Splurging is the only way with bulbs. It's no good planting five of a kind together. You've got to put in 10 at least. If you are thinking of crocuses, 20 in a group is not too many. Crocuses are exactly what I've got in mind for this new opportunity. Let's stop calling it dangerous. I'm being positively abstemious spending only pounds 50 on bulbs when I could have smothered the house in Dralon at four times the cost.
It is a piece of ground about 10 feet by eight stretching along the front of a bank, facing roughly south-east. I always intended it to be a place for small things: pinks, saxifrages, violas, dwarf euphorbias, mixed with spring flowering bulbs. But a ceanothus, C thyrsiflorus repens planted higher up the bank had other ideas. It wouldn't stop growing. Hacking at it only encouraged it to greater efforts. After it had flowered this spring, it was hitched up to the back of a car and towed out of the ground.
What a relief! I've always been short of sunny, well-drained places to grow bulbs and now, just by getting rid of one greedy shrub, here is a whole new canvas. The crocuses I particularly like are the species, smaller but earlier flowering than the big types generally known as Dutch. Both sorts have their uses, but it is better to plant them in separate places. A bantamweight such as C chrysanthus will be knocked sideways by a heavyweight Dutch such as "Vanguard".
Crocuses are not ideal subjects for mixed plantings in herbaceous borders. The time of maximum activity in borders coincides with the time when the crocus's small corms are lurking out of sight and usually out of mind as well. Even if you do not actually spike them, you will worry and upset them by disturbing the earth around them. They need to be shallowly planted. Burying crocus bulbs too deep is one of the chief reasons why spring flowers fail to follow autumn planting.
Since they like the same open, well-drained conditions, crocuses fit well with alpine plants in a scree and their Lilliputian scale is right for that sort of position. Some of the more vigorous C chrysanthus crocuses will be able to cope in reasonably fine turf. So will the exuberant C tomassinianus, pale lilac in the ordinary species, deep ruby in the selected form `Ruby Giant'.
C tomassinianus `Barrs Purple' does well with us, planted between the slabs of stone that make a bit of a path up one side of the bank. In February and March, they are the best things in the garden, flowing down between the stones like a stream.
In the wild, the species grows in Yugoslavia in light woodland, so in the garden it will put up with a little shade. They self-sow liberally, but if you are growing them in grass, do not mow for at least a fortnight after all the foliage has disappeared. The crocus's seed capsule sits almost on the ground and takes a little time to ripen and shed its seed.
Choosing crocuses is easy once you have decided whether it is blue, white or yellow that you want. The large-flowered Dutch varieties of C vernus or the yellow C aureus are the showiest. But if you have a lot of sparrows temporarily using your address, steer clear of the yellows, which always get attacked more often than the white or blue.
The colours of the small-species crocus are more complex than those of the big Dutch ones. Bronze, for instance, doesn't exist among the big crocuses, but `Zwanenburg Bronze' is a wonderful form of the little C chrysanthus, streaked with brown on a bright yellow ground. 'Saturnus' has the same livery, saturnine in the extreme.
The biggest choice of varieties is to be found in the family of C chrysanthus, a native of Greece and Turkey, flowering with us in February. There is so little else in the garden at that time, the crocuses have the disadvantage of undivided attention. If they have faults, you notice them more acutely than you do with flowers that come in the jostle of June or July.
Fortunately, few do. `Warley White' is a winner for those who like the palely loitering look in their gardens. The point of it is not the whiteness, but the beautifully fine dark purple, almost black, feathering on the outsides of the petals. `Snow Bunting' is not quite so elegant. The white is slightly yellowed, like old paint, and the purple make-up on the outside of the petals is not so expertly put on.
Of the bluey-purple kinds, I like `Prince Claus', a two-tone flower, pale violet-blue on the inside, darker outside. This year I am going to try `Skyline', new to me, which has pale blue flowers, flushed with purple. It will go in the new patch at the front of the bank.
If I was a serious alpine gardener, I would be converting the ground into a proper scree by digging sackfuls of coarse grit into the soil to improve drainage. I blench at the thought. Instead, I will mulch the whole area with grit after the bulbs have been planted this autumn and hope that worms and weather will do the hard work for me.
But I will give the corms some protection against mice. They are devils with crocuses. E A Bowles, the famous Edwardian gardener who raised `Snow Bunting' (and wrote the classic monograph A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum for Gardeners) was a psychopath where mice were concerned. "Mice need fighting in all months and by any means," he wrote, and went on to recommend a complicated armoury of traps baited with Brazil nuts, poison and slippery jam-jars sunk into the ground. I find chocolate the best bait for mouse traps.
But traps aren't enough and the cat is worse than hopeless. There was a mouse behind the dresser in the kitchen that was irritating me. As the cat was sleeping soundly in the chair by the Aga, unconcerned by the scrabbling, I set a trap by the skirting board. Then the phone rang and while I was chatting to a friend, I heard the trap go off. When I got back into the kitchen, there was the cat, trotting round the table looking pleased and proud, with the trap and its dead mouse in his mouth.
So, at planting time, I'm going to set pieces of nylon netting over the groups of crocuses before I cover them with earth. The shoots will get up between the mesh, but I hope it will be enough to stop mice getting at the corms. Meanwhile, does anyone know of a combat training manual for cats?
Crocuses available from Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (01460 242177). The nursery is open from 25 September to the end of October, Thurs-Sat (9am-1pm and 2-4.30pm) for the collection of orders, but bulbs and corms can be sent by mail. For a catalogue, send 4 x 2nd-class stamps.Reuse content