In an uncertain year with more downs than ups, the good old British weather has been very up and down too. As a result, my dahlias are only just sprouting out of the ground and the recent wet spell has summoned slugs which have munched some down to stubs!! Suffice to say, I feel a bit flummoxed and behind. My autumn-sown annuals all damped off and then the spring-sown replacements have been incredibly slow growing. My summer flowers are about 2-3 weeks behind compared to last year.
On a more positive note, my self-sown Nigella have been plentiful and for such an easy to grow annual, they make a wonderful cut flower, complete with their own feathery foliage. The roses are in full flow - we have a wonderful small-flowered rambler called 'Open Arms' growing over an arch and numerous roses in the hedge. The Alchemilla mollis, poppies and perennial wallflower are swarming with bees and the first sweet peas and cornflowers are just unfurling. I have planted out stocks, statice, cosmos and Chinese asters, hoping for flowers in July.
We had a lovely display of foxgloves. I love the peachy (apricotty?) tones of Sutton's Apricot. If you harvest the main flower spike, you will get smaller, more delicate flowers on side branches a few weeks later. They are displayed below with sweet rocket, Nigella, oxeye daisies and Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus which have naturalised in our mixed border.
Somehow, it is suddenly April and almost the end of the Easter holidays. We've had a mini heatwave, followed by snow flurries. I've dug out the sunglasses and flip-flops, only to exchange them for a parka and woolly hat a few days later.
You can't predict the weather but I can reliably predict that the first tulips in my cutting garden will bloom at the beginning of April. Different tulip varieties do flower at different times, so whether you are growing them for cutting or for a garden display, it makes sense to choose from early, middle and late flowering varieties to extend the season for as long as possible.
I have to say though, that if you leave them in the ground, in successive years, I've found that my late-flowering varieties such as 'Queen of Night' actually flower earlier than stated in those gorgeous bulb catalogues - late April/Early May, tends to mean mid-late April for me.
The perennial question with tulips is should you treat them, as the Dutch do, as annual blooms and dispose of the bulbs each year, or can you get them to flower again?
The answer isn't straight forward. I find that some varieties do reliably come back year after year for me whereas others (even those that I chose as reliably perennial - I'm talking about you 'Bleu Aimable'!) just disappear never to be seen again.
I can only speak from experience, and with different soil and climatic conditions, you may not find that these tulips perform for you but I have found that 'Exotic Emperor', 'Purissima', 'Queen of Night', 'Turkestanica' and 'Showcase' have all been coming up, and slowly bulking up, for the last 5 years.
In Sarah Raven's new book 'A Year Full of Flowers', she has a whole chapter on tulips with lots of recommendations for perennial tulips and varieties recommended for cutting. Perennial recommendations include 'Ballerina', 'Light and Dreamy', 'Purple Dream', 'Spring Green' and 'Mistress Mystic'. I have to confess that I have dozens of books on growing flowers but I still found some nuggets of wisdom in this book, along with the amazing photography which makes you want to buy every tulip mentioned.
For garden borders, I would try to stick to the lists of reliably perennial tulips, especially if you are weaving these bulbs through your garden borders as it's a faff to take them up and plant anew each year. Species, Fosteriana, Darwin Hybrid, Viridiflora and Lily-flowered tulips are those recommended as most likely to pop up again.
If you are growing for cutting, maybe choose a mix of the stalwarts and supplement with others that take your fancy but may not make a reappearance.
Experiment - leave your bulbs in and see what happens in the years to come. If some fail to reappear then plant new ones. It's nice to add to your collection over the years and this year I will be taking out some of those 'Exotic Emperor' and 'Purissima' that have done so well as I now have too many of them and I want to get a bit more variety into the cutting beds.
Try to keep a record of which varieties you have planted so if you do find a great tulip which is beautiful for cutting and comes back every year, you will know which variety to buy again. I have a list but still have some tulips whose names escape me.
The recommended planting advice if you want to ensure that your tulips bloom again is to plant them deep - about 10-15 cm. By planting them deep, you also minimise accidents when planting in the borders as you are less likely to put your spade for fork through a bulb later in the season when the foliage has disappeared.
If you are leaving your tulips in, you need to deadhead them if you haven't cut the flowers already and then leave the foliage to die down. I grow mine in a cutting bed dedicated to dahlias. The dahlias need space when fully grown but when the tulips are out in flower, the dahlias are still underground so you can maximise the planting space and cram them in around your dahlia tubers.
Early each year, I like to look back at the flowers that I grew last growing season. The winter months are an ideal time to reflect as there's not a lot to do out there in the bleak, muddy, occasionally snowy, cold, wintery weather - can you tell that I am not a fan of winter?
It's mid-February and I am itching to get sowing and growing, but regrettably, it's not quite time to start sowing this year's batch of spring-sown annuals. If you wait until early March, when the days are drawing out, the seedlings won't have to strain to find the light. This will stop them getting all leggy and ungainly.
I have taken the time to look back at all the flowers I picked from the cutting garden and allotment last year - from January (snowdrops and cyclamen) all the way through to December (chrysanthemums).
This serves primarily as a way to cheer me up and show me that in a few weeks time I will be picking tulips and early-flowering perennials and then the flowers will just keep on coming. I can also remind myself which flowers I particularly liked, which flowers looked good and lasted well in the vase and which ones were best suited to pressing and drying.
Here is my photo record of the flowers that I grew in 2020 - which is your favourite?
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