Happy returns: Anemone blanda, one of the garden’s more colourful bulbs. Photograph: Fotodesign Herzig/ Fotodesign Herzig/the food passionates/Corbis
My parents inherited a long-overwhelmed garden in their 40s, which must have been neglected for easily as many years. Forty years on, the garden is once again in retreat as the woodland encroaches, but it is the bulbs that have outlived two generations of gardeners. The orchard, planted by Miss Joy in the first decade of the last century, is now a shattered tangle of elderly Bramleys, but at their feet the narcissus are lighting the clearing. They have done this for more than a century, returning without fail every spring. The wild Narcissus pseudonarcissus come first, giving way to a host of old-fashioned varieties with striking elegance.
The next wave of bulbs are the white, pink and bluebells, which have naturalised over the decades and crossed and re-crossed with each other. We can also see our own additions to the orchard: the aconites I planted as a child are seeding about and the Anemone blanda taking hold where there’s more light. Self-seeding is a mark that a plant likes you and that you have found where it likes to be, and there is a thrill in seeing these bulbs increase naturally in number.
I have been planting my own banks and imagining that, one day, when my own garden overwhelms me, I might benefit from the easiness of naturalised bulbs. If you grow them in grass, bulbs need little more than to be left alone: leave the grass uncut for at least six weeks after they have flowered, to allow the leaves to feed the bulb for the next season.
The secret to their success is matching bulbs to the conditions they like. The moist hollows might be saved for snowdrops and the follow-on of Fritillaria meleagris, then May-flowering Tulipa sprengeri. The scarlet of this tulip is remarkable and, unusually, they prefer a little moisture at their feet. They take about six years to flower from seed, but the wait is worth it.
Although they like damp ground, Leocojum aestivum (summer snowflake) are easy in most conditions. They make a good compliment to Narcissus poeticus. If you are clever, you can combine all three with apple blossom and I hope to be cleverer still by adding Fritillaria meleagris “Aphrodite” to the mix.
Last year, with the cold winter holding everything back and then letting it go all at once, the Pheasant’s Eye narcissus also came with camassia. I have set out 100 under my Malus transitoria to see if the Camassia leichtlinii “Alba” will start to seed about and make the bank its own.
Narcissus fly have hit my collection of small-flowered varieties on the sunny banks. The adults favour sunny conditions for laying their eggs at the neck of the bulb and the grubs eat away at the bulb in summer so that they simply fail to come up the following year, or do so blind. As the crabapples grow they will provide the shade that doesn’t favour the narcissus fly. It will be slow gardening – I am more than happy to take a few decades over getting right.
Although most bulbs prefer to be planted at two and a half times the depth of the bulb, snakeshead fritillary like to be planted at least 6in down – the full depth of a trowel blade.
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