Gardening: Getting to the church in time

Last year, Anna Pavord had a plan for wedding flowers. But this spring, Nature has had a different one...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We are having a wedding in the garden next week. Well, the wedding will be in the church up the lane, but the party afterwards will be held in a tent at home. Consequently, wedding flowers have been much on my mind.

Commercial growers, with their computer-controlled warm rooms, cold rooms, light rooms and dark rooms, can bring pretty well anything into bloom at any time of the year. Amateurs have a chancier time of it.

Late last October I had a plan, but Nature, as is her right, had a different one and laid on an incredibly mild winter and six months of almost incessant rain. Even now, only a week before the wedding, I am not sure what I will have to hand on the day itself.

Last October I was thinking bulbs: late, sweet-smelling narcissus, anemones, and tulips, tulips, tulips. The anemones captured the colours we wanted to work with - rich blue, red, purple, magenta, pink. So I bought 50 corms each of scarlet `Hollandia', violet-blue `Mister Fokker', violet rose `Sylphide', the fine blue double `Lord Lieutenant' (my favourite) and another double with violet flowers called `The Admiral'.

Planted in our garden, anemones have always been extraordinarily free- flowering. I thought I'd plant them in 5-in clay pots and use them as table centres.

It is not going to work. The 25 pots were packed together in the cold frame all winter, but when flower buds started to appear in March I shifted them all to a cooler spot under a north-facing wall. Because they had been growing close together in the cold frame, the foliage in each pot supported its neighbour. Separated, the stems flopped.

That was lesson number one. Each pot should have had more space. And even when planted 10 corms to a pot, well-fed since the first growth appeared, there are not enough flowers full out, all at the same time, to make any one of the 25 pots showy enough to work as a table centre. I've just been out, counting the buds still to come. On average, there will be just six or seven flowers to a pot. Measly. That was lesson number two.

What is the solution? The problem lies more with the containers than the flowers. Come what may, I will have to use the old clay pots that the anemones are currently filling. I can't lay my hands on any more, and no other container will be quite as appropriate. So the day before the wedding, I'll pick all the anemones that we can use and plant the rest in the garden.

The dishwasher will deliver the pots in a fit state to pack with blocks of Oasis wrapped in plastic, and I'm hoping that there will be enough tulips around to fill them. Because their stems are so fleshy, you have to poke holes in the Oasis with a pencil before you put the flowers in. Dressed with moss, the underpinnings should then be hidden from view.

Our garden is thick with moss, which likes the damp and the shade. Nevertheless, I'll be buying it from our local florist. I used our own moss at our last party. A mesmerising cavalcade of insects climbed down from it during dinner and marched across the white damask cloths of the various tables: beetles, woodlice, centipedes, ants. We ended up racing woodlice between forks set up as finishing-posts, but they hadn't drunk as much as we had and kept veering off into the butter dishes.

So it's bought moss this time, but - I hope - our own tulips. I planted 2,500 of them last November and hoped I had covered all eventualities by choosing varieties that flowered from mid-April through to mid-May. But they are exceptionally early this year. The main display was to come from 200 `Purple Prince', a sturdy single early of rich purple, 200 `Sjakamaro', an equally good mid-season tulip, of roughly the same colour (though with a much more interesting centre of pale bluish-green) and 200 `Purple Star' which is slightly more magenta than the other two, the flowers beautifully set off against greyish foliage.

The first of these is supposed to flower by mid-April, the second by late April and the third in early May. So, theoretically (as I thought when I was planting the bulbs last year) I should have been able to count on masses of purple tulips whether the season was early or late.

Instead, by the end of March all were in full colour, though not fully open. I hauled all the pots into the shade and on Good Friday, when the weathermen were predicting a hot Easter, tied up 600 blooms with thick, soft wool.

Will it work? That remains to be seen. It's a trick that was used by florists in the 18th and 19th centuries which I'd read about, but never tried for myself. In the event, the hot weather didn't come but at least the little corsets stopped the rain beating into the centres of the flowers and splaying them open.

The moment of truth will come on Monday when I whip off the wool bindings. Will the tulips then gracefully pretend that the unexpected hiccup never happened? Or will they suddenly slump, as I do when I'm kept up too late at night and required to keep going long past my natural span?

Not all the tulips are for picking. Some of the biggest pots were planted to decorate the tent: pale cream `Magier' with a purple rim round its petals, fabulous `Couleur Cardinal' scarlet with overlays of plum, and stubby little double earlies such as `Electra' and `Schoonoord' which I planted in wicker baskets.

`Electra' is a harsh pink - not a tulip I would use in the garden - but it is showy and can be calmed down by masses of white `Schoonoord' and the presence of stately `High Noon'. This is a one of the few things that is performing to order, a mid-April tulip that is just coming into bloom, with soft pink and cream flowers; the cream in a broad flame up the backs of the petals.

We have made trellis panels to hang round the walls of the tent. Fortunately those haven't presented a problem. Yet. We washed them over with Cuprinol wood stain, a bluish-green colour called Sage, watered down to give a beaten-up, nonaggressive finish. Oh, how dangerous this all is. I'm beginning to talk like someone out of Private Eye's Pseuds' Corner. But I must plough on: the trellis will be decorated with ivy and bunches of grapes.

Then there's the church. Well, you have to work hard to spoil a small Norman church with Saxon underpinnings and a 16th-century wall-painting above the chancel arch. A gang of friends who understand flower-arranging have volunteered to fill it with wildness and scent. All I've got to find are boughs of apple blossom for the chancel arch.

"Back! Back!" I keep shouting to the big old Bramley apple on the top lawn. But, like everything else in this garden, it's not listening.

It's going to be a great day.