Colour in the Garden

It was a lovely sunny day today, so we sat in the garden and painted our old garden table. I had some old tins of garden paint, in various shades, so we set about adding a splash of colour to the boring old table. It was a bit of an experiment, mixing them together, so I was surprised what we came up with.

One of the primary consideration we have when planning our garden is colour. How will the colours of all the different plants work together? Personally, I love to see plenty of colour in my garden. It is never as carefully planned as it probably should be although I am lucky to have an advisor. My wife has the eye of an artist, and a great instinct when it comes to pairing colours, so it stops just short of a cacophony (mostly).
Planning for succession of colour is important. Many plants spend most of their lives just as leaves. They may only be in bloom for a few months or weeks (days even for peonies). When planning, we must consider both the timing of flowering, but most importantly, how the plants appear when they aren’t in bloom. Even at the height of summer most gardens will predominately be different shades of green.
Humans have a natural affinity to colour. It is thought our sensitive colour vision evolved to help survival. Our eyes have gradually developed a fantastic ability to accurately distinguish the colour of objects. The act of psychological perception of light also has a social context. It enabled us to avoid danger, and find food. Over the years we developed deep seated associations with colour. These associations vary considerably from country to country.

Blue often is thought of as calming and relaxing. Green is perceived as a healthy and reassuring colour. Yellow is vibrant and is often described as energising and Red encourages excitement and intense emotions.

Much of modern colour theory is based on work by Johannes Itten (1888-1967) who taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany. Itten developed colour wheels to describe how colours go together. The colours were laid out in a circle with gradations of primary, secondary and tertiary colours. The theory is that colours opposite one another on the wheel are strongly contrasting but complementary. Colours near one another are ‘analogous’ and will work well when used together.
Our colour preferences can be strongly influenced by changes in society. Many studies have focused on the preference of colour in the 20th century. It is thought that prosperity encourages people to choose more bold and bright colours. In times of economic uncertainty they will choose a much more muted and subtle colour palette. Thankfully, gardens take much longer to develop, so colour palettes will not change so fast. Colour trends change annually in the fashion market, but long term changes can have an subtle, but inevitable influence on gardens.
Colour is not an absolute concept. Waves of different lengths enter the eye. They are focused by the lens, on to the retina. Here they trigger nerves that are sensitive to either red green or blue light. There are varying levels of each of these sensors in everyone’s eyes. Some people will be more (and less) sensitive to certain colours, (such as in colour blindness), causing our personal preferences. Some people also think age plays a part. Younger people are more attracted to bright primary colours and older people more drawn to more subtle tones.
In the garden we see colour in terms of three dimensions. One of the great advocates of “painting with colour” in the garden was Gertrude Jekyll. Her book: ‘Colour schemes for the flower garden’ is a masterclass in colour. Her famous herbaceous borders and were planned with swathes of colour from ‘hot’ colours (oranges, and reds) together, moving gradually through the full spectrum to the cool colours (blues and purples) at the other end. These colours can be used to alter the perception of distance. By placing hot colours near and cool colours away we make the border appear longer. By placing cool colours near and hot colours far away it appears shorter. the exception to this rule is white, which appears just as bright at a distance or nearby.
When planning areas in a smaller garden, it can be most effective to just use a few colours in the scheme. Don’t be frightened of adding a few flashes and highlights though. Too few colours, though appearing considered, also appears very unnatural. Be prepared to allow the odd self-seeder a bit of space and give room for a touch of chaos. We always seem to discover that some of the best colour combos come from no more than a fortunate accident. 


Rainy days 

It’s an inevitable part of being a gardener in the UK. Somedays it will rain. Water is essential for life, and without it everything would quickly wither and die. I would prefer it to rain during the two thirds of the day I’m not at work, but unfortunately the weathers schedule cannot be chosen. We must therefore find ways to continue working, despite the best attempts of Mother Nature to thwart us. 

There is a popular saying in Scandinavia which my Norwegian brother-in-law is very fond of; “there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”. It is very true that with the correct apparel, most weather conditions will become much easier to cope with. 

