Wild at Heart
Naturalising spring bulbs at Great Dixter
The English Garden Magazine, March 2022
Perennial wildflower meadows, studded with spring bulbs, are a contemporary gardening staple. They are ecologically sound, self-sustaining and relatively low maintenance. What could be more 21st-century! Yet their provenance, as Christopher Lloyd illustrates in his 2004 book Meadows, dates back to the Middle Ages, and even further if you look to the paradise gardens of sixth-century Persia. Wordsworth’s lonely wanderings aside, in the nineteenth century it was horticultural iconoclast William Robinson who was most instrumental in reviving this practice. ‘Ten years ago,’ he writes in The English Flower Garden (1874), ‘I planted many thousands of narcissi in the grass, never doubting that I should succeed with them, but not expecting I should succeed nearly so well…’
Christopher Lloyd’s mother – a true Robinson acolyte (‘the English Flower Garden was my mother’s bible and her taste for wild gardening was probably derived from him’) – laid out areas of wild meadow at Dixter as early as 1912, punctuating them with thousands of seed-grown spring bulbs. Today the fruits of her labours are manifest, and anyone who has ever seen Dixter’s bulb meadows in peak bloom won’t forget the experience in a hurry.
Successional swathes of galanthus, crocus and narcissi congregating beneath the apple trees in the Orchard Meadows. Carpets of multi-coloured spring crocus in the short turf of the Entrance Meadow. Liquid spills of snakes-head fritillary pooling in the damp thatch of the Upper Moat. Narcissus bulbocodium and dog-tooth violets cast adrift among the buttercups and clover of the Horse Pond meadow. Or shy wood anemones hunkered down beneath the lilacs of the Hollow.
At Dixter of course this all looks effortless. But it’s also an illusion, a clever conjuring trick. As Christopher Lloyd himself put it, ‘a meadow’s serenity suggests lazy abandon … but achieving an image of nature as we might dream it to be is not as easy as it looks.’ So how is it done? How can one make such a vivid spectacle appear as if it has occurred by happenstance? Thankfully, there are some simple guiding principles.
First, it helps to know your garden conditions: if you want to create a naturalistic look, let nature be your guide. For example, snowdrops, winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and hardy cyclamen are happiest in the open-textured short grass that is weakened by the partial shade of deciduous trees. As are chionodoxa, wood anemones and dog-tooth violets. Where the grass grows longer, in the open sun, spring crocus and most daffodils should perform well. Snakes-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) and camassias will tolerate heavier, moist soils, though, like most bulbs they don’t like to be completely waterlogged. Fergus Garrett, Dixter’s head gardener, believes that this process of assessing your specific garden situation is key if you want to naturalise bulbs successfully. As such he advocates patience and frugality. ‘Whichever bulb you choose, I would always suggest buying a small quantity to start with and trying them in different areas of your garden, in different conditions, and simply observe; see how they fare before making your final choice.’
Second, bear in mind that smaller, daintier, species bulbs will mimic nature far better than their larger, highly cultivated cousins. There are many examples of this at Dixter. The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and the humble English Lent lily, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, have been naturalised in the Orchard Meadows for over a century. More recently the elegant dwarf daffodils Narcissus minor – a smaller version of N. pseudonarcissus –, the miniature Spanish trumpet N. asturiensis and the pale form of the delightfully diminutive hoop-petticoat N. bulbocodium have been successfully introduced. In February and March the meadows positively swoon with colourful Crocus vernus hybrids and the smaller, lilac-hued ‘early crocus’ C. tomassinianus.
Third, to create large natural drifts over time, it helps to select bulbs that will set seed and naturalise well. For Fergus this is a bit of a balancing act: ‘You are looking for a bulb that will be able to compete in a meadow environment as a youngster, but you also want to avoid potential escapees and bulbs that might become a pest.’ In contrast, certain other bulbs – some erythroniums, Gladiolus communis subsp. Byzantinus, and many of the larger species and hybrid camassias – are either sterile or temperamental seeders. As such, you’ll need to divide and replant every couple of years to create larger groupings. Fergus has a word of warning about some of these larger bulbs. ‘Camassias and alliums and some of the more brutish daffodils, especially if they’re not handled well or are planted in the wrong place can look awful as the foliage dies, particularly in shorter grass, and they can also prevent other smaller bulbs coming through.’
Just as careful bulb selection will help achieve a natural look, so too the size and form of your swathes and the method of planting. Robinson often took inspiration from ‘small clouds passing in the sky’ for his shapes; he also warned against the ‘common sin’ of ‘overdoing it’, advocating leaving ‘a large breadth quite free of flowers.’ Christopher Lloyd agreed, urging gardeners to leave space between mass plantings to ensure, as he put it, ‘they don’t bring on indigestion’.
It is often advised when planting bulbs in turf to scatter handfuls in a random fashion and plant exactly as they fall, resisting the urge to rein in outliers. This is fine in theory, but, as Fergus points out, ‘you inevitably end up losing bulbs in the grass and losing site of your overall plan’. Instead, he suggests, ‘you can simply imitate the scattering effect by roughly defining the areas you wish to plant out (we use bamboo canes), then, when you are happy with the general sweep, you can punch holes erratically in the turf in high and low density groupings.’ For this task Fergus uses a long-handled bulb planter. ‘Ours is modelled on Christopher’s father’s one. It goes through the soil like butter.’ This removes a cylindrical core of earth, allowing you to pop in your bulb or bulbs, then re-cover with the crumbled soil plug. ‘We never lift up the turf to plant,’ adds Fergus (a practice adopted by many gardeners in other large gardens); ‘for one thing, we are always planting into an established meadow and we would essentially be chopping through our existing bulbs.’
For smaller bulbs, a compromise might be to plant in the holes made by fork tines. Whatever your technique, try to plant at least three times the depth of the bulb. On heavy clay soils you may need to add some spent compost or topsoil to the hole before planting, but there should be no need for fertiliser, as this is more likely to feed the grass than the bulb. Just remember whilst most spring-flowering bulbs should be planted out in the autumn, some – like snowdrops and eranthis – acclimatise better when planted ‘in the green’ in the early months of spring.
One of the most commonly asked questions about grass meadows is ‘When to mow?’. In truth, there is no hard and fast rule, especially with climate change and other variable factors. But if your sward includes naturalised bulbs, hold off until at least six weeks after flowering, longer if you’re relying on seed dispersal. At Dixter, this generally means first cut is late summer (mid-August onwards). Some areas, such as the Orchards, Entrance Meadows and Upper Moat will be given a second cut in late autumn, before the daffodils push their noses up.
Great Dixter is meticulously choreographed to provide interest and inspiration throughout the year. In the height of summer, the famous long border takes centre stage. In autumn the exotic garden is in full song. But from February to mid-June the stars of the show are undoubtedly the glorious grass meadows and the spring bulbs that set them off. There’s a touch of the sublime in their wild simplicity, something suitably Wordsworthian. So take my advice: make sure you catch their ‘sprightly dance’ this spring; you won’t regret it.
Photographs © Marianne Majerus 2022