Emma Townshend: "For winter containers, forget those old, boring standards of pansies, ivy and heather - go for a fiery-red wild tulip"

 
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The Independent Online

By now it should be clear to most people with whom I have even a passing acquaintance that I have strong views on window boxes.

Scratch that: I have strong views on a lot of things, including window boxes. A conversation about the ubiquity of Polarn O Pyret children's coats in the west London area? Count me in! A brief chat about whether it's in good taste for your most anti-fur-wearing friends to celebrate the death of Joan Rivers? I'm there! But most particularly, at this time of year: need an opinion on the disgusting, out-sized yellow and purple pansies sold in polystyrene trays for us to stuff our containers as "winter bedding"? No, no, and again, no, I tell you! Or, to clarify – yes to the heated debate, no to the pansies.

It's especially annoying when you see a commercial premises that has looked really fabulous all summer pouring lurid begonias down from its windows and into the street, experiencing a crap winter changeover. Most pubs and offices have contracts with gardening companies that change the bedding over on a tight schedule despite the warm early September we're having. Geraniums (good) give way to tedious ivies (er, mostly bad).

In fact, there are several serious problems with pansies, ivy and heather as a winter strategy as far as I'm concerned. First, unless you really take care of winter pansies, they are never going to look good. Remember the scene in your local park on a cold November morning, horribly spaced pansies with a foot of grey earth between each plant, looking like some sort of weird airport-style long-stay car park for abandoned flowers? Blerg, blerg, and please, no.

I think it might be because none of these plants has a very attractive shape. In winter, green things grow very little, so shape is important, and trailing ivy stems and a misshapen heather aren't going to cut it. Instead, small hebes, silver-leaved and structural, seem a much better bet; or for a greener, fresher appeal, try small box plants. If you prefer a softer approach to containers, go for one of the grasses which keep their colour over winter, such as the blue-grey Festuca glauca. And if you really insist on having ivy as well, you can plant one or two along the edge. I'll let you, this once.

But colour, colour, I hear you ask, plaintively. OK, let's hear it for the bulbs. There's one genuinely good reason to leave car-park space in your winter window boxes, and that's because sooner than you know it, the first bulbs will be up. You can be guaranteed to have flowers by February by planting Iris reticulata: these tiny, short-lived stems are among the most spectacular things the floral world produces. Papery flower cases unfold like butterfly chrysalises to reveal the winged beauties beneath, in deep shades of blues and violets, the perfect wake-up call for late winter. Crocus has a small collection for £9.99, which includes three different varieties.

Next, Grape hyacinth (muscari) is a plant that gains massively by being grown in quantity. I could never really understand the point of them until I saw a whole basket of white muscari growing in an old basket on a table in Maastricht, and then I suddenly saw the light. Twenty-five white bulbs come from Avon Bulbs for £10.75 and if I were you, I'd plant them all in one container, ignoring any "two inches apart" planting advice completely. The flowers won't have enough left in the bulb to go on to the next year grown like this, but the effect is sparkling.

Our last early riser is the wild tulip, ancestor of many of our garden types. Growing in the wild in the mountains of Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan, they are properly tough. "Little Princess", available from Avon Bulbs, is a tiny, postbox-red terror which should establish itself in a pot for good if you give it enough room to bake in summer (10 bulbs for £3).

With the irises, muscari and tiny tulips, you should have something in flower from February to April, when spring can hopefully take over cheering us up. With, I might add, not a polystyrene tray in sight.

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