Spring box: start here

Anna Pavord gives advice on bulbs for tubs and windowboxes
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The Independent Online
Sales of bulbs have increased by more than 50 per cent over the last five years. Growers think that it is because gardeners don't treat bulbs properly. They are too keen to "tidy up" the foliage after flowering. They don't lift and store bulbs (like tulips) that would benefit from this strategy. Consequently there is a strong "annual replacement" market that is not strictly necessary. But are the growers complaining? I should think not, with an estimated pounds 113m being spent on bulbs this year.

It's sad for the bulb, though, which has been growing and fidgeting for several years, waiting for its chance to show what it can do. Then when it does, instead of being praised and fussed over, it's chucked in the bin. But if you live in a flat, and grow bulbs on balconies, in pots or in windowboxes, there is rarely anywhere to store spent bulbs. You need a friend with a potting shed, who can later release the bulbs into a corner of a proper garden. Where they will be eaten by mice.

The good news is that some bulbs, including crocus and hyacinths, are cheaper this year than last. Hyacinths are tailor-made for windowboxes: not too tall, immediately striking and blessed with the kind of scent that makes the inventions of Calvin Klein and other pricey perfumiers, seem as worthless as cheap soap.

The front windows of many town houses of the 18th and 19th centuries are still fitted with the ornate ironwork that once held custom-made windowboxes. It's not difficult - or expensive - to get boxes made to fit into these, and they look infinitely better than the sagging plastic boxes, usually too small, that have taken their place.

Put a layer of grit or pebbles in the bottom of the box before you start filling it with compost. Hyacinth bulbs can be packed in quite closely. When the bulbs are in place, fill in with more compost, pushing it gently between the bulbs and down the sides of the box. I have an irrational prejudice against pink hyacinths. The blues are my favourites and fortunately there are plenty of them. 'Bismarck' is sky blue, lovely with white, winter- flowering pansies. 'Delft Blue' is darker, but the darkest, most saturated colours are to be found in 'Blue Magic' or 'King of the Blues' which are both a rich, deep indigo. In garden centres, you can usually get hyacinths for between 35-40p a bulb, whatever the variety.

Flowering time is between March and April. If your window box is large, you could plant two kinds, one early and one late, to take over and extend the season. 'Bismarck', 'Blue Star', 'Ostara' are all early kinds. 'King of the Blues' is late. If you buy from a catalogue, you will usually be offered a choice of bulb size. The most expensive, of course, are the biggest, typically 18/19cm with hyacinths. Don't buy these for windowboxes. The flower heads will be too big to hold themselves up.

Much more satisfactory are bulbs around 16/17cm or smaller. They will be far better adapted to outside weather and are much cheaper. The bulb firm de Jager, for instance, charges pounds 4.45 for five top-size bulbs of rosy pink 'Amsterdam', but only pounds 2.95 if you buy 16/17cm bulbs of the same variety.

If you find your hyacinths are toppling, you can build a temporary fence round your windowbox. Stick short lengths of bamboo (or hazel) into the corners of the box and one extra in the middle of the long side. Then, using raffia or soft string, lash a top rail round the uprights, like a corral fence.

Bulbs to avoid in window boxes are ones such as snowdrops and aconites. Daffodils do well, but they need to be packed in quite tight, so that they all hold each other up, as they do in the exuberant windowboxes that are such a feature of the George Hotel in Stamford, Lincs. The very tall varieties, such as the sulphur yellow 'Spellbinder' or 'Burma' with its orange-scarlet cup, are best avoided. Try the beautiful jonquil 'Quail' instead. It is rich golden yellow. It flowers in April. And it is scented.

I would avoid double daffodils in windowboxes, too. They are very showy, but often the stem is too weak for the head and after a shower of rain, the stem buckles and the heads flop. Use double varieties such as the soft yellow 'Texas' or 'Golden Ducat' (a sport of the well-known 'King Alfred' daffodil) in places where they can escape the worst of the weather.

Daffodils have plenty of their own greenery to set them off. They are better endowed that way than tulips (though that's the only point I would concede against tulips). But if the windowbox is large enough, you might be able to add some different greenery to bulk up the display. Ivy is most often used as a companion plant. You can see why. It is bomb proof.

