The wonderful thing about gardening is that all gardeners think they will achieve better results next year. I find that when you visit a garden, often the owner will say the garden looked better last week, last month, last year!
Gardening is not a precise art. Plants flower at slightly different times, depending on the conditions, and so even the best plans can fail. The annual you grew to match a dahlia flowered too early or the colours were not as you expected, but you’re sure that next year the plants will do as you had planned. I have a 90-year-old who comes to buy plants and it gives me such joy that she is always planning for next year.
Autumn is the time to plan ahead, starting with the bulb catalogues which arrive in late summer. Much time is spent deciding what has worked this year and what to try in future. There are bulbs that flower every month of the year and the joy of seeing the first snowdrops never diminishes. Galanthus reginae-olgae can flower as early as November, but it is after Christmas that they open en masse. Galanthophiles often pay hundreds of pounds for a single bulb, and it is interesting to visit a garden open for the National Gardens Scheme in February just to see how many varieties are available. I especially like varieties of Galanthus elwesii, as these tend to have large flowers and often wide glaucous foliage. Every year I try to add one to my collection.
However, I am very happy with my carpets of Galanthus nivalis which I brought from my family home. I dig these up and divide them every year after they have finished flowering. This is the best time to move snowdrops and it also means you can see the gaps where they need placing.
At the same time as the snowdrops, we also have aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) flowering. Again they are untouched by frost and even when there’s a covering of snow I can see the buttercup yellow flowers peeping through. They seed freely so just leave the seed heads to produce more plants.
The next bulbs to flower in my garden are the small crocus which flower in February. We grow Crocus tommasinianus Whitwell Purple, which are a wonderful deep purple, and when the sun shines the flowers open like stars. They clump up quickly and are excellent bee plants, full of pollen that the bees need early in the year to build up the hives. In the avenue we grow blocks of Crocus Violet Queen, another early flowerer with pale lavender flowers, again much loved by bees. Crocus come in nearly every colour, take up little room, are delightful in pots and are good for wildlife, so try and find space for some.
After the Crocus come the daffodils and Narcissi. When I started gardening I planted the large flowered varieties in swathes in the orchard, just as my parents had done many years ago. They are now in huge clumps and are wonderful to pick in March. I especially like Ice Follies, which have white outer petals and a pale lemon centre which fades to white. Another favourite is Sempre Avanti – white with a small orange cup.
Since planting the orchard daffodils I have realised that the smaller Narcissi are better suited to my borders. I love N Thalia with its clusters of scented, pure white flowers, and N Jack Snipe with white petals and a pale lemon cup. Both are only 30cm tall and are good in mixed borders.
In our meadow I grow the nearest narcissi to the wild Farndale variety. These are much smaller and look better in the wild areas. Also in the meadow I grow the one variety I could not live without: the Old Pheasant Eye. This has white petals and a tiny orange cup – it’s wonderfully fragrant and flowers when all the other varieties have finished.
We grow many tulips in the garden, from the exotic May-flowering Tulip sprengeri with elegant scarlet flowers, to the blousy parrot tulips splashed with contrasting colours. I find the lily flowered and fringed forms look especially good in the borders. Last year we planted tulips in the meadow for the first time, with a mixture of T Cavavelle in darkest maroon, T Flaming Spring Green in ivory splashed with maroon and T Ivory Flovadale in ivory. I was delighted when one of our visitors thought that I had chosen them to match the Fritillaries that have become naturalised in the meadow.
When we first came here I planted many Fritillaries and at the time I didn’t realise they needed damp conditions to thrive. Now in our ridge and furrow meadow there are masses in the furrows and very few on the ridges. I also grow tulips in plastic pots and I find this enables me to place them in the garden where the borders need cheering up in May. I cover the potted tulips with mesh, and one year the mice ate the lot! There is no need to worry about planting time with tulips – in fact, they shouldn’t be planted before November. I have occasionally left it until January and they have flowered well.
Do find space for a few Iris reticulata. They are only 10cm high and fit into a tiny space at the front of a border, or look wonderful massed in a terracotta pot. Flowering in February and March they range from yellow through all the blues and are a bright splash of colour on damp winter days. I especially like I Katharine Hodgkin, a gentle mix of greenish blue and soft yellow.
One more thing to do before Christmas is plant garlic. It does so much better planted now, and you should buy soft neck bulbs as these are easier to grow and store well. Hardneck bulbs produce larger cloves but do not store, and please do not plant cloves you bought at the supermarket as these will not necessarily be disease free.
My holly is covered with berries ready for Christmas and I hope you all have fun planning your garden over the winter!
Stillingfleet Lodge Gardens and Nurseries, York