Staying dry is fundamental to this. Once wet, it can become impossible to get warm and dry again without a change of clothes. A good set of waterproofs is always a worthwhile investment. Modern fabrics are waterproof and breathable, so I hopefully don’t end up dripping with sweat, and just as wet inside the waterproofs as outside. It’s also a good idea to get a tough set. The garden is full of thorns and branches just waiting for the opportunity to snag your jacket, and a coat with holes offers very little protection.  

Good footwear is also an essential. A warm, comfortable and waterproof pair of steel toe-capped boots will always work wonders for morale. Damp socks means cold feet and a grumpy gardener, and a grumpy gardener won’t make a good garden. 

One of my most essential pieces of kit for dealing with bad weather is my shed. It is a refuge where I can temporarily retreat from the rain for a quick break and a cup of tea. It could be in the glass house, the car or even under a big tree, but as long as it provides shelter, so I can spend a few minutes out of the worst of the weather, warming up and drying out a bit, and I will soon be ready to go back out again. 

Occasionally it is too wet to be in the garden. Wet soil is prone to compaction and sometimes it is best to let it stop raining before undertaking any work. On days like this it is time to take on inside jobs. In the glasshouse there is almost always work that can be done, sowing seeds, taking cuttings or repotting plants. I often take wet days as a rare opportunity to tidy and reorganise my shed. A few hours spent finding a sensible home for items will save me hours locating them when I finally do need them. A bit of time spent sharpening and maintaining the tools will pay dividends when I next need them and they are razor sharp and ready to go. Cleaning and stacking pots doesn’t feel important now, but when I need them next, I will be glad I did. Sometimes a wet day is the impetus I need to sit down and deal with paper work. It may be the only time I get during an otherwise action-packed week to deal with plant orders, accounts and planning future work. These are easy to overlook while the weather is good, and I can be out on the ground to doing the work I love, but can quickly become critical when deadlines start to loom. 

Once in a while there is nothing left to do but to just look out at the garden, watch the rain drenching everything and relish the fact that at least I won’t need to do any watering this week.

Scent in the garden

Gardening is a very sensual activity and it engages all of our senses. Our vision is continually excited by the changing forms, textures and colours. Our ears are alerted by the chattering of birds in the hedgerows or the sound of wind rustling through the leaves. Our instincts urge us to reach down and feel the ‘fur’ of the leaf covered in tiny, downy hairs or run our fingers through tussocks of soft grass. Our tastebuds are teased with the flavour of fresh strawberries warmed in the sun. For myself, the smell of a rose in bloom will always remind me of the warmest days of summer. 

Gardens are full of scents, some pleasant, and others less so. Sweet peas have to be one of my favourites. Just a small bunch of the strongest varieties can easily fill a room with their delicate perfume, evoking memories of early summer. One of the best is the pink-picoteed ‘High-scent’, though the bi-coloured ‘Cupani’ and ‘Matucana’ are also very potent. 

Jasmine also has an impressive fragrance. The winter flowering types will struggle to put out much scent in the cold days of January, but the summer flowering types, like ‘officinale’, produce a beautifully delicate aroma late in the evening. The chemical responsible (methyl jasmonate) is also thought to help protect plants from attack. 

The shrub Philadelphus also has an incredible scent. It’s white flowers open during June and can often be smelt from quite a distance away. It’s bouquet has been likened to orange blossom and it is, in my opinion, one of the best shrubs for scent in Summer.

There are also lots of shrubs that have scented flowers in winter like the Viburnums, Witch Hazel, Mahonia or Sarcococca. They have to work very hard to spread the news of their flowers far and wide so they can draw in any pollinators bold enough to brave the cold at that time of the year.

It is not just flowers that fill the gardens with scent. I also enjoy the ‘fresh’ smell that comes from pine prunings, the scent of freshly mown grass and I have even been known, on the odd occasion, to savour the deep, earthy odour of a well-rotten compost heap. 

There are of course, some scents which I would like to be able to avoid. I am always wary of the ‘almond’ smell given off by fresh clippings from a cherry laurel hedge as they start to release cyanide. The whiff of the dark anaerobic sludge from the bottom of the pond seems to soak into everything when I have to remove the pond weed and the foetid stench of a compost bin, after its contents have been ‘cooking’ for a week, can turn my stomach from 30 paces.

The aroma of some plants can be a clue to their properties. The intoxicating perfume of elder flowers is a sign of their sleep inducing power. There is an old tale which states never to fall asleep under an elder tree, or you won’t wake up. I haven’t ever fallen asleep under an elder, but only recently I was struck by the scent from an avenue of silver lime trees in full bloom. This late flowering tree produced a nectar so potent any bee partaking of it was knocked unconscious and you had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on all the ‘sleeping’ bees.

When using scented plants in the garden, we must consider their potency. Smells can travel some distance, so a garden filled with lots of different scented flowers can, rather than being a pleasant experience, become confusing and overwhelming.

Our sense of smell seems to be intrinsically linked to our memory, and a single whiff can send our minds whirling back to our childhood, our early experiences and the deep-seated emotions linked to them. Incoming smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. This has connections to two other areas of the brain; the amygdala and the hippocampus. Both of these are thought to have a strong effect on the generation and recall of memory and emotions. Sight, sound and touch do not pass through these processing centres, which could explain why scent can be such a powerful emotional trigger for us.


Hedging my bets

The first broods of birds have now fledged and the hedges are starting to reach into the borders at full speed. Before long the continuous cycle of hedge trimming will become a fundamental part of my daily labour. 

The endless miles of privet hedging that cris-cross the suburbs are ‘bread and butter’ for gardeners. The whirring of hedge trimmers can be heard daily as hoards of gardeners start to try and tame the hedges. The ideal of a suburban plot, enclosed on all four sides by a bushy hedge seems to be much less popular. Maintenance-wary owners now tend to replace them with fences. Hedges do need regular maintenance, but they will provide shelter for plants, homes for wildlife and border patrol duties, long after a fence has rotten to dust. 

The word hedge comes from the Dutch ‘Haag” meaning enclosure. The first hedges were planted in Neolithic times (4000-6000 years ago) to enclose crops, providing shelter from wind and rain, and protection from animals. Many hedges were established during the medieval period to distinguish the rights of way from the fields. Between 1604 and 1914 6.8 million acres of common grazing land were enclosed by landowners for agricultural improvement, protected by endless miles of hedges. Dr Max Harper’s 1974 book ‘Hedges’ contains a formula to ascertain the age of a hedge. He suggests that it is roughly equal to the number of species that can be found in a 30m stretch, multiplied by 110 years, although this is a very rough approximation. 

The primary constituent in most British hedgerows is Hawthorn. This hardy shrub is tough and spiky making it made an ideal barrier for livestock. In domestic situations many shrubby species can be used such as Box, Beech, Holly, Privet, Laurel, Yew, Thuja, Escallonia. Species such as Blackthorn, Roses and Brambles also have the added bonus of providing tasty fruit in the autumn. 

Hedges are a fundamental element in the landscape. They not only restrict the movement of livestock, but will also prevent soil erosion and reduce noise pollution. They provide shelter from the wind, rain and sun for crops and gardeners, and are even great as a screen, or provide privacy, by blocking views both in and out of the garden. They have long heritage in gardens forming grand avenues, intricately woven parterres or disorientating mazes.  

Hedge Trimming is an exhausting and time-consuming chore, but an essential part of hedge maintenance. Without regular trimming they quickly lose their shape and density and gaps will start to appear. In agricultural situations hedges are often ‘laid’. This is done by cutting most of the way through an upright stem which is then bent over and woven horizontally along the line of the hedge between upright stakes. This process stimulates vigorous growth at the base of the hedge ensuring it stays stock-proof. 

The quick-growing leylandii hedges, widely planted in the 70’s and 80’s initially provided dense cover, but if left unchecked, get quickly out of hand. In 2003 legislation on ‘high hedges’ was included in the Anti Social Behaviour Act. Hedges were deemed to be antisocial if they started to affect the light, access or reasonable enjoyment of the neighbours property, and could be subject to a removal order. 

It is unfortunate that in the history of hedges they have all too often signified division and separation. In ecological terms, hedges provides a way of joining spaces. They provide wildlife with valuable corridors of cover down which they can safely travel, forming green bridges and linking isolated habitats. If only they could do the same for us and unify neighbourhoods rather than dividing them.

Learning to love my enemies

For centuries gardeners have been engaged in battle against their nemesis – slugs. 

Nothing strikes fear into my heart quite like the thought of those slimy gastropods destroying months of my hard work. I have tried every technique I can to get the better of them from eggshells and copper tape, to wool and coffee, yet nothing seems to work. My current favourite weapon of choice is nematodes. I must confess though; all too often they breach my defences and end up making off with a large portion of my crop. 

Slugs have also been starring in the news, with reports of invasions of hordes of huge Spanish slugs which grow up to 10 inches long. I’ve never seen a slug that big, but if I did, I would probably run a mile. Only recently it was reported that the mild winter meant that slugs had not gone into hibernation. An army of sleepless slugs have been busy reproducing and reinforcing their numbers. Battalions of these marauders are now waiting in the borders, poised to pounce on any unwitting plants. I am starting to think that rather than trying to beat them, perhaps I should try to appreciate them, and accept I’m going to have to share my Eden, with them as my neighbours. 

The UK is home to around 30 different species of slugs and the average sized garden has around 25,000 slugs patrolling its borders. Approximately 95% of spend most of their time under the soil and those that we see are only the top of the food chain. While it would seem to me that my plants are top of a slugs favourite dishes, their diet consists mostly of decomposing matter, making them some of natures most important recyclers. Some are even known to be carnivorous, disposing of the odd decomposing body, even if it is another slug. They form the 2nd largest class in the animal kingdom, only coming runner-up to the insects (who are clearly the dominant force on the planet.) Some slugs can live up to 6 years, have around 27,000 teeth (even more than a shark) and even use the whole of their body to smell out potential targets. They are hermaphroditic (with both female and male reproductive organs) so can even give birth without copulation. 

Against such a perfectly evolved predator of plants, why am I even trying to beat them? These creatures are preyed upon by virtually every every major vertebrate group, with reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and fish all enjoying their fair share of the feast. Whilst I am not a massive fan of seeing slugs on my Hostas, I am a massive fan of having frogs, hedgehogs and blackbirds in my garden. So therefore, by extension I must also love slugs too! Who would have thought it?

Healing Plants

It must be the same for Doctors, as when I tell a new acquaintance ‘I am a gardener’ they start to describe their gardening woes. Once people know you have expertise in an area, they are keen to test it. Being able to diagnose plant problems on the spur of the moment and coming up with a suitable solution has become a bit of a party trick. 

I do have a bit of an advantage. In my last job, once a month we’d have a phone-in. People could call us with their plant problems and, like a horticultural agony aunts, we would try to solve them. It soon became clear that there were common themes and some problems made regular appearances. People struggled with pruning their plum trees, dealing with rose diseases (like black spot) and wanted to improve their tired lawns. I began to quite enjoy the problems, especially the more obscure ones. The researcher in me loved the process of narrowing down what it could be, and finding a solution. 

I still enjoy this green-fingered challenge in my own garden. I try to avoid plants that I know will have issues, but when I spot a sick plant I try to discover the causes, and figure out how to solve it. Some people do have ‘blindspots’ and will always struggle with something. I know of experienced gardeners who can grow almost anything, but struggle to produce a carrot. In most instances, the best treatment is actually just a bit of TLC. Feeding, watering or pruning will all help to stimulate strong, healthy growth. A plant that is thriving is less likely than a stressed plant to have a problem in the first place. It must be a similar feeling for a doctor with their patients; to see a plant recover is a massive boost to one’s confidence in the garden. 

To nurture life is a fundamental urge we all have, whether it is our plants, our pets, or children, family and friends. This experience has a positive effect on both those giving and those receiving the care. The restorative effects of plants have been recognised for some time. In 1979 Robert Ulrich demonstrated that viewing natural scenes lessened the effects of stress induced by exams. A further study in 1984 showed patients had improved recovery after surgery if their rooms had a view of a green space rather than a building. 

I wonder if perhaps there is an inherent link between us and our environments. Not only do we need to see and experience nature to be better people, but nature also needs us to act as its benevolent protector, so it can also fully realise its own potential.

A sense of direction

The way we perceive our location in the landscape is very personal. Even in familiar environments, people will have a completely different concept of the space. This ‘cognitive mapping’ effect has always fascinated town planners, landscape architects and garden designers. 

Kevin Lynch’s 1960 publication “The Image of the City” is as a seminal title in this area. Lynch was one of the first to try to understand how people’s perceptions of the environment could help to design better environments. By asking participants to sketch maps of the city on their route to work, and by comparing these maps, he could identify common elements. 

Lynch realised that most elements can be categorised as paths, edges, districts, nodes or landmarks. These elements are all seen in garden and city planning alike. ‘Paths’ are travel corridors such as streets or walkways. ‘Edges’ are linear, limiting or enclosing features, but do not function as paths, such as a wall or hedge. Districts are larger areas with a common function such as ‘Chinatown’ in a city, or ‘the lawn’ in a garden. ‘Nodes’ are major points in the scheme where paths intersect or end, causing behaviour to focus at these points. ‘Landmarks’ are distinctive features people use as reference points, and are often visible from a distance. These could be a tall building in a city, or a sculpture or specimen plant in a garden. The interaction and linking of these elements enable people to build a own cognitive map of a space and helps to make the environment legible to them. 

Path’s are like the arteries of the garden, circulating us around the garden enabling us to get from ‘district’ to ‘district’ with ease. They create physical and psychological movement within the garden, linking separate areas together. These thoroughfares are as important as the spaces they link. Their route and materials dictate how they ‘feel’, and the pace at which we experience them. 

It is a great skill to be able to create routes through the landscape that are both understandable, and enjoyable. A sudden glimpse of something in the distance, like a specimen plant or sculpture can catch the attention, and create a desire, drawing the observer along the path to discover where it leads. On the way they may be distracted by a fork leading them off in a new direction. It is this teasing and revealing of the garden in stages that gives a sense of excitement and intrigue in those experiencing it. 

One of the greatest landscape designers, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was a master of this effect on the entry to his grand estates. The main carriageway wove it’s way through the landscape, between carefully situated hills and woods. Only an occasional glimpse of the house was offered until suddenly, the landscape opened up with a grand reveal of the house, perfectly set within the rolling hills of the landscape.

Greener on the other side

For myself, like many other gardeners, Thursday is traditionally the day all the grass will get cut. It means the garden will be looking good for the weekend and, should it rain on Thursday, we still have Friday to get it done before the weekend.

 The lawn is a key element to most gardens, and a well-maintained expanse of greensward is like the wall-to-wall carpet, providing a luxurious, thick pile to enjoy the summer picnic on, or a pitch perfect for re-enacting the FA Cup final. Most gardens would seem incomplete without at least a patch of green where we can rest and enjoy it’s coolness on a warm summers day. As a species, we evolved in the Savannah, so an open grassland is naturally one of our most favourite ecosystems. 

Grass is an impressive plant – able to withstand being regularly grazed and sprout back without harm it is the ideal candidate for this role. The invention of the lawn mower in the early twentieth century meant that the lawn was now accessible to even more people. Previously grass areas would be very labour intensive, either needing to be maintained by hand-scything or grazing. 

On low-lying and flat areas cows can graze. They like lush grass and when it is growing well they leave a fairly neat finish, but just long enough to stay green and hard-wearing, much like the rough of a golf course. Sheep will graze closer to the ground giving a much shorter finish, selecting out the finer grasses, and creating a sward much like our formal lawns. Horses will also graze quite close, but are a little more picky about what they eat, and by midsummer they are overwhelmed by the rate of growth, and will allow the grass to become much more like a hay meadow. 

These days we have replaced the role of ruminants with our lawn mowers and, by adjusting our cutting height, we can impersonate the different livestock, giving a different effect for different areas of the garden. The deposition of faeces by our flocks is now replaced by a regular application of fertiliser, to ensure the lawn stays a vibrant green. 

As a gardener, I have often found it hard to insist that everyone has exactly the same type of lawn. In some circumstances, the perfect bowling-green, pin-striped finish will not be appropriate. Research conducted by Lionel Smith from the University of Reading, looked at other species of plants which would be suitable for using in lawn situations; plant that would tolerate a regular mowing regime, but could flower, providing nectar for wildlife and interest in the garden. Chamomile lawns have been widely grown in the past but the project looked at many other species which could be suitable to take the place of grass. Daisies (bellis), buttercups (rannunculus) and bugle (ajuga) can all give ground cover, and flowering interest over a long period, but can easily be maintained by mowing on a high setting. The original research ‘lawns’ can still be seen at Avondale park in Notting Hill, and new patches have subsequently been established in the grounds of Reading University. 

In the garden I maintain there are areas of lawn which through the Spring are filled with daffodils. During the summer I will mow around them, allowing the grass to grow long, and as if to show my mowing to be a complete waste of time, they are now full of the vibrant colours of flowering plants such as vetches and buttercups. 

Like the harvestmen of old, brandishing their scythes, I see these ever-expending patches of flowers as the last hiding place of Ceres, the goddess of fertility, and am loathe to cut them. The final part of a field to be cut was often called ‘cutting the hare’, as while the field was being harvested this would become the final refuge of the hare, and as the farmers approached the hares would dart forth, a physical embodiment of the goddess. This last part of the harvest would be held dearest and woven into a ‘corn dolly’ which, after resting in the kitchen of the farmhouse, would be used next year to start the sowing of the crop, continuing the cycle of life from year to year, to hopefully ensure prosperity and a bountiful harvest. 

Better by Design

A well-planned garden is a sight to behold. As Spring shifts up a gear, and the borders begin to fire on all cylinders, we enter that unusual part of the gardening year where high-profile gardening shows dominate the landscape. The incredible coverage of shows like Chelsea or Hampton Court bombards our senses with images of horticultural perfection, chic design and the latest gardening style. 

I have enjoyed visiting many gardening shows, although these days I find myself avoiding the crowds trying to see the show gardens, and I am more drawn towards the tents filled with specialist nurseries displaying beautifully cultivated specimens. There have been numerous heated discussions about the validity of the show gardens asking if they are achievable for most people or questioning their sustainability credentials, but these show gardens are exactly that, gardens for show. They demonstrate the designers ability to work with a brief, effortlessly combining ideas with their unique style and aesthetic sense. Most importantly these gardens give designers and construction teams a rare opportunity to try and push back the boundaries of what a garden really can be. They raise the bar for the art of gardening, making our outdoor rooms into more than just a place to kick a ball or dry the washing, but a miniature Eden, embodying concepts of philosophy, stories and beauty into one coherent whole. 

I have been told the Japanese word for a garden is made of two symbols. One meaning ‘cultivated’, and the other meaning ‘wilderness’. I think this idea sums up the fundamental idea of a garden elegantly; a cultivated wilderness, striking the fine balance between control and wild. For myself, if a space has to combine both cultivated and wild elements it must therefore also contain plants. They are the essential element which can transform a utilitarian space so it can truly become a garden. It could be as small as a patio, a balcony or window box, or as large as a rolling countryside estate, but plants are uniquely capable of softening the hard edges of the built environment and introducing a vibrancy and life into an otherwise dead space. The pinnacle of good planting is often seen as the herbaceous border; the most quintessential part of what is often seen as an ‘English garden’. Revered by most of us as the height of plantsmanship in the garden, they are testament to the skills of those that tend them, with beautifully cultivated specimens blending seamlessly together to create a naturalistic-looking tapestry rich with complementing and contrasting colours, forms and textures, buzzing with life and energy. 

For some of us, our plants are like our most treasured trinkets displayed with pride on the mantelpiece, each one carefully selected its unique beauty, cultivated to perfection and carefully displayed to be appreciated as a single entity. For others they are like the fabric of the room, dressing the surfaces and creating the patterns of rhythm and harmony which resonate throughout the display. Sometimes even the wilderness of the neglected garden has a beauty in the unique selection of plants which may have chosen to colonise the space. The plants that thrive will tell as much about the garden as those that don’t. Some plants have unique abilities to isolate nutrients from the soil better than others, giving them an advantage in the stakes for survival, thriving where others cannot. Their self-sufficient nature only deserves to command our respect rather than the disdain many people have of a self-seeded garden. 

Somewhere in between all of these must lay the ideal for a gardener; to appear natural without looking contrived, to blend seamlessly and appear harmonious without harsh juxtaposition and to appear cultivated and presented to the absolute pinnacle of perfection for as long as possible without appearing staid and lifeless. Walking a tight rope of these facets is a task that only the best gardeners can do without wobbling, one that can be inspired by close observation of the elite at work, and hopefully one that we will also one day manage to achieve.

