Learning with Experts – Bulbs for Pots and Borders (1)

In 2015, when Learning with Experts was My Garden School I did a short on-line course about container planting with Harriet Rycroft as the tutor. I learned a lot on that course which I still put into practice. A couple of months ago I signed up for another course, this time it’s Bulbs for Pots and Borders with Andy McIndoe as my tutor. There is always something new to learn when it comes to gardening,

I don’t think Learning with Experts would appreciate me telling you what the lessons and assignments set are, but I’m going post my written assignments (as I did for the 2015 course). Whilst Andy McIndoe critiques by assignments with very useful advice, I’m always happy for any comments you’d like to make.

Assignment 1 – Introduction to Flower bulbs

Now is the exciting time of year when we are inundated with bulb catalogues. Sarah Raven’s catalogue is like entering a sweet shop with tantalising pictures of how beautiful your garden will look in the spring. J.Parker’s is more utilitarian with small photos crammed on to a page, not nearly as enticing. I have noticed bulbs appearing in garden centres and stores like Wilko and the Range. 

From past experience both personal and from friends, it is not always the prettiest pictures and most expensive bulbs that are the best. I have had great success with bulbs from Wilko when friends have had disappointing results from well known names. 

My most favourite tulip is the frilly edged gold and dark orange ‘Bastia’. I found it in my local garden centre in 2016 – it’s a marmite tulip, you love it or hate it. Last year I couldn’t locate it anywhere so was delighted to eventually find it in a garden centre when visiting family in Guernsey.

‘Angelique’ seems to be growing in popularity. It is a double flowering late peony style tulip, blousy and a ‘Hello I’m Here’ tulip. I grow it in pots with Spring Green or yellow ‘Sweetheart’ because I like the contrast. 

Tulip bulbs vary in price and in the numbers you can buy them, which can be deceptive. Sarah Raven offers Angelique in a pack of 15 for £8.50, (0.57p per bulb), you can buy a pack of 10 from J Parker’s at £5.99 (0.59p per bulb) whereas on the Crocus website you can find them at 10 for £4.99 – the cost of postage and packaging varies considerably. As I am only going to be planting in containers, I won’t be needing more than about 10-15 bulbs. 

With regard to narcissi, in my old garden along with Narcissi ‘Abba’ which looks remarkably like ‘Bride’,  ‘Rip van Winkle’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ I used to grow ‘Thalia Triandus’ a double headed flower with a fragrance to knock your socks off. Personally I prefer to go to a garden centre and choose my daffodil and narcissi bulbs from the pick and mix troughs to ensure they are a good size and not soft. However, it’s always like Christmas to receive a big box of bulbs ordered on line or through a catalogue.

This year in April I moved from a good sized garden to a flat with a patio so I will be concentrating on container planting only. I am going to plan my spring patio display to create ‘In Your Face, it’s Spring’ colour schemes for people to enjoy as they pass my flat, which faces the front of the building. My tulips will probably consist of Bastia, Angelique or La Belle Époque, Spring Green and striking standard tulips such as Menton, Ronaldo and Queen of the Night. My must have narcissi will be my old favourites, Thalia, Rip Van Winkle and Abba along with new ones I’ve not grown before.

Perfume and colour will be the order of the day.

MyGardenSchool – Week 3 Planting Pots for Winter Interest and Spring Joy

I have now completed week 3 of my free online course with MyGardenSchool.  This is not an advertisement for MyGardenSchool, they are not able to edit this post, my views are entirely my own.

Week 3 was planting a 24″ wide x 12″ deep pot to give winter interest and spring joy.   Coming at the time of year we are beginning to decide and order/buy bulbs for our spring joy, doing the assignment this week virtually and not actually proved quite tough.    Not only was a 24″ pot larger than I would normally use, mainly because I like collections of plants that I can move around, it was no mean feat to keep my purse closed. Designing on paper is something that doesn’t come easily to me.

I am fast realizing I am a ‘go with my gut feeling’  gardener, rushing in with my heart rather than my head.   The Container Gardening course tutored by Harriet Rycroft is teaching me to think, investigate technical issues and plan plan plan BEFORE planting or even buying anything.  Assignments are critiqued by Harriet giving constructive help and advice.  Whilst I was proud of my virtual planting, Harriet made important points which made me realize it was not going to be a successful one.

Sitting in front of my laptop with my student notepad I thought, investigated and saved photos of winter plants and spring bulbs to my Pinterest board.   I chose a purple/orange color scheme, starting with a skimmia ‘rubella ‘ as my key plant (I know it is red in the winter but it is a subtle red), with heuchera ‘paprika’ and erysimum ‘winter orchid’ with a wonderful peach and purple flower.

