The recent chilly weather has had its pros and cons. The downside for eager gardeners who have been nurturing seedlings and planting out bedding is that these tender charges now need protection to save them from harm. The upside, for those of us who love spring bulbs, is that the cold has prolonged the display of flowers, which can be so fleeting when it’s warmer.
Owing to my own tardiness when it came to getting my bulbs into pots last autumn, the flowering of tulips and daffodils at The Watch House was already delayed by several weeks: I would not be at all surprised if I still had daffodils flowering in May. However, flower they will, and the succession of colourful bowls, chalices and trumpets exploding from pots around my front door will give me joy for that much longer.
In three months’ time I will sit down and plan my spring displays for next year. The bulb catalogues will start to plop through the letter box immediately after Chelsea, but it’s a while before I can bring myself to peruse them. I have three sources of inspiration when it comes to which bulbs I choose: my own garden, based on what’s worked well in the past; Sarah Raven, who has a genius for combining bulbs in the colours I favour; and Great Dixter, one of the few great gardens that celebrate the art of planting in pots.
Like me, Great Dixter’s creator, Christopher Lloyd, was not interested in polite gardening. Nor was he concerned by making his garden ‘low maintenance’, a ghastly term which sets my teeth on edge in the same way as ‘lite bite’ or ‘omnichannel’. Christopher was famed for breaking the rules and experimenting with new plants and brave colour combinations, often changing bedding schemes three or four times a year. Potted plants, especially annuals, tender perennials and architectural exotics were, and still are, used in large, skillfully staged and regularly revised arrangements. The impact of beautifully grown, unusual plants, combined for theatrical effect is always thrilling. Since our garden at The Watch House was created ten years ago, I have striven to achieve the same drama, albeit on a smaller scale.
“My main use of pots is clustered on either side of the porch entrance at the front of the house, where they are a cheerful sight as I come and go. Being in a noticeable position, the plants get plenty of attention – more, probably, than those in any other part of the garden.”
The catch for the average gardener, and I count myself as one of them, is where to put all these pots before and after their starring moment. In his book, Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners, Christopher suggests an ‘out of the way space’, but acknowledges that a greenhouse makes it possible to include more exciting plants. My tiny new garden and greenhouse has given me a good solution to the challenge I have ‘next door’, although moving heavy pots between locations still means lugging them up and down the road. Before that I managed adequately by lining containers up along the narrow passage leading to our front door, or by hiding them in one of our basement light wells until they could reach up for the light no longer.
No such challenges at Great Dixter of course, where there’s ample space in the garden’s nursery to nurture pots until they reach their prime. Nevertheless, the planning and planting of seasonal containers must be a mammoth and high-profile task for the gardening team. Visitors to Great Dixter expect the famous displays either side of the porch entrance, and in the Wall and Blue gardens, to live up to Christopher Lloyd’s brilliant example every time.
By and large they do. On the occasion of the Spring Plant Fair earlier this month they were gaily planted, each with a single colour or variety of narcissus, tulip, or hyacinth. Unlike Sarah Raven, who likes to mix colours that harmonise or bounce off one another, Christopher Lloyd preferred one colour per pot: so do I. Mixed plants and colours are fine when the container is particularly large, or standing in splendid isolation, but when grouped together they can look a bit messy.
I pack my bulbs in by planting them in multiple layers, but am still astounded by the density of flowers, narcissi especially, that force themselves into the chill air from Dixter’s army of terracotta pots: in the larger ones there must be between 50 and 100 bulbs. To recreate this at home without going bankrupt it’s a good idea to buy from a wholesale catalogue, such a J. Parker, rather than a retail outlet. That way you get a lot more bloom for your buck.
On my recent visit the colour combinations were not exactly sophisticated, but that’s OK. For me, spring is when I simply need a blast of bright, in-your-face, rude colour to shake me out of my winter stupor. These pots certainly did the trick. The scent of hyacinths and narcissi was enough to sooth any biliousness caused by clashing colours, and the backdrop of conifers, a plant group Fergus Garrett will undoubtedly propel back into vogue very soon, added a touch of retro garden glamour.
Although hard work at times, pots are enormous fun to work with, offering opportunities to try new things before committing them to the border.
“Pots are great for experimenting with plants. Anything new to us that’s exotic-looking starts life in a pot – that way we can see how long it flowers, how tall it grows and how it stands up to what we can offer. We can can also learn to manage it before it takes precious space”
Even if you begin with three, five or seven pots in a group, you can quickly and cheaply create a spectacular display with as much fire power as the most carefully conceived herbaceous border, yet in a fraction of the space. And, when the flowers fade, you can whip the plants out and replace them with something more exciting. The best kind of instant gardening.