Monthly Archives: April 2020

Buried treasure

I had run out of compost last week, which rather brought things to a shuddering halt. Cuttings and seedlings which were in need of attention were languishing in their trays and small pots, unable to push on to their next stage of growth. One of the other tasks which risked becoming late was to take the dahlias out of winter storage and give them the kick-start they need at this time of year. Thankfully, compost was found (thank you very much Wilton House Garden Centre – who delivered a load of peat-free compost with great efficiency), and the starting-gun was duly fired…

So, this morning has seen the dahlias see the light of day. Some of the Dahlias at Horatio’s Garden are left in the ground over winter, it being mild and generally dry (or at least free-draining) up on the top of Odstock Down. However, they’ve declined of late – looking at photographs of the garden from even 3 years ago revealed a much better display. So I lifted those that were worth the effort, and they have been stored under the staging in our polytunnel. Christopher Lloyd is rather rude about gardeners who don’t lift and store their dahlias:

“Some people rather pride themselves on leaving their dahlias in the ground year after year and getting away with it. Good luck to them…” (Cuttings, 2007)

It was Christopher Lloyd’s enthusiasm for dahlias which first turned me on to them, while he in turn (somewhere, I can’t find the reference) credits the arrival of Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter with his renewed enthusiasm. Either way, I feel I am in good company, having come to dahlias late in my gardening life.

Taking the dahlia tubers out of winter store always reminds me of getting the Christmas decorations down from the attic. There is a similar sense of anticipation (after all, the dahlias won’t actually flower until late summer), along with disappointment (some tubers have gone soft or shrivelled up – the equivalent of finding that a bauble has broken in the box), and surprise when you discover a pretty one you’d forgotten about.


Stored dahlias are not a thing of great beauty, somewhere between an alien and a dismembered  scarecrow, but they are full of promise

One or two of the tubers were already showing green shoots, in spite of having been deprived of any earth since October time. I potted them all up in nice, fresh peat-free compost, and gave them a good water. They will now sit happily in the (unheated) polytunnel for a few weeks, possibly yielding some root cuttings as they start to sprout, and then being moved outdoors for the summer when we get there.


Most of the dahlias have been potted-up in fresh compost. Those scruffy pots behind contain cane begonias, which were also left over winter and have now started to emerge.

At home I am lazy and tend to leave my dahlia tubers in their pots over the winter in the greenhouse. Then in spring I check them over, freshen up the compost and leave them to get on with it. I’ll move them outdoors once the spring bulbs are over and there is some space in borders and large pots (currently full of tulips). What this does mean is that they can get a head start, weather and snails permitting, and produce new shoots good and early.


This dahlia has had a head start as I left it in compost all winter. Unfortunately it’s lost its label, so we wait to see what it is…

Rather as taking out the Christmas decorations is both a pleasure in itself and a foretaste of the enjoyment to come, so too the dahlias’ emergence promises colour and joy later in the year. And goodness knows we need that.

The end of ‘February Gold’

Nothing spoils the joy of an emerging Tulip display so much as the fag-end of a Narcissus display. So this morning I’ve deadheaded several hundred of the N. ‘February Gold’ which have been delighting patients and other visitors to the garden since 30th January.

N. ‘February Gold’ at its best

I know it was the 30th January because I always take a photo of the first ones to appear. The prize usually goes to a clump which sits in the lee of the hedge but facing south-west up a path towards the ‘top gate’. A combination of factors, I believe, give them a head-start: they’re sheltered from cold winds by the hedge, but the leafless winter hedge doesn’t cast much shade, and they get the best of the low sun down the pathway through the afternoon when it’s at its warmest. It may be something else, but those are my best guesses. However, this year they were pipped at the post by a few bulbs which I’d put in one of the planters: even more sheltered, tucked against the wall of the building, and facing south.

In any event, the ‘February Gold’ have put on a fantastic display, bearing up through the gales and rain of Storms Ciara and Dennis (remember them?), and only starting to fade about 10 days ago. There time had come, and they’re now safe to concentrate on fattening up their bulbs in preparation for next spring.

‘February Gold’ no more

The same treatment will be meted out to Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in due course, although this will be harder as the herbaceous growth will continue to make access to the borders increasingly awkward.
There is more than ‘just’ aesthetics behind deadheading Narcissi (though their browning flowers are a very sorry sight). You want the plant to put all its energy into next year’s flowers, for which it needs its green foliage but not the spent flower head. The plant’s genes, of course, want it to reproduce and so it will try to set seed – the seed-head developing (in Narcissi) as a swelling behind the flower. This is what you need to take off – but nothing more. The leaves must be left, as they have plenty of photosynthesising to do in the next few weeks before they yellow and die back – that’s where the bulb gets its food from.