Erysimum Winter Orchid

Any gaps I would then fill with the cheerful faced Viola in a bronzy/yellow which I think will sit quite comfortably with the other tones in the container. I love Violas and much prefer them to the larger pansy. Their little happy smiling faces make me just want to smile back at them.

Choosing bulbs was not so difficult, it was deciding how any of each I needed that was hard.  Keeping to the peaches, I chose three tulip varieties to be planted at the bottom of the layer of bulbs. The first tulip is one that Harriet introduced in her video lecture – ‘Prinses Irene’. It is ideal for the peach/purple design, and is slightly shorter at 30cms (12″) than the other two, ‘Request’ and ‘Brown Sugar’, I deliberately choose similar coloured tulips as they are different heights giving a layered look – that was the idea anyway.

Prinses Irene
‘Brown Sugar’

Mistake Number 1 

Then I had a mad moment and decided to plant three Fritillaria ‘Imperialis Rubra Maxima’ bulbs.  I have never grown these and thought they would give impressive height to my spring joy.   This is what Harriet had to say on my choice:

“I think the Imperial Fritillaries might be a step too far in a 12″ deep pot. The bulbs are very big, so in order to have 6″ of compost above them (which they’d need for stability) you really need to plant them at about the same level as the tulip bulbs. This would reduce the number of tulips you could fit in. And you need to remember that the fritillaries send up very big, thick shoots, and send down a lot of vigorous roots, so will demand plenty of elbow room. Also they grow to about 3 feet tall, so might look top heavy in a 12″ deep pot. I wouldn’t put Fritillaria imperialis in containers less than 18″ deep really, in fact I usually use them in even bigger pots. Fabulous plants though! And Bold and Brave is definitely to be applauded! If you can get a really big pot, you should go for it.” 

Fritillaria Imperialis Rubra Maximus

I had a little search to find the right  Narcissi, wanting to keep away from yellows. I love brightly coloured yellow daffodils and narcissi and these will certainly have a place in my garden pots but not in this planter. Eventually I found Narcissi ‘Trepolo’, ‘Fragrant Rose’ and ‘Vanilla Peach’. The one thing I have learned from this assignment is that I don’t know how to work out how many bulbs to plant within a confined area. The larger bulbs were not too difficult but I was stumped with the Narcissi trying to plant virtually taking into account the key plant, Skimmia, the Heuchera and the Eyrsimum.  I think I wouid probably plant 10/12 bulbs of each variety.

‘Fragrant Rose’

Mistake Number 2

It could be that come the spring I would have to remove the Heuchera, having done its job in the winter to give colour, into other pots to make room for the spring shoots.

Harriet made this obvious point that I had not taken into account:

“It would be hard to remove any of the surface plants in the spring as they will have put down roots – and you risk damaging emerging bulb shoots if you try to dig or pull plants out. Better just to plant the bulbs a little less densely” 

Finally, the top layer of my spring bulb planting will be Iris Retinulata. Many of these are blue and I wanted to plant purple shades, these will be the first to flower introducing bright colour alongside the orange toned Violas and I want them to look ok when the Eyrismum starts to flower. I had no idea there were so many varieties and I have fallen in love with the pale lilac ‘Sheila Ann Germany’ and the bright ‘Purple Gem’.

This is what Harriet said:

“Iris reticulata are great for a shot of properly early colour, but as you say prefer deep planting, which takes them down to similar levels with the tulips etc, a level which is getting pretty crowded in this planting. I would usually use crocuses (eg C. tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’) in a planting which has lots of deeply planted bulbs, because these only need to be about 2” deep and can be put in swathes or groups near the edge of the planting. I reckon the little iris prefer to have less root competition, so it might be worth having them in separate pots (I tend to use “long toms” which are deep but narrow) and dressing the top of the compost with some nice grit. Then they can also have the space to flower without being crowded by the foliage of other plants and bulbs, and air circulation around them is better. Mind you, I do also try them in mixed plantings – but with mixed results.”

Iris Reticulata Sheila Ann Germany

Armed with a lot more technical knowledge and some important does and don’ts I will now start to order spring bulbs and find a suitable 24″ pot for my winter interest and spring joy planting which should look spectacular.

Next week is the final part, Summer Luxuriance.   I have thoroughly enjoyed this online course and am learning a lot.  The initial website issues have been sorted out and any frustrations in connection with that are over.