Urban gardener, Cleve West: Big Brother is watching me

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The Independent Online

It's our allotment open day today, but while I should be concentrating on pickles, pears and prize pumpkins, I've been distracted by bulbs, a bastard of a squirrel and Big Brother. Let me explain.

September is a great month to celebrate the year's harvest, but this year has been the worst since we started seven years ago, so it's no wonder that my mind is drifting to the start of bulb planting season. Each year I like to add some to the allotment. Camassia and narcissi are planted directly into the ground but alliums, tulips and scillas are put into two- or three-litre pots and kept in the coldframe over winter to be planted out wherever they are needed - particularly in the herb bed. Policing the plot, however, is tricky, as the said squirrel insists on planting an acorn in each pot and snacking on whatever is displaced. Chicken wire helps to keep it out but this can impede the growth of leaves later on and, by that time, the squirrel is frantically digging any pot it finds, trying to recover its horde. It hardly seems worth the trouble but, as any gardener knows, bulbs are irresistible.

For the urban gardener, planting bulbs in containers is often the only sure-fire way of success and provides increased versatility and scope where space is lacking. I prefer to plant just one type of bulb in each pot but you can, with a decent sized pot (at least 25cm high), plant layers of bulbs for a successional display. A gravel drainage layer covered by soil can be planted with two layers of bulbs, the latest and tallest at the base, the smaller, earlier variety on top. A third layer can work in a larger pot (say 35cm high), a typical arrangement being crocus first (early-flowering/top layer), narcissus or muscari (mid-flowering/middle layer) and tulips (late-flowering/bottom layer). This will take most of the nutrients from the soil (especially if you plant summer bedding in the pots, too), so I would plant these bulbs in the ground wherever possible or give them away to someone who has space, and start afresh each year.

The annoying thing is how our memories have a habit of letting us down when it comes to bulb planting, and I guess most of you know that sickening crunch when the bulb planter slices through quite an established colony of daffodils or tulips. You could argue that bulbs are little ready-made, pre-wrapped gifts to ourselves and that our minds are programmed to glaze over for a few months in order to accentuate the surprise when the flowers finally emerge. My memory-lapse went a bit too far last year when a large bag of dwarf narcissus and tulips, still in their paper bags, were found under debris in the back of my van. They flowered ever so obligingly but I wouldn't advocate this as a new technique.

This year, at home, I'll be looking to plant the slightly unfashionable grape hyacinth with dwarf narcissus.

If you want something different, Schizostylis coccinea is a more exotic bulb from South Africa which provides a useful dab of late summer colour. This, too, enjoys moist conditions so if you are planting in a container you need to be diligent with your watering.

But where does Big Brother come in? Well I recently downloaded the latest version of Google Earth, the one that shows you what the sky at night looks like from any given location. The allotment, with its wide-open space and slightly less light pollution, has been a great place to look at the stars, so this will be a useful tool for us to learn a bit about what we can see out there. On zooming into our plot I was surprised to see my van quite clearly in the allotment car park. Also visible, though less clearly, is what looks like a figure at the side door of the van either putting something in or taking something out. If it is me, considering I am the elder sibling in my family, it's clearly a case of Big Brother watching himself. And reminding him where he in fact stored those bulbs that went missing. I wonder what George Orwell would make of that?