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10 April 2024

The warm winter’s underwhelming crop

The marvellous front gardens near Kew leave me in awe of those who managed to grow tulips this spring.

By Alice Vincent

I went to Kew Gardens a couple of weeks ago. They’ve been beaming out music around their magnolia and cherry trees for a “Sounds of Blossom” celebration, and I ended up pottering around for five hours. The bit that stuck with me, though, were the front gardens of the smart houses leading up to Kew’s Elizabeth Gate, which were arguably more interesting – and envy-inducing – in their own right. 

It must put a certain amount of pressure on, having a front garden by the entrance to one of the most famous gardens in the world. Just under two million people visited Kew last year, and so it makes sense that these gardeners put on a show. It made me respect the plot that was a frothy riot of Allium triquetrum, or three-cornered garlic, even more. I love eating the stuff, and have grown it illicitly in a pot for years, but it’s considered invasive by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, meaning it is technically an offence to plant it. My kind of rebellion.

The neighbouring gardens offered a pretty show of neat Narcissus “Thalia” and pale pink tulips resembling the emoji. I marvelled at the mechanics of them: this isn’t usually complicated planting, but this year it has been. Spring 2024 is turning out to be a total failure for bulbs. A very prominent garden designer I know has suffered from widespread tulip fire in her own garden – a debilitating fungal disease that ruins plants and means tulips can’t be grown in the affected area for the next three years.

A plantswoman whose impeccable taste is changing the way London’s more discerning small gardens look was complaining of her lack of flowers – and told me her clients have suffered the same. My mother, very much a fair-weather gardener, even wrote to the Royal Horticultural Society asking what had gone wrong with hers. I think the warm, wet winter – one of the wettest and warmest on record – is responsible: bulbs don’t like to be soggy, and the warmth offers a breeding ground for disease. 

While I’m fortunate not to have tulip fire (there are some advantages to planting your bulbs in late December), many of my bulbs have been underwhelming. Between the weather, the squirrels and the slugs, it’s a fairly green show out there. The dozens I planted in the lawn have succumbed to a series of small stampedes. Monty Don had advised me to grow them this way. His own meadow garden is swooningly pretty but, crucially, is only a small part of his two-acre Herefordshire plot, so he can plant with abandon and simply peer at it from afar. The bulbs I planted in the pots have come up blind (ergo, no flowers), and this year’s crop in the beds were eaten by slugs before they managed to make it out of their buds. 

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It’s difficult not to find it faintly dispiriting, but a bit of distance is useful in these situations. On a more pragmatic level, perhaps my annual bulb budget would be better spent supporting British flower growers in April by keeping the house filled with long-stemmed, full-bodied tulips (they make the supermarket bunches look like a different plant). Perhaps I need to improve my slug defences; I applied nematodes recently but was very slack last year. Perhaps I need to plant different things entirely, although I’d admit this is a trickier prospect: I just can’t imagine my gardening year without tulips. 

This time of year is always so steeped in anticipation, the gravity-defying hitch up the rollercoaster that will crest in May and June before descending giddily into an unruly summer of growth. In an era of climate catastrophe it is impossible to predict what we’re in for besides heat. There’s part of me that feels all the rainfall will have done my new plants a lot of good – after re-landscaping last year I’m heartened to see so many perennials bounding back. But mostly, we have to tune into these failures and foibles: in doing so, they tell us how we need to garden for now.

[See also: Amsterdam’s city gardens are a potted paradise]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward