Lessons from the doyenne of Dutch bulbs

In Cornwall, the first traditional signs of spring are flowers on big magnolias. This year, the first ones opened amazingly early, on February 16. Inland, I judge spring by the first flowers on many varieties of daffodil. They have revelled in a wet winter and are already fully out.

In recent decades, yellow trumpet-flowered daffodils have been freely planted in grass beside roads through British villages. What do gardeners think of this new naturalising and how can they carry the idea forwards?

I have heard great gardeners deplore this invasion, one which has imported butter-yellow flowers where they never existed before. The great Dutch expert on bulb planting, Jacqueline van der Kloet, might agree. She has just published a very good book, Growing Bulbs in the Natural Garden (Timber Press, £28), from which I have learnt lessons, as you will too even if you are new to gardening.

She sees the charm of yellow flowers in gardens, especially when mixed with young green leaves or a setting of evergreen yews and tree ivy, but she does not rank among her favourites the trumpeting yellows which are sounding off in British villages. She expresses a “preference for more modest daffodils, with smaller flowers in subdued colours such as white, creamy white or pale yellow”.

She singles out Dove Wings, Topolino and Jack Snipe, old favourites of this column, and adds another, Elka, a “light yellow trumpet which turns to pure white. . . as it matures”. I share her taste, but I still like the bright yellow verge-invaders. They are so cheerful after a wet and grey February.

the deep pink Jacqueline tulip, favoured by van der Kloet for its long flowering period

Van der Kloet is worth reading because she has presided over the planting of more bulbs than most of us. She sketches some of her big public plantings, each of which has particular interest. It was she who blended tulips and other bulbs with perennial spring flowers between 2004 and 2011 in the sanctuary of Dutch bulb growing, Keukenhof. I greatly enjoy visiting this garden, but “we’re not a park of violets”, grumbled purists when she planted violets in mounds as a foil to the bulbs.

I liked them, but “After a while,” she remarks, “people had had enough[ . . . ] they have gone right back to the old way, with lots of extravagance and breathtaking colour combinations, but inspiration . . . ? No.”

In Britain, in 2018, she was commissioned to plant bulbs on a grand scale at Clumber Park, formerly a home of the Duke of Newcastle in Nottinghamshire. Her main brief was to plant them down its avenue of towering cedar trees. After careful mapping, she arranged for more than 80,000 bulbs, broken down into groups, or crates, each crate being made up of the same 12 species, which would extend the season from February to May. She opted for pale colours in the trees’ dark shade, held together by white and paired with blues and pale pinks. Planting was partly done by volunteers on release from their school term, but she found them stressful helpers. Nonetheless, from 2022 onwards the results have been enchanting.

In the US, her important plantings include bulbs in the Millennium Park in Chicago. Her first choices for its Lurie Garden were planted in 2005, but by 2018 some of them had died out and changes were needed. Here too she opted to mix bulbs with different flowering seasons in one and the same group. Even during the lockdowns the results were charming. She monitors progress by long-range Zoom meetings with the site’s committed gardeners.

In Japan, she was invited in 2016 to devise a plan for about 10,000 square metres of park in Shinko Central Square in Yokohama as a preparation for a National Urban Greenery Fair. Her solution was a scheme of about 120,000 bulbs, again planted in mixed groups which she made up one at a time by tipping different varieties into a wheelbarrow.

She describes with awed admiration the discipline of some 50 Japanese volunteers who came to help. They began at 7.30am. Unlike the schoolchildren and parents at Clumber, they started by grouping themselves in a circle and taking orders from group supervisors. To mix the bulbs up, each wheelbarrow load was thrown into the air and then planted where it fell, a task which the volunteers, mostly women, took to heart. Here too the results are enchanting, to judge from photos.

In our gardens, we tend to plant blocks of narcissi, others of crocus and others of anemones. Instead we can follow van der Kloet and mix various bulbs into groups before we plant. It is difficult to generalise about their persistence, especially in soils less fertile than the Netherlands’. Van der Kloet does not give much guidance as to what will last and what, especially tulips, will not. On dry soil I have difficulty in retaining winter aconites, let alone in making them multiply as she assumes. In Britain, most tulips vanish within a year or two, including those she considers to persist.

Van der Kloet’s garden in the Shinko Central Square, Yokohama, Japan

She has various tricks I will adopt. She finds that tulips as cut flowers often continue to grow when in a vase, so she pricks a pin through their stems just below their flowers in order to stop them. Soon we will be planting dahlia tubers in warm indoor conditions and starting them off for the summer. We buy dry tubers or use dry ones from last year, but she advises that we soak them in water for at least an hour before planting.

In special sections of the book, she discusses bulbs on balconies in spring and in summer and bulbs for green roofs, those plantings in shallow layers of soil on sheds or garages. For balconies in summer she recommends cannas, but admits that they need regular watering in order to thrive. She also proposes the pineapple flower, Eucomis, praising a taller one with claret leaves and pink flowers, Sparkling Burgundy. It is more than 2ft high when in flower, so it needs shelter from wind. I prefer lilies, but she is not very helpful about most of the best.

Sections on her “favourites” conclude the book. She recommends the newish Festival series of hyacinths for bedding outdoors because their flowers are lightly spaced and each bulb sends up several stems. I will try them in schemes for next year. She favours a deep pink lily-flowered tulip called Jacqueline, because it flowers for a long while, another useful tip, but I doubt if it will persist for years in most of Britain. She includes pink- flowered Allium unifolium, an American onion I have underestimated, and Allium Violet Beauty, which has pretty see-through flowers and multiplies quickly. For autumn she likes to plant the amarine, a cross between a nerine and an amaryllis, good against sunny walls.

In her compact and beautifully illustrated book she passes on many good lessons. On a recent Sunday, I enjoyed another one. As in parts of Yorkshire and the Lake District, daffodils still grow wild near Dymock and Newent in west Gloucestershire. When Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud and saw daffodils in Cumbria, he did not see the tall yellows which have invaded modern villages. He saw low-growing wild narcissi, like the ones I enjoyed not while wandering but while accelerating down the nearby M50. “Bulbs seen at speed”: there is a chapter for the next edition of van der Kloet’s book.

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