it was Iris reticulata Blue Planet, which poked through a week or so later and proved itself to be a lovely introduction to the market. It has pale blue flowers vividly marked with bright yellow. When the flowers faded, a lower layer of mixed Jonquil narcissi took over in April, scented, pretty and a distraction from the dying leaves of the crocuses. Finally, the hybrid Darwin tulip Olympic Flame nosed its way up from the fourth layer into the light. It grows about two feet high and has fresh yellow flowers streaked with scarlet: inside or outside a pot, I strongly recommend it.
When the tulips began to flower, the dead flowers and ageing leaves on the irises and narcissi would have looked tall and messy. However, I had deadheaded them and thinned and reduced their leaves. I also gave them diluted Phostrogen from a watering can in two fortnightly doses in order to compensate for the reduction I had inflicted. Reticulate irises split into smaller corms after flowering anyway: most of them are best regarded as one-year wonders. The crocuses have survived and are in bags, waiting to be planted again this month.
I give this multistorey example to prompt you to improve on it. In a window box I stop with two layers, crocuses on top and tulips underneath, chosen to be no more than about 18 inches high. Last year, I was pleased with a Triumph tulip, supposed to flower midseason. Called Flaming Agrass, it has white flowers flared with lemon yellow and is just the right height for a second-floor window ledge. Triumph tulips include several that are sufficiently sturdy for this position. Couleur Cardinal is about a foot high with flowers of a superb crimson red; Jan van Nes is only slightly taller with flowers of a good gold yellow.
Spring weather is becoming ever warmer, bringing Triumph tulips into flower in early, not late, April. Above them I plant crocuses, made up from colours that appeal to me. This year’s wet weather spoiled them but I still liked white Miss Vain mixed with lavender Vernus Vanguard, a free flowerer that can be lifted and replanted each year.
In not much of a garden, double or quadruple the layers of spring bulbs. Meanwhile, reserve a few small pots for special beauties, the erythroniums being my favourites. The superb woodland ones are happy in a pot of ericaceous compost. They improve year after year if kept in a shaded place during summer. The yellow Pagoda and the white revolutum White Beauty are obliging, so long as they do not become too dry. A single bulb in a four-inch pot will increase from year to year and be the pride of any balcony where it can be noticed hour by hour.
So can Dutch iris, greatly improved by recent selection and breeding. The bulbs are now more compact, suiting them to life in a wide pot, and the flowers are finer, held on stiff stems in late May before the garden is full of later-flowering bearded irises. I have recently found the way to please and retain these lovely irises. It is to grow them in soil heavily mixed with horticultural grit, about two-thirds grit, one-third soil. In it they persist and build up ever thicker clumps from year to year, whereas they split and dwindle in ordinary soil. They are still a very cheap option in catalogues, but there is such beauty in White Excelsior, in the subtle lilac-mauve and yellow King Mauve and in Symphony, which mixes white and yellow in a bold way. A few of them go a long way when the tulips have faded.
As for narcissi, how can I choose? The shorter ones are best in window boxes, white-flowered Thalia being a superb trumpet variety. Yellow Tête-à-Tête is unsurpassed but WP Milner, a pale yellow, runs it very close. They show up well on a window ledge or balcony, whereas the smaller-flowered Jonquil varieties are better reserved for smaller pots at ground level. In Division Five of the narcissus lists, Hawera remains a delicate marvel. Its stems are thin but at least three small yellow flowers are held on each one. As a little cluster in a smallish pot it makes not much of a garden seem quite enough.
Match bigger layered pots with smaller ones limited to one variety only. I will return to tulips later as they do not need to be planted until November, but meanwhile here is my latest discovery. It is a Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum White Beauty. Each bulb produces several flowers but, unlike others in the family, it does not invade the garden. The flowers are pure white held on upright stems in late April, a newish arrival that grows and persists without being boring.