But to be indestructible, it has to send out a great deal of root, to squeeze the last bit of moisture out of its patch. Compost dries out rather fast in a narrow container such as a windowbox. If you clean out an old windowbox in which ivy has been growing, you will find it filled with a great matted matrix of root, like a coir doormat.

This doesn't leave much opportunity for other plants to get their fair share of food and drink. Bulbs won't mind that the way annual flowers would. A bulb's flower is already packed away in its innards when you buy it, and you have to do something extraordinarily crass to stop it coming out.

Ivies such as 'Parsley Crested' and 'Anne Marie' both do well in containers. 'Parsley Crested' is the faster of the two, strong growing, with long, cascading trails that can disguise windowboxes not chosen for their looks. The green leaf turns dull crimson in cold weather. 'Anne Marie' is more delicate, the grey-green leaves strongly variegated in cream.

Bulbs are available mail order from de Jager, The Nurseries, Marden, Kent TN12 9BP (01622 831235); J Walkers Bulbs, Washway House Farm, Holbeach, Spalding, Lincs PE12 7PP (01406 426216); Jacques Amand Ltd, The Nurseries, 145 Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middx HA7 3JS (0181-954 8138)

CUTTINGS

The novelist Penelope Mortimer is opening her London garden today (2-6pm) in aid of the Arvon Foundation, which provides struggling writers with sanctuary. The garden, at 19 St Gabriel's Road, London NW2, is a model of what can be achieved by way of bringing the country into town. Admission pounds 4.

Members of Scotland's Gardens Scheme have arranged several big plant sales this autumn, on a bring-and-buy basis. The next will be on Saturday 28 Sept (11am-4pm) and Sunday 29 Sept (2-5pm) at Kirknewton House, Kirknewton, West Lothian, where there is a big woodland garden.

The London Wildlife Trust is holding a course this weekend at its garden centre, 28 Marsden Road, London SE15 4EE. The theme is Brick and Mortar to Bog and Meadow and explains how to create and maintain a wildlife garden in a series of different contexts. The centre features its own demonstration wildlife garden, using native species which will provide food for wildlife. But what do they do about cats? The course costs pounds 55. For further information phone Helen Firminger on 0171-252 9186.

Potter Claudia Clare has created a most extraordinary tea set which she has called The World Service. There are seven pieces and each one commemorates a different part of the world and its plants. There's a wonderfully inspired plant tea pot in the service and some touchingly delicate tea cups, painted and glazed on wafer-thin earthenware. The tea set is on display at the Huddersfield Art Gallery from today until 9 November. Next year it will be at the Oxford City Museum from 3 June-12 July.

There is a Rare Plant Fair tomorrow at the Royal Free Hospital, Fleet Road, London NW3 (12-5pm), where specialist nurserymen, such as Chris Brown of Compton Lane Nurseries, will bring choice plants to sell. The hospital is two minutes' walk from Hampstead Heath station (North London line from Liverpool St). If you go by underground, it is five minutes' walk from Belsize Park. Admission to the fair is pounds 3.

WEEKEND WORK

Morello cherries fruit on growth made the previous year, not on old wood. You need to dissuade them from fruiting only round the outer fringes of the tree by cutting away one or two of the older branches now. Take them back to a point where a strong new shoot has broken out and tie in the new growth in its place.

Spinach can be sown now to give an early crop in April of next year. Plant spring cabbages at least nine inches apart and with some protection against slugs and pigeons.

Take thyme cuttings by pulling off strong growing shoots and pushing them into the ground round the parent plant. They should root in four weeks. Rosemary can be similarly rooted. Take cuttings of lavender and sage by pulling off shoots about six inches long, with a good heel attached, and lining them out 2-3in deep in light, sandy soil. Keep them well watered, but not drowned.

Early apples such as 'Discovery' and 'George Cave' should be picked as soon as the stems part easily from the branch. Peaches and plums may also be ready to pick. Wasps are a good indicator. Do not leave peaches to ripen fully on the tree. A day in a warm kitchen will finish the job more safely.

Do not be tempted to cut back lily stems once they have finished flowering. Like daffodils, lily bulbs suck down all the life left in the stem and leaves in order to build themselves up for flowering next year.

Pull onions and leave them to ripen on top of the ground until the green stems have withered to the colour and texture of straw.

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