The staying power of spring bulbs

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OVER the next week or so we’ll be doing a little light gardening, dining well, then going for a brisk walk, before doing the same all over again.

There will be a chance to meet up with old friends, indulge in a little relaxation, and get those precious big onion seeds sown. It could only be Christmas!

Last week, at our first yuletide gathering of friends, the topic of spring flowering bulbs arose.

The seemingly premature appearance of shoots does tend to alarm some gardeners who think they will succumb to the first frost, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The crocus, dwarf iris, snowdrop and narcissi now showing, need no protection, indeed they have evolved a strategy over time to withstand anything winter can throw at them.

So what is the secret that sees them through the conditions best described in my favourite Christmas carol? ‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan; earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.’

When the threat of prolonged frost or a deep covering of snow is imminent, they have an ingenious system of channelling water from surface cells deep into the plant, then returning it just as rapidly when the temperature returns to normal.

Relax and observe how well bulb shoots, in for the long haul, cope with winter. Then discover how much more enjoyable the eventual spring display can be.

A secondary thickening of leaf tissue carries evergreens such as holly safely through winter and coniferous species easily survive thanks to their modified leaves or needles.

Deciduous trees and shrubs solve the problem by shedding their leaves and closing down for several weeks.

But not all plants are blessed with a survival strategy and that is why we have been so busy of late, ensuring that the helpless ones are all offered some form of protection. Those small enough to dig up and pack into deep trays or boxes, topped off with compost, have been moved under cover.

Tender perennials growing in containers are similarly treated, but those too big to move need the human equivalent of thermal clothing, scarf, gloves and woolly hat. We could, of course, try these garments but fleece or straw does look more natural.

LAST week, we caught up with some old friends for the annual Christmas walk. In keeping with several local groups, we tend to take an occasional stroll in the Cheviots and this is generally organised by friend Jim, the high hills walker.

But this one was a more sedate affair – five or six miles, very little climbing and a Christmas lunch at the trail’s end.

Firm believers in the adage ‘local knowledge is a grand thing’, on this occasion we happily let George and Robert lead us around the environs of Howick, Craster and the coast.

Clusters of yellow berries in the roadside woodland near Howick Hall, betrayed the presence of sea buckthorn (hippophae rhamnoides).

And more snowdrop shoots than you could shake a stick at provided a reminder of the tremendous floral treat just weeks away.

Further on, near Cullernose Point, clusters of butter yellow flowers on whin (ulex) bushes brought to mind a piece of country lore; ‘when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion’.

After well over two hours in a stiff south-westerly wind, we finally arrived at the inn, with its warm open fire, good food and excellent hospitality.

This walk certainly whetted the appetite for shorter, and very necessary strolls over the Christmas period.

During the meeting and greeting which always precedes each walk, there was an unexpected exchange of gifts between Jim and I.

A keen exhibitor and judge of flowers and vegetables, he rightly sets great store by starting each year with the best seeds available and big onions are a priority. Kindness personified, he always has a little brown envelope for me and this time was no different, but I surprised him by reciprocating.

My envelope contained seed from a big onion that was saved from the autumn 2010 crop. In January of this year, it was placed atop a large pot filled with compost and left to commence growth in its own time.

As the flowering stems grew, they were offered support, and a daily caressing of flowers with woollen-gloved hand led to a rather decent seed harvest.

What follows is entirely up to the grower, but if anybody can produce the goods it’s Jim. We shall have to wait until the autumn shows to find out.

Meanwhile, this fellow would appear to be spoiled for choice, with Jim’s seed, my own and the Robinsons’ Mammoth, which accompanied their traditional Christmas card.

All of them have the potential to produce really big onions but the ones I have most faith in came from the maestro.

The keenest show exhibitors will have onions way beyond the seedling stage by now but there is still plenty of time to sow and grow the bulb of your dreams. Tradition would have it that Boxing Day is the time to start the process, sowing into a loam-based compost, with a thin covering of finely-sieved soil over the seeds.

That still works well enough but occasionally the seedlings find it difficult to penetrate a surface that has coagulated and emerge with a large cap of soil overhead.

Vermiculite is my preferred substance for covering all seeds. Clean and light to handle, it is airy and parts so readily for the tiniest of shoots.

Freezing cold days that accompany our Christmas celebrations bring sharply into focus just how remarkable it is that some plants can exist in such conditions. We find ourselves looking, touching and appreciating the scented flowers of mahonia, sarcococca, cherry, jasmine, viburnum, hellebore, chimonanthus, et al in admiration, but we’re not the first and shan’t be the last to do so.

Previous generations waxed lyrical about such plants and became unashamedly emotional in penning their thoughts.

Whereas a modern-day matter-of-fact description of helleborus niger might read ‘white petals with yellow centre’, Leonard Clark saw it differently.

‘Whiter than scattered pear tree showers,

Marble monuments or morning milk,

Smoother than pebbles or old silk,

I touch each blossom where they lie

With polished leaves and golden eye.’

Even earlier, Gerald Bullet saw a

‘Winged blossom of white thought,

Yellow centred star of fertility,

Sprung from December soil,

Six perfect petal-rays of frozen light.’

And as we eagerly anticipate the first flowering of snowdrops in this garden it is easy to empathise with the lines written by Hartley Coleridge two centuries ago.

‘Blessings upon thee, gentle bud of hope,

And nature bless the spot where thou dost grow,

Young life emerging from thy kindred snow.’

Merry Christmas!