The sorry sight of a faded Narcissus

There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not the whole flower stalk should be removed, or just the flower head. Admittedly, deadheading and leaving the decapitated stem is usually best avoided, as the headless stems of many plants look ugly and/or silly. However, Narcissus flower stems are – from anything more than a yard away – indistinguishable from the leaves. Furthermore, there is evidence that the stem can photosynthesise more effectively (maybe up to 4 times more effectively) than the leaves, so in terms of feeding the bulbs it makes sense to leave it.

I’ve never understood the ‘traditional’ practice of bending over the foliage of Narcissi and tying it in an odd little bundle. I suppose it was meant to keep it out of sight without wholesale removal, but those little trussed-up parcels of dying leaves look obtrusive and unnatural, drawing more attention to themselves than if left alone, to my mind. I fear that, like pot washing and several other ‘traditional’ winter jobs, it was a task invented by 19th century Head Gardeners to keep their underlings occupied and out of mischief.

A better picture – Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Tulips including ‘West Point’ and ‘Brown Sugar’

Easter Day

This, from 5 years ago – different times in so many ways.

The Constant Gardener

No potato planting – the traditional pastime for allotment folk on Easter Sunday – but a really useful day nonetheless. Mrs G and I weeded and weeded, trying to get the Couch Grass under control, and to clear the ground for sowing and planting in due course. What a bugger it is, with some rhizomes I dug out today being a good 18 inches long or more, and usually tangled with others into some kind of weedy Gordian Knot. Short of dismantling the entire plot, raise beds and all, and starting again after cleansing the site, there is no alternative but to keep weeding. 

The raised beds were all clean and tidy when we’d finished, as was the fruit cage where raspberries are promising to do very well. We must be more diligent about picking them though this year. One of the reasons for growing them is that we, our…

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Potted bulbs

Partly by design and partly by accident, there were a good few bulbs which missed going into the ground back in the autumn and had been happily growing in plant pots over the past few months.

The accidental part is that the filthy wet weather kept me away from the borders for much of the autumn and winter (sic) when bulbs such as Narcissus and Allium should have been going in. Bulbs being, as they are, almost entirely self-sufficient they do not harm from being grown in pots for a time. This applies whether the pots in question are large, ornamental planters or plain black plastic jobs. When I mean by ‘self-sufficient’ is that a bulb is essentially a package containing an entire miniature plant including embryonic leaf, stem and flower parts surrounded by fleshy scales (providing food for the young plant) and a basal plate (which produces roots). If you’ve ever left an onion in the bottom of the fridge, or left a bag of spring bulbs in the shed, you’ll know that they carry on growing quite well without going anywhere near the soil.

Of course, the best method is to ensure that you get all the bulbs into the ground as soon as you can when they arrive in the autumn. However, this isn’t – as last autumn proved – always as easy as it sounds. And the warmer, much wetter winters we seem to be having to get used to are not good news for most spring-flowering bulbs, which are prone to rotting if they get too soggy. Even here, on free-draining chalk, some Tulips in particular struggle to overwinter happily: on clay or poorly-drained ground, they are very unlikely to make it.

Rather than leaving unplanted bulbs in their bag, where chances are they will rot – and, deprived of the fresh energy they derive from being in the ground, they will almost certainly fail to survive for next year – put them into pots of peat-free compost (add a bit of grit to aid drainage) and let them quietly do their thing. 

The ‘by design’ element is that bulbs over-wintered in pots are an absolute boon at this time of year. However hard you try, there are always one or two ‘bald spots’ in the borders, where bulbs have either failed to grow, or – more probably – you overlooked a patch when planting. Sometimes this can be the result of cutting-back herbaceous plants which were still standing when the bulbs were planted, and which were spreading over soil which has now been revealed. Whatever the cause, having some extra bulbs in pots means that you can drop them in to cover the bare patches, providing more-or-less instant cover and colour.

This morning we put in several pots of ivory-white Narcissus ‘Thalia’ to bulk-up one border which was looking a bit sparse, as well as many pots of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ which will provide both height and colour in a few weeks’ time. Alliums are renowned for having rather ugly, floppy foliage so they are better planted where the lower part of the plant will be covered by other growth, allowing the colourful globe-shaped flower heads to emerge into the air above.


Narcissus ‘Thalia’



























If you have nothing better to do…

I’ve not got much time this afternoon for ‘original’ content, but if you’ve exhausted the endless box-sets, classic novels and live-streaming operas we’re all being encouraged to enjoy during self-isolation, I have merged the content from two old blogs (dating back to 2012) on this one.

Goodness knows, you’d have to be really desperate.