David Wheeler finds joy in the little pots of bulbs that are a frail gardener's friend
Little pots of emerging crocuses remind me of birds’ nests filled with nestlings, beaks primed to open greedily. Little pots, moreover, weigh little, allowing us frail ones to move them about the house without help.
As Remarque put it in All Quiet on the Western Front, ‘We are little flames, poorly sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out.’
Well, the only going out I’m doing is into the garden. It’s there, working alone or with others, that I best combat frailty.
I don’t always win, of course. Age is against me and major spinal surgery a couple of years ago has curtailed my endeavours – if not my expectations. I’m cross if I don’t achieve the day’s goal; crosser still if I have to retire indoors for a rest before ambition is fulfilled.
Manual labour is both tiring and rewarding; but lesser toiling is equally gratifying. Hence bulbs. Not the agony of deeply planting hundreds in ungiving, shaly ground, but the joy of filling small pots. The rustle of papery husks, the smell of damp compost, the pencilling of labels, the anticipation of future colours and scents… These are among the relaxed and, yes, frail (dammit!) bulb-planter’s chief returns.
Plan the task ahead of time. Coincide with a favourite radio programme – a play, an opera or a feisty debate. Or share the job with a pal, gossiping fruitfully.
Because of moving house a few months ago, I failed to trawl the bulb catalogues this year, thinking there’d be enough on my plate without my worrying about mounds of brown paper packages staring at me unloved from the corner of a strange room. Instead, when I found the time to indulge myself, I relied on what the local garden centre had to offer, thereby rediscovering the joys of such familiars as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’, ‘Hawera’, ‘Ice Wings’ and good ol’ indispensable ‘Thalia’.
Nor did I buy in what might be called ‘garden quantities’, feeling satisfied with just a dozen or so of each.
Similarly, restraint ruled when it came to crocuses. I was mindful only to choose carefully to extend their flowering time. Earlies chosen included ‘Cream Beauty’, ‘Vanguard’ and ‘Blue Pearl’ – each thoroughly reliable, exquisitely coloured and of pleasing demeanour. Each, too, destined to be tucked up under garden shrubs when their blooms have waned.
My passion for grape hyacinths remains unabated. I can still conjure up childhood memories of their lapis-blue drifts that bordered a small lawn at our family’s Cotswold home. They’re just as happy in pots and there are now many different kinds to enhance that remembered blue of the ubiquitous Muscari armeniacum.
I bought a few common New Year-flowering snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, to prove there’s life after Christmas, and they’ll be followed in quickly by those diminutive bulbous irises that come labelled ‘reticulata’. The specklings and striations of their petals never fail to intrigue and delight me. If you have these dwarfs in pots, they can easily be brought to eye and nose level to be savoured all the more. This year’s small haul brought pale blue ‘Cantab’, violet-purple ‘George’ and ‘Harmony’, with vibrant, royal-blue flowers bejewelled with a white-rimmed gold crest. Beat that.
I might miss some of the more botanically interesting bulbs I’ve nurtured hitherto. I might also miss the swathes of countless different bulbs that gradually built up over many years in our previous garden. But having moved to this property in August, I have no inkling of what lurks beneath the sod. New treasures, indeed, perhaps, or more of the glorious same.
David’s Instagram account is @hortusjournal