A love of Tulips

I love tulips. In the Victorian language of flowers, tulips were used as a declaration of love (especially the red ones) but for myself they have a unique memory attached. 

When my wife and I got married, six years ago this weekend, I grew over 300 tulips to provide flowers for the tables. In the Autumn we chose a selection of three varieties; ‘Maureen’ – a large flowered white variety, ‘Queen of Night’ – a deep purple flower, and ‘Maytime’ – a purple lily-flowered type. We were anxious that should our timing, or the changeable spring weather, be slightly amiss, we may have nothing to show for our effort, so we added irises, anemones, alliums and bluebells to our selection to ensure we would have something to cut. When the bulbs arrived in October we rushed to the plot to plant them, and one third of my allotment was turned over to producing our wedding flowers. 

We were blessed with good luck and in the run up to the big day we had a long stint of unbroken good weather so they were all flowering at exactly the right time. We were due to marry on the Sunday, so on the Friday, after finishing work, I headed down to the allotment to cut them, ready for the big day. It was inspired timing as no sooner had I finished but the heavens opened and it didn’t stop raining until after we had tied the knot. The Saturday was spent with my family putting the arrangements together and on the morning of the ceremony I delivered my flowers to the venue. I always saw the project as a bit of an analogy for the day itself, the long buildup and preparation before that one moment was invisible to everyone else, but held a unique significance to us and made our memories of the day much stronger, and even more personal to us. 

I have never had the pleasure of visiting Holland during tulip time, although it is near the top of my horticultural ‘wish list’. In Spring the landscape is turned into a rainbow of colours as the tulip fields come into bloom. Perhaps a visit should form part of our anniversary celebrations in the coming years. Unfortunately, the display is short-lived, as no sooner do they start flowering than they are mown off to conserve the bulbs energy so they will ‘bulk up’, ready for sale. One of the best places to see tulips must be in the Keukenhof garden, where the Dutch bulb industry shows off just how impressively the tulip can be used in gardens, and offers the breeders a chance to showcase their newest varieties. 

The natural variability of these flower has for centuries encouraged plant breeders to tinker with them, continually creating ever more forms and colours. Most species originate from Central Asia and they were probably first cultivated and improved in Persia around the 10th century. They soon became an intrinsic part of the culture, and the long dagger-shaped petals of tulipa cluisiana regularly appear in pottery and artwork from the region. 

Tulips were first introduced to Europe from the Middle East in the middle of the 16th century, and by the the early 17th Century they had became a symbol of wealth among Dutch traders. This triggered a craze for collecting and a price bubble meant bulbs of some of the most exotic flamed and feathered varieties were changing hands at extraordinary prices, (around 10 times the wage of a skilled craftsman) and many people were consequently ruined when the market eventually crashed. 

It wasn’t until 1928, when Dorothy Cayley, a plant scientist working at the John Innes centre in Norfolk was able to prove that the colour break which was so desirable to the Dutch, was caused by a virus transferred from plant to plant by aphids. To this day the broken tulips are not shown at RHS shows as they are ‘diseased plants’, although they remain a key element at the shows held by the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. This is one of the oldest florists societies in England and they still show examples of the flamed and feathered types, presented in the necks of (empty) beer bottles at their annual shows. 

Unfortunately for many of us our tulip displays can be short lived, and seem to need replenishing annually. I have often found that some of the easiest types of tulip to naturalise, and give reliable repeat performances, are those known as the species types. One of my favourites is tulipa sylvestris, which propagates itself easily under ground by tiny rhizomes, and will pop up unexpectedly some distance from where it was originally planted. There are many other fabulous species tulips such as tulipa sprengeri, tulipa tarda, tulipa turkestanica or tulip saxatilis and while they tend to be slightly less conspicuous than their ‘louder’ relatives, they are no less beautiful and, in my experience, considerably more persistent. 

These beautiful flowers, despite having no intrinsic value as food or fibre plants, have managed to travel across Europe from the Middle East and have intertwined themselves deeply into our culture so it is unsurprising they have managed to become some of our most loved flowers and a quintessential part of our gardens in the Spring.