Hartley Magazine

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Forced Bulbs and Sowing

I want to say: ‘It’s February, and it feels like spring is coming!’ but that would be a big, fat lie. Perhaps because we haven’t really had a proper chill all winter, perhaps because the weather is so relentlessly grey and dull, but I can’t quite get past that sense that winter might still come along and bite us on the bum.

forced bulbs and sowing

Yes we’ve had weather misery aplenty, but shouldn’t we feel really, really cold, for a really, really long time? Shouldn’t I have to really make sure the kids have gloves, hats, thermal vests and long johns every morning for at least a couple of weeks? At the moment they skip outside wearing barely a clout and I’m sure we can’t get off so lightly. Nevertheless, one place it is feeling just a little spring-like is in the greenhouse, and I have been feeling very delighted with myself for having remembered to plant bulbs in pots and leave them in there. Just the act of doing this means that they have come along earlier than those that are growing outside.

It’s called forcing but this is the very gentlest and least troublesome of forcings, literally just ‘put pots in a slightly warmer spot than they would have been in if left outside’ and that is that. I wrote about the planting on this blog some months ago. I had bought a load of little bulbs – iris reticulata, some crocuses, little narcissi and more – and potted them up in some nice terracotta pots and troughs. Now they have very much started to come good. The irises were first, and were brought out onto the front step to make the milkman and other callers marvel at my horticultural prowess. ‘Irises in January? Well I never did…’ he probably said as he deposited my two pints of semi-skimmed organic at 5am. Now they are over and are back in the greenhouse for their recuperation. They have been replaced by the next in line: pots full of little white crocuses with deep blue flame markings. In the front garden they are being blown around alongside the snowdrops that grow in the ground with no help from me bar a little splitting of clumps every few years. They make a pretty pairing.

The greenhouse bulbs weren’t the only ones I planted in pots in autumn, and next in line for that coveted front-door-step spot will be some hyacinths planted in big pots but left outside all winter. I’ve only ever grown them indoors before, where they are a lovely but slightly odd thing. I do love the scent but it’s a bit knockout in a small, centrally heated room. They could mask a blocked drain, it’s true, but sometimes industrial strength sweetness is not what is required. These outdoor ones are also coming up compact and squat, like indoor ones never do, being all about the elongation that comes with stretching for low winter light. I think they will be just the thing for by the front door, where those powerful, sweet wafts will be more welcome for being fleeting and unpredictable, as outdoor floral wafts always are. After that will come pots of tulips, really the main bulb event as far as I’m concerned.

All these others are just the warm-up act. Blowsy, bold and colourful, they are more a herald of early summer than of spring itself, a state that seems impossibly far away now. Their green shoots, already poking up promisingly through the compost, prove that it won’t be so long. They will make pools of brazen colour by the front door, and it will be nearly summer when they do.

Lucky milkman.