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It's a bulb's life; Now that winter is just around the corner, it's time to start laying the foundations of a garden to be proud of next year.

I CAN'T bear the thought of winter. Low light levels and dreich monotonous weather mean a season in the doldrums for me.

But so long as I don't face up to buying the bulbs, I can go on kidding myself that summer might last forever.

It is, of course, completely illogical. No-one is happier than I am to see the first brave snowdrops or daffodils lighting up the sodden brown-ness of winter. It means the end's in sight, and I can think about coming out of hibernation and enjoy the garden stirring back into life.

Pale emerging tulip foliage carries all the promise of the balmy days of May, and the first sighting of the blunt snouts of daffodil bulbs is one to lift the spirits on a January afternoon. By rights, I ought to be planting bulbs in their hundreds from late summer onwards.

So, over the next few weeks, I shall be doing just that - planting bulbs, ignoring the cold breath of approaching winter on my neck, and concentrating instead on the promise of better days that each bulb carries inside its fleshy core.

Like eggs, bulbs are a miracle of nature's packaging. Each one contains a growing, flowering plant, along with the nourishment it needs to bring it to its glorious best. And that simple fact can be used by the gardener to advantage.

Beneath deciduous trees, where herbaceous plants may struggle due to lack of food and light, daffodils will come smiling through. Their life-cycle will be virtually complete before the overhead canopy of leaf cuts down light levels.

And because they carry their food supplies inside the bulb, they flower well for at least the first year after planting. Then it's up to the gardener to make sure they have the nourishment they need.

You'll never do well with daffs if they're planted in too dry a spot and they need both moisture and food just after flowering, when they're a rather untidy jumble of leaves.

As the leaves die slowly away, they put back into the bulb everything it needs to flower the next year.

Never be tempted to cut away daffodil foliage, even when it's yellowing and messy. It's the small price you have to pay for that glorious fanfare of blossom. Don't tie them in knots either. It reduces the ability to manufacture food from the withering leaves.

Instead, give them a weekly foliar feed of dilute liquid fertiliser, and a top-dressing of leaf-mold. That way they'll do you proud year after year.

I've followed this routine with a patch of European wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus ... the Lent Lily. It's planted in a swathe at the edge of beech-tree canopy, and despite an unpromising position, this exquisite little daff just gets better each year.

To my delight, it's even seedling itself profusely. This one has a dainty refinement that most of the big, fat Dutch hybrids lack, and, unlike them, it stands up through the worst weather.

The other daffodil I can't get enough of comes at the other end of spring, just as it's shading into summer. It's the lovely Pheasant's Eye narcissus, and, like the Lent Lily, it's a European native.

Years ago, I saw it wild in the Spanish Pyrenees. It covered an alpine meadow with swaying white blooms, and the scent of it rolled out over the small village where I was staying.

The classic place to grow it in gardens is in the rough turf of an orchard, but as few of us have orchards nowadays, any fairly informal spot in sun or semi-shade suits its butterfly-like beauty.

I do enjoy the brassy cheerfulness of the big hybrid daffs like King Alfred and Carleton, but sadly my garden doesn't suit them. Their long stems and huge flowers get battered by spring storms, and, unlike tulips, they can't bounce back once they're down.

More weatherproof is the nice, old-fashioned white Mount Hood. It looks a picture growing alongside the bright blue lungwort Pulmonaria Munstead Blue.

If you love white daffs, you should also try the miniature creamy-white 'Thalia'. It's beautiful planted against the fat crimson buds of emerging peonies, and the elongating peony shoots hide the dying foliage once flowering is past.

Daffodils start into growth early, so it makes sense to plant them early - certainly before the end of September.

Tulips, on the other hand, can be planted in November, or even up until Christmas, so just keep the bulbs out of the way of mice and concentrate on top priorities.

Fritillaries are another family that need early planting. I would love to have a really big colony of the wonderfully showy Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, but the high price of the bulbs limits me to a small clump.

The fleshy buds appear really early in the year, and it's important to remember that and be ready with anti-slug measures.

Luckily, the shoots announce their presence with their characteristic smell, a heady mix of fox and tomcat. Under-standably, a lot of folk detest them for their anti-social odour, but I actually love it. It's another sure sign that spring is just around the corner.

And when they produce their great showy, dangling bells ringed round a pineapple tuft of bright green, surely you can forgive them anything.

The snake's head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, is inexpensive and easy to grow. Frits in general are both expensive and tricky, so this classy little plant's a gift.

It looks so elegant on wire-thin stems, and so sophisticated with its mauve- purple chequerboard petals, but all it needs is a spot that doesn't dry out too much in summer - not usually difficult to find in Scottish gardens. If you fancy a few hundred to naturalise in grass, it's as easy as pie to raise from seed.

Many fritillaries are tricky customers that need the specialist conditions of a bulb frame or alpine house.

There are a few, though, that thrive in the open garden, and are no more trouble to grow than daffodils.

Fritillaria pyrenaica looks immensely impressive and a good clump in the garden will always win you Brownie points. And it's child's play to grow. The difficult bit is often getting hold of bulbs in the first place.

