Fresh tulips with plenty of garlic

The soil is sodden but the show-off spring bulbs - edible or daffodil - don't seem to mind. Anna Pavord casts a keen eye around the February garden
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The Independent Online
My medal for bravery this week goes to a very small and lunatic tulip, only three inches high, called T pulchella. While flood alerts flashed all around it and a gale lashed over it, fierce enough to raise waves as high as houses on the beach only a mile away, it decided the time was right to burst brightly on to the scene. It has a flower so brilliant that even the designer Schiaparelli would blink at it.

The petals are pure, unadulterated magenta, disappearing without any change of colour on the outside into a vivid green funnel and stem. On the inside, the magenta is overlaid at the base of the petals with a strange velvety blue-purple and the same tenebrous colour covers the anthers.

The sun shone this morning - it has been a rare enough occurrence this year to be worthy noting - and the tulips flung caution to the winds and opened from globes into wide stars. Such trust. "You're mad," I told them, but they are not the only ones who feel that it is time for the garden show to get on the road again.

On the bank, great sheaves of green-tipped snowflakes are in flower, too much leaf to flower, of course. There always is with this tribe. But even the freshness of the leaf is a relief set in earth that has been so scoured and beaten by the weather, you wonder that anything can ever turn it to good use again. The snowflake Leucojum aestivum likes our damp soil and makes the most of a sunny spot that will be in deep shade when the trees are in leaf again.

And there are five different kinds of daffodil flowering out there in our garden. For the first time `February Gold' hit the right date. It usually bobs up unabashed in March, like a guest turning up for dinner on the wrong night. That happened recently. I was slumped on the sofa in front of the fire finishing up the last of the celery and almond soup when a friend turned up in all her best gear, expecting candles, music, wine and a three-course meal. After enough of the first three, she forgot all about the fourth part of the package, spent the night and had a good breakfast the next morning instead.

It was she who commented on the smell of `Soleil d'Or' narcissus in the sitting room. These have never flowered so early or so profusely outside as they have this year. We have picked sheaves of them, and it is odd, because tazetta narcissus such as these do not generally thrive outdoors. They are usually forced in bowls inside.

And ours are growing in rough grass, where they can't get baked in the way that tazettas are said to need. This is why you get so hooked on gardening. All the wisdom indicates that these `Soleil d'Or' should be dead ducks and they are not.

In his guide to wild daffodils, Narcissus (Alpine Garden Society), John Blanchard talks of tazettas in Japan growing along the shore right down to the high tide line where they sometimes get covered by the sea. Perhaps it is the excessive wet they have enjoyed and responded to this season. Many of the heads have 10 flowers apiece.

The cyclamineus types of daffodil such as `February Gold' have their petals swept back like the ears of piglets fronting a storm. That is very appealing. `Alliance' is the latest of this group to be added to our garden. It comes up through a patch of golden-leaved feverfew. It is early, lasts well and has a particularly determined little trumpet, held almost horizontal to the ground. Because it was only bred in the Eighties, it is still expensive, £12 for 10 from J Walkers Bulbs.

Walking round the garden in the brief bit of calm, I felt the familiar itch to get going on early spring pruning. All the late-flowering clematis should be cut down to within 18 inches of the ground. The weatherbeaten wands of the buddleia need to be butchered back to their starting points. The wisteria, which had its snaky new growths cut back by half last summer, now must have a more thorough going over. Unwanted shoots must be cut back to within a few buds of their base.

I did have one pruning session, coping with a large and unwieldy rose, `Easlea's Golden Rambler' which was blown right off the pergola in one of the recent onslaughts. Unfortunately it was covered with the best Clematis macropetala in the garden and the whole tangled mess was impossible to get back up on to the supports of the pergola. This was one piece of pruning I would have preferred not to have to do.

Fortunately, the rose, as is the way with rambling types, had already thrown out some good new green wands from its base, so I decided to sacrifice all the older growths and concentrate on tying in the new ones. But this meant slicing through armfuls of the tangled clematis and reducing it, too, to a collection of peeling, stringy main stems.

I hope it forgives me. These early flowering clematis are not supposed to be hacked about, or, indeed, pruned at all. I had to cut off all the top hamper that would have flowered this April. It will not have time to make up the loss, but feasting on some of the extra special worm-laden muck that our neighbour delivered, it may make enough new growth this year to flower well again next season.

Down below the pergola, the vegetable patch oozes quietly in solitude. Not a lot has happened there yet. Although the soil is not cold, it is sodden. The broad beans that we sowed in November have failed spectacularly: one plant from a whole double row of seed. But we have another chance to get those going when the soil has dried out a little.

I did not net the November-sown seed. Animals know that one day you will forget to do the right thing and they are waiting, always waiting, to take advantage of the fact. But they evidently don't like garlic, for that, also planted in November, isalready a foot high.

Soon the garlic will be joined by shallots. These are simplicity itself to grow. You just push the bulbs into the soil so that only the tips are showing, setting them about nine inches apart in rows 15 inches apart. They will be ready for lifting by mid-July. I will use bulbs saved from last year's crop which is still in top condition. The variety is `Delicato' (Marshalls £2.95 for a bag of 25). The bulbs are relatively big and the flesh inside is marked with pink rings.

The vegetable garden generally looks drear. There are few more lowering sights than the ancient stalks of Brussels sprouts surrounded by the bleached debris of their rotting leaves. The sprouts are under a net with sprouting broccoli, which, of course, has not started to produce its shoots yet. Can I live with the hideous sprout totems until I clear out the whole area? No. I must reorganise the net. It can be done from the path to save squelching over the patch itself.

Radicchio `Palla Rossa' (Unwins, £1.35) is the only beautiful thing down there at the moment, beautiful enough to use as a foliage plant among flowers. If you leave it in place for a second year, it sends up great flower stems covered with sky blue flowers like chicory.

It is, of course, a red-leaved chicory and the leaves of the hearts are at their richest now, silky, lustrous, the colour of best burgundy. We sowed seed thinly in a drill on 9 May and have been cutting hearts since the end of October. It is as little trouble as lettuce, though it needs mild weather to overwinter.

J Walkers Bulbs, Washway House Farm, Holbeach, Spalding, Lincs PE12 7PP (0406 426216), SE Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambs PE13 2RF (0945 583407), Unwins Seeds, Histon, Cambridge, CB4 4ZZ (0945 588522).

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