Acts of faith

Hephzibah Anderson plants her spring bulbs

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


These are challenging times for optimists but we gardeners are used to forging on in the face of pestilence and pervasive uncertainty. As horticultural tasks go, there is none more hopeful than the planting of bulbs.

Sow seeds, and they might germinate within days, giving the grower at least the illusion of being able to shape a happy outcome through careful pricking out and potting on. With a bulb, you bury it in the ground just as the garden is winding down, dying back, and there you leave it, undisturbed, for up to half a year. Like silver interred as darkness beats at the door, it’s an act of faith both sustaining and blind.

They may not look like much but bulbs are nature’s treasure chests

They may not look like much but bulbs are nature’s treasure chests. Leaves, stems, flowers that will unfurl like magicians’ silk hankies — all are squeezed inside its papery wrapper, along with everything needed for survival until the next growing season. Not only are they entirely self-sufficient, but some, like the amaryllis, can contain three years’ worth of embryonic daughter bulbs. Planting them is a kind of time travel.

My own favourite are snowdrops — small, plain, perfect. In the draughty cottage I grew up in, frost ferns would pattern the insides of the windows come winter, but it had an enormous garden from which my mother coaxed season-round enchantment. At the far end, distant enough from the house to feel adventuresome to a child, lay a steep bank in which bounty glinted: fragments of pottery, seashells, and sometimes small glass bottles, miraculously intact and of the kind once used for ink or, in the case of a slender cobalt vessel that I still have, poison.

But its greatest gift came when the ground was too hard to explore: each year, close to my birthday, it would be covered in wild snowdrops, their tiny white heads collectively dazzling in the sludgy grey of a Norfolk winter.

Yet as history and legend show, bulbs make complicated symbols of hope. The hyacinth, beloved by poets and perfumiers alike, gets its name from Greek mythology: a young boy named Hyakinthos was accidentally killed by Apollo during a discus-throwing lesson. The flower grew from his blood, and continues to stand for remembrance in modern Greece.

The daffodil, a perennial golden symbol of spring whose Latin name narcissus spins its own fateful tale, is a national industry. The UK produces 90 per cent of the world’s crop, and even generates a compound used to slow Alzheimer’s. Setbacks include the 1917 daffodil “plague” and World War Two’s Dig for Victory campaign, when land was turned over to food crops and once-pricey bulbs were ditched on verges, where they continue to grow today.

The Dutch tulipmania bubble of the 1630s provides a timeless example of the calamity that excessive optimism can wreak on financial markets. Likewise, despite its generosity (whether it’s crocuses or bluebells, more is always better), bulb-planting can channel some of the worst characteristics of the green-fingered brigade.

Consider the tendency for military-grade planning. Thinking as you read this that you might plant some daffs in that neglected bed by the front door? Too late, too late, I should be shrilling. It’s not. The optimal time to get daffodils in may well be August, allowing roots to become established long before winter begins to bite, but if the ground is still soft enough to sink a trowel into, the chances are you’ll see something lovely by April.

Then there are the convoluted instructions. How deep a hole? Which end is up? And what about that business with the “bulb lasagne” if you’re planting in pots? (The short answers: two or three times their depth, “nose” upwards — though if in doubt, sideways on isn’t altogether daft as bulbs tend to sort themselves out — and the lasagne simply means layering for maximum effect by planting the biggest, latest-flowering bulbs deepest.)

There is gadgetry aplenty, too, from the giant apple corer that is the traditional bulb planter to the bulb augur, which attaches to a cordless drill, enabling users to speed-plant hundreds of bulbs while ruining their neighbours’ afternoon with its incessant whine. The irony is that bulbs look best in the wild, so unless you’re aiming for corporation chic, you want to try to replicate a natural look, scattering randomly (never easy with intent) and planting where they fall.

Crouched down in the soil, the mind turned loose by repetitive tasks, it’s easy to over-interpret what goes on in borders and beds. This is especially so when planting bulbs in heavy clay soil like mine, because while the only crucial requirements of these little positivity capsules are sun, rain and plentiful time, there’s one other ingredient that can be especially helpful with 2020 doing so much to sap our collective optimism: grit. It makes the humble trowel — or, if you must, the drill-mounted auger — feel like a tool of defiance.

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