It's lunchtime and students are pouring out of the classrooms and heading for the refectory to scoop up plates of home-made chilli and sticky toffee pudding. West Dean College is not your average adult-education institution; the lunches alone are proof. When we are not exclaiming "yum" and wondering who to ask for the recipes, we chat as a group, finding out who's new (in our class, me alone) and who the worst repeat offenders are (Michael the sculptor with eight courses under his belt).
From West Dean's huge range of gardening courses we've all chosen a day on bulbs taught by Jasmine Hart. She's a sweet-looking gardening expert with her own Hampshire garden who turns out to have a surprisingly evangelistic side when it comes to today's specialist subject.
I'm intrigued by how many experienced gardeners in our group admit to shying away from bulbs, despite all the tempting mood boards lining the room, which show exactly what this group of flowers have to offer. Bulbs and all their associated timings can scare people – a bit like making risotto.
Hart turns out to be the perfect persuader, forcing us to sit down with a bulb catalogue each and really plan. This means making us imagine the bulbs coming up through one another and how they would actually look – the "succession" of a garden. Looks of acute concentration appear on everyone's faces; it turns out to be really hard to picture exactly how your spring containers are going to look.
One of the nicest things about West Dean is still to come. After lunch we take a wander around the immaculate gardens, with rolling views to the South Downs. Bed after bed of bright herbaceous colour prove summer still isn't quite over, and careful labelling lets us take notes for next year, on dahlias, salvias and Michaelmas daisies.
All of West Dean's gardening courses take advantage of the gardens, which have veg growing on a professional scale (for the Organic Kitchen Garden course) and many beautiful mature orchard trees (made use of by those taking Apples and Pears: All You Need to Know).
Hart's years of experience mean she has tons of tips to share. Planting bulbs in aquatic garden baskets (usually used for plants in ponds) is her way to maximise colour in a small space: plunge the basket into your flowerbed when the bulbs start to flower, then replace with another when blooms fade. "And don't be mean!" she enthuses. "Don't order 12 of anything, it's just mimsy. How many tulips do you think there are in this photo? Hundreds – and look how great it looks!" The sharpest lesson of all? "Bulbs don't grow at all well," she says, with gravitas, "in the packet."
For the full programme of West Dean's classes, visit www.westdean.org.uk
Tips from the top: Lessons from West Dean
1. The basics
Don't expect your tulips to come up again – resign yourself to them as a one-time thing. Hart's favourite: Blue Parrot, a gorgeous mauve, with fancy edging. 30 bulbs for £13.50, www.crocus.co.uk
2. The unconventional
Get your main impact from standards (tulips, daffodils etc) but explore the far reaches of the catalogue too. Hart's recommendation: Scilla Peruviana, an exquisite blue pyramid. Three bulbs for £12, www.avonbulbs.co.uk
3. The drainage
If you grow Fritillaria imperialis, you may notice a depression on the top that will fill with water underground; Hart's tip? Plant them tilted on their sides. Three bulbs for £8.35, www.broadleigh-bulbs-autumn.co.ukReuse content