It’s that time of year again when desperate for spring colour indoors I buy a bunch of tulips, then watch them slowly fade away. It has taken just over two weeks in my cool, basement kitchen for these pink ones to drop their petals. And, I think I have decided that there is something more beautiful about their fading glory than the stark, brash pinkness of fresh tulips.
There is something gently mournful about this process and this year it is more poignant than ever as we mark this day, March 11th 2021, when one year ago the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic.
Last month we had strange weather. February had days feeling like spring and I saw people walking around in T-shirts! In climate terms a week of warm weather in February is disturbing.
However, March, so far, is turning out to be more like a usual March. It has been very, very windy, but that hasn’t affected these British grown tulips. They come from some of the extensive glass houses in Lincolnshire. Growing under glass has enabled British tulip growers to compete with imports from overseas and there are no air or sea miles. Growing under the protection of glass also lengthens the season for growing all kinds of cut flowers. Have you noticed how stocks (Matthiola incana) have joined the buckets of roses and lilies commonly available? However, for us domestic gardeners in East Anglia it will be another month before even the tulips are blooming in full force.
This year I resisted the temptation to plant seeds in February. I am holding my nerve even with the indoor sowings. I am trying to avoid weak, leggy seedlings as I don’t have a greenhouse to provide consistent good daylight.
It is early days in the ‘new’ old backyard and too dreary to photograph with piles of rubble left behind by previous owners. Although it is a small space, it’s going to be a long old haul to sort out, but some pots of pelargoniums and dahlias, and a mini swathe of hardy annuals should at least add some colour for this summer.
Expecting the best, I have already had a poke around in the pots of the overwintered dahlias and, fingers crossed, so far they’ve come through the winter. From now on I just have to watch out for early slug damage to the tender new shoots.
At last I have a rough plan, you could, at a stretch, call it a design for the backyard. It has been just over a year since I moved in and I have been observing the sunlight and shade patterns and I can see I have my work cutout to achieve any kind of flower garden. Disappointingly, there’s more shade than I had expected, not least from the enormous eucalyptus tree three gardens down.
It is a long-established tree and is easily 10 feet or so taller than the surrounding three-storey houses. As I write, its upper branches are violently whipping around, bending this way and that in the strong winds. It is really quite inappropriate for a Victorian terrace backyard and it overhangs six gardens. I am guessing it was originally planted to screen out the neighbours at the bottom of the garden and has just been left to grow and grow by a series of non-gardening homeowners.
Finishing on a more optimistic note I am looking forward to more of this
Finally we had a sunny day and I ventured out to have a quick look round the garden. The hellebore flowers and the hebe foliage are looking colourful, but that was about all.
So feeling impatient I’ve cheated for my spring bouquet and bought some tulips to add a little more flower power. These tulips are Libretto Parrot and will open into a frilly, striped affair.
I’m sure I used to have pink and green stripy tulips (Greenland) in the front garden, but I don’t think I planted them deep enough to survive more than one season. Still, these parrots will bring a burst of spring colour indoors.
It’s Chelsea this week and it’s pouring with rain, so English! And thinking of flowers I see that the tulips are just finishing their annual contribution to the garden. They provide beautiful strong intense colours,
but also delicate shades for the spring garden.
And, then there is the drama of using tulips in a restricted palette for the odd flower arrangement or two.
But it has been white, at least in my garden this spring, that has been the most eye-catching accent colour against the fresh green.
My friends know I enjoy down time in the garden and little garden gifts are much appreciated. I always plant out everything I’m given, but sometimes the colours don’t fit well with a particular planting. This situation at first may appear disappointing, but in general, it is a bonus as I don’t feel guilty when I immediately cut them for the house.
Tulips and euphorbia
Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects by Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94 – 1657) circa 1630 Oil on oak, 47 x 36.8 cm photo credit: The National Gallery, London
Every spring these striking red and yellow tulips (tulipa Gavota) return and, despite plenty of background green, do not fit with the main pink, white and orange display in the back bed. Therefore, it is the chop!
On cutting and arranging them I was reminded of the Dutch craze for tulips in the seventeenth century and the many beautiful still life oil paintings of floral displays that included tulips. The above painting, ‘Flowers in a vase with shells and insects’, is by Balthasar van der Ast and now hangs in the National Gallery, London. Photographic reproductions do not do these type of paintings justice. With a close examination of the flowers in the painting I can clearly see an iris, some tulips, a rose, some carnations, a pale pink and white antirrhinum, and, more in the shadows a fritillary and a sprig of mauve lilac.
I don’t grow carnations and I have lost all my snake’s head fritillaries as my soil is far too gritty and parched, but I’ve just been out in the garden (May Day) and located examples of flowers in the painting. Although some are by no means in full bloom and others have nearly gone over, the snap dragons (antirrhinum Night and Day) have not even started producing buds! We all know that the professional growers can keep flowering back or force it forwards, just think what they do for Chelsea each year, and I’m guessing some of these skills are centuries old. But we must not forget that however true to life a work of art may appear it is still the product of the artist’s creative interpretation. All those different flowers may or may not have been together in that pewter jug sometime in May 1630.
And, this wouldn’t be a May Day post without a photo of the classic May-tree blossom – the hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) – commonly used for garlands (outside the house only) for a traditional English May Day celebration.