It has slender upright stems, elegant like all its family, and sultry purple-black bells lined with yellowy-green. Put it in a cool peaty spot and forget about it. It's no more trouble than that.

It's been appearing more and more in bulb catalogues, so snap it up if you come across it.

A whole host of bulbs are just crying out to beautify your garden next spring. I'll be planting tulips in big half-barrels, as well as increasing my stock of little guys like grape hyacinths (muscari) and heavenly blue chionodoxa. But the major priority is to plant more bulbs to spread and naturalise.

Most of the bulbs I've mentioned here will do just that. They settle down to give a good approximation of what they look like growing naturally in the wild.

Each year, they gradually increase by offsets and self-seeding and, maddeningly, they always look better than our planting efforts - natural, spectacular and prosperous. The effect is magical, and even the smallest clump in the tiniest garden will brighten up the view.

So don't delay. Get out there with the bulb trowel. Next spring you'll congratulate yourself on having made the effort this autumn.

GARDENERS' Q&A

Q CAN you tell me where to get hold of blue lavatera? I already have the pink and white.

A I assume you mean the shrubby lavateras like Barnsley or rosea rather than the annual seed-raised plant. Actually, the answer's the same for both. There is not a blue lavatera. I suspect that the shrub you've seen is Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Bird', a close relation of lavateras. The flowers are mauvy blue with crimson veining and it's in flower now.

Q MY conservatory is infested with mealy bug, especially a vine that's growing in there. What should I do ?

A These small pink-white menaces get their name from the waxy white fluff that covers them. The only sensible option is to give the little beauties a last spray with malathion. In December, ease back any loose bark on the vine and paint with tar oil to zap any overwintering bugs. Next summer spray with malathion at two-week intervals. That should do the trick. But stay vigilant !

PLANT OF THE WEEK: CYCLAMEN HEDERIFOLIUM

EVERYONE'S grown a plant of the big greenhouse cyclamen at one time or another.

You can't but enjoy the wonderful swept-back flowers in a delectable range of pinks, mauves and whites. Not everyone knows that they have equally lovely miniature cousins that are completely hardy in the garden.

Cyclamen hederifolium is in flower now. The exquisite blooms have the classic butterfly shape in mid-pink with a deep red eye. They emerge from the bare earth, to be followed by an equally-good display of foliage. The leaves are heart-shaped, patterned and marbled in shades of green, and have a rich maroon reverse. It's an enchanting little plant.

It comes from the Mediterranean woodland, but seems perfectly happy and hardy in woodland here. It's a good idea to plant it quite close to trees, as it's one of those useful plants that enjoy dry shade. The moisture requirements of the tree in summer ensures that the cyclamen don't get too wet.

Do give it a good leafy soil, though and dappled rather than full shade. The big brown corms get bigger year by year, often becoming as big as a man's fist. The plant will also seed itself by corkscrewing its old stems into the ground to deposit its seeds. It's a fascinating process.

Cyclamen coum flowers in early spring, and has particularly delectable silvered leaves. Look out for that too. If you've no trees, the shady side of a rockery suits them well, or indeed any spot in semi shade with a rich but well-drained soil.

DOWN TO EARTH:

A gardener's notebook

THERE'S a problem which has been niggling me ever since I started the garden here 10 years ago. It's what to do about labelling.

It sounds a pretty boring and petty thing. I know a whole host of excellent gardeners out there who are just happy to enjoy their plants.

They don't care whether they are labelled or not.

But there comes a point, especially if you are certifiably plant-mad, when this knotty problem has to be faced.

It's now a major headache. Years of relentless acquisition mean that I now grow between two and three thousand different plants in the garden. Some, like Meconopsis, Oriental poppies, and irises are particular passions.

I've built up quite large collections. But now it's crucial that they are accurately and clearly labelled from Day One. Otherwise, complete chaos ensues.

But there seems to be no answer. I've been going round the garden this week checking and replacing labels.

I've eventually managed to identify most things that were label-less, but inevitably a few plants remain anonymous, or have a question mark adorning their labels.

Often it's no answer to say 'wait until it flowers'.

Even then, without a full botany forensic hit-squad, you often can't tell one thing from its close cousin.

What can I do? Most herbaceous plants here are just labelled with the standard white plastic stick-in-the-ground label.

And I know from bitter experience that a good number of them will have disappeared by next spring.

There's a wide range of culprits - badgers, birds, mice, and above all, my little dachsunds on the prowl.

I'd love to have a more permanent system, but the problem is expense. The price of good labels is simply prohibitive.

Some of the quotes I've had would pay for the plants to stock quite a good-sized garden.

But even if money was no object, I've still to find labels that are both legible and unobtrusive.

I've no wish to make my garden look like a graveyard of white markers. But the natty zinc or copper labels cost the earth.

And don't get me started on the reliability of the so-called permanent label pens.

All the 'garden pens' I've tried are fine indoors, but their ink rubs off or vanishes after a few months exposed to the elements.

So if anyone out there has an answer, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

And then I can share the good news with everyone else.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wheatcroft, Janet
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 18, 1999
Words:2077
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