Anna Pavord: 'It's a busy month ahead, with bulbs to force into bloom, lawns to repair, Virginia creeper to tame...'

It will all be worth it in the end, says our gardening expert

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The Independent Online

TOP JOB FOR THE MONTH

Plant indoor bulbs

Not long after hyacinths were introduced to England from the East, keen plantsmen discovered that it was possible to force hyacinths into bloom earlier than Nature intended. Nehemiah Grew, Secretary of the Royal Society and a pioneer in the business of finding out how plants are made, had already in 1682 observed that the hyacinth's flower buds were formed in the bulb the previous season and that it might be possible to tickle them into bloom "by keeping the Plants warm, and thereby enticing the young lurking Flowers to come abroad". And come abroad they do, if we can trick them into thinking they have had their winter before we force them to have their spring. Forcing winter bulbs was an important task for head gardeners of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. At Rangemore, Burton-on-Trent, home of Mr Bass of beer fame, 1,600 Roman hyacinths, 600 Dutch hyacinths and 1,200 crocuses were forced every year.

For forcing indoors you need to get hold of specially-prepared hyacinths, usually available in garden centres from mid-August onwards. These will have been given a speeded-up summer and winter so that by the time you get them, they think spring is imminent and start pushing themselves up to flower. Get the biggest bulbs you can find and plant them as soon as you can. Use a layer of crocks or coarse grit at the bottom of the containers to improve drainage and set the bulbs in the compost or bulb fibre, close but not touching, with their noses just showing above the surface. Compost provides more food, bulb fibre provides better drainage. You can use bowls without holes but you need to be careful with the watering. Old china soup tureens make fantastic containers and are cheap to pick up in junk shops.

For the next 10 to 12 weeks, keep the bowls of bulbs in a cool, dark place where the temperature does not rise above 7-9C. Research done by the Dutch Bulbgrowers' Association shows that different varieties need different periods in the dark. White-flowered 'Carnegie' is relatively slow: 11 weeks in a dark place followed by another three weeks in the light. 'Delft Blue' has a quicker turnaround time: nine weeks in the dark followed by just over three weeks in the light. Some people bury the containers outside, or heap them over with ashes, but this is a cumbersome business. Try your garage or shed instead. Or a cellar, if you have got one. Some gardeners keep old fridges plugged into their workshops and store their bulbs in that, but you must make sure the temperature never falls below 4C.

This cold period encourages the roots to develop. Without a good root system to support and feed them, the flower spikes may abort. If the temperature creeps up above 9C, the leaves will grow too long and lanky – a common problem. When the flower shoots are 2-3cm long, bring the bowls into the light but keep them still cool (around 10C). Check whether they need watering. The compost should be moist but never waterlogged, which will cause the bulbs to rot.

When the flower spikes are beginning to colour, bring the bowls into the warm (around 18C). They last for at least a month. Do not bring all the bowls in from the cold at the same time. The bulbs will tick over quite happily at stage one (dark) or stage two (chilly) and if you bring them in gradually, you spread the flowering over a longer period. The whole process, depending on the varieties you choose and the regime you adopt, will take somewhere between 13-18 weeks. Christmas is a less realistic target than early January. Central heating shortens the life of flowers forced in bowls. If you can move them outside or on to a balcony for an occasional breath of cooler air, this will extend the show considerably. Unless you are growing a multi-flowered type, you will probably need to stake the hyacinths as they come into full flower. A continuous fence of string, looped round each stem and round a few thin sticks in between is often the easiest way.

When they have finished flowering, plant the bulbs outside in the garden and allow them to die down naturally. It may take them a season to build up again to flowering size, but once they have got over the shock of being forced, they settle and flower well.

FIND TIME TO

Repair lawns

Repair damaged lawn edges by cutting a rectangle of turf behind the edge and then relaying it round the reverse way so that the worn edge is on the inside. Sift a little earth over the join. Spike over established lawns to aerate them and top-dress them with a mixture of compost and sand.

Sow annuals

Annuals such as poppies, calendula, larkspur, limnanthes, love-in-a-mist, clarkia and cornflower will make an early show next year if you sow them outside now where you want them to flower. Protect them with netting against marauding cats and birds. Leave any necessary thinning until next spring. You'll get bigger, better plants if you sow seed in a pot and later, prick out the seedlings into individual small pots to grow on. Then you can plant them out in spring to fill any gaps in your border.

THINK ABOUT

Clipping Virginia creeper back from windows and hauling it out of gutters. Ivy, too, can be given the same treatment and makes a handsome screen if it is clipped tight against a fence or wire screen.

Planting daffodils which always look better in large groups than dotted about as singletons. If you are planting in grass, choose a spot where the bulbs' dying leaves and the lengthening grass will not irritate you to the extent that you mow too soon.

TO SEE

Crazes for all things Chinese have frequently broken out in English houses and gardens: wallpaper, lacquer furniture, blue-and-white China inside, moon gates, magnolias, and fretworked follies outside. At Woburn Abbey, Woburn, Bedfordshire MK17 9WA, a new show explains how the chinoiserie style moved out from the abbey into the surrounding grounds, where there is a wonderful dairy built in the Chinese style. Woburn Abbey is open daily (11am-5pm) and the exhibition continues until 28 September; admission £14.50.

For more information, call 01525 290 333 or go to woburnabbey.co.uk

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