Since getting a dog who turned out to be completely gun-shy, petrified by any sort of explosion, November is the month heralded by a period of great wailing and gnashing of teeth—his and mine!
I’m sure, when I was a kid, people were considerate enough to keep their fireworks to the weekend, or weeknight, on which the 5th actually falls. Now the uncontained pyrotechnics and accompanying sound aggression start many days before Mr. Fawkes should be commemorated, continuing well after his treacherous anniversary has passed.
This has nothing to do with gardening—except perhaps to use the celebrations as cover for a really huge, neighbour unfriendly, bonfire or, more peaceably, as a timely reminder to plant your tulip bulbs.
In almost three decades of paid-for gardening I’ve never found a tulip that is as reliably perennial as the more ‘woodland’ and ‘damp meadow’ derived spring bulbs; daffodils, snowdrops, squills (Scilla) and the like. The big, predominantly red or yellow, ‘Darwin Hybrid’ tulips do tend to last for many years, in situations where they get at least some sunshine, but these bruisers are not really ‘the best the tulip world has to offer’.
The ‘species’ tulips are much finer, ‘choice’ is the hort snob term, but, coming from native habitats where they survive in poor soils and baking summer heat, they are seldom able to put up long-term with our cooler, wetter, conditions. The many tulip varieties developed by man, over hundreds of years, will have a genetic make-up so convoluted that it’s difficult to say how they will perform in your particular garden soil after their initial flowering.
I like to plant them in pots and containers where, at least for the first spring, they guarantee to put on a good show. After that I feed them well, while in leaf, and deadhead after petal drop to prevent strength sapping seed production. This way they often provide a good second, occasionally third, year of reliable flowering before succumbing to our less than baking summers and the inevitable build up of pests and/or diseases. If they were still producing flowers, from healthy bulbs, when tipped out of the container then I replant them into a border (they don’t establish in turf) where it’s a bonus if they defy the odds to bloom again there.
When working for a London landscaping firm, straight after I completed my degree in Horticulture, I remember early morning runs to ‘Nine Elms’, the ‘New Covent Garden’ market, to buy wholesale bulbs and winter bedding. When it came to tulips we tended to stick to lily-flowered varieties which combined elegance with sturdiness and came in a good range of colours. They were guaranteed to bloom even after emerging through containers stuffed full of winter pansies, trailing ivies, Bellis perennis and at least two other types of spring bulbs. Of course they only ever stayed put until the summer bedding replaced them in late spring. Everything was treated as ‘disposable’—such is life in the bustling Metropolis.
Of those lily-flowered, old dependables, I still regularly plant ‘West Point’, a good yellow, and the ultimate ‘goes with anything’, white flowered, ‘White Triumphator’. I think I first developed a soft spot for the more outlandish ‘Parrot’ forms with the deepest purple ‘Black Parrot’. It’s almost a cliché for being partnered with various types of allium at the ‘Chelsea Flower Show’ each year. Of course, for shows like ‘Chelsea’, the landscaper will have pots and pots of tulips, held back by cooling or brought forward in glasshouses, to ensure they exactly coincide with the similarly manipulated alliums. In your garden it’s often best to pair tulips with traditional bedding, wallflowers are the classic foil, which flower over a long enough period, in the spring, to guarantee that the tulips will at some point synchronise perfectly.
On the subject of ‘Parrot Tulips’, I came across ‘Blumex’ when I was checking that the previously named varieties were still listed in current catalogues. It promises really interestingly formed petals shot through with a rainbow of deep orange, burgundy, chartreuse flairs and the odd yellow highlight. I’ve missed it for this year but it’s certainly one that I’ll be ordering next autumn. For now I must get on with all the other things that need to be done this month.
Essential jobs for now include moving less than hardy, potted, plants under cover or, at least, right up against a south facing wall of the house. Even in the balmy ‘Marshwood Vale’ it would be foolhardy to expect borderline hardy plants to survive the winter in a really exposed spot. Fully tender plants will need to be in a greenhouse with some form of supplementary heating readied against the risk of sub-zero temperatures. If you haven’t done it already, thoroughly spruce up your chosen ‘under cover’ area, cleaning the glass to allow in maximum winter light.
I reserve the ‘under bench’ area of the greenhouse for old wine boxes that house the dahlias and cannas which need to be dug up from the borders this month. I don’t necessary wait for a frost to blacken the foliage, the traditional signal to lift dahlias, as this might never happen in a very mild year and cannas at least are best lifted before being damaged by frost. Whatever their state, both get all their stems and foliage chopped off so only the tubers / rhizomes are stored in the old wine boxes.
I let the dahlias dry out first, inverted to drain the hollow stem bases of moisture, but the cannas are best boxed up still encased in a little damp soil then further covered by a layer of multipurpose compost. Dahlias seem to survive best if made completely dormant by drying out, whereas cannas definitely grow bigger and better, the following year, if kept at a gentle tick-over. From experience dahlias are borderline hardy, in the southwest, but cannas definitely need to be frost-free all winter and are severely held back if allowed to dry out during storage.
You can start planting bare-root plants this month although, in tune with the slowness of the season, there’s no rush with this. Do it when the weather conditions are favourable and you’re in the mood. To make a proper job of planting takes time, especially if tree stakes, rabbit protection and mulching provisions are involved. Remember that old adage about spending as much money on the hole as you did on the plant. That’s as good a thought as any to leave you pondering on!