The last few weeks of winter in Sydney have been pretty bleak this year. Whilst it was absolutely wonderful to get the rain that started to fall on 17 August, several hundred millimetres later it was starting to wear a bit thin! All I craved was some blue sky and some warmth from the sun. I was fortunate enough to escape from soggy Sydney for two days this past week, into the Southern Tablelands of NSW, where though there has been some rain lately, the sun was shining. The paddocks were green and there were signs of spring everywhere, even though this region is significantly colder than Sydney.
In the garden of the family farm, spring bulbs - mostly planted by my grandmother more than 70 years ago - are a highlight. They survive our neglect and relish the cold winters: which this year saw temperatures plunge to -7 degrees Celsius some nights. Over the years, I have found it instructive to compare what bulbs thrive in this garden compared to my own Sydney plot and it has helped me understand the best choices for these two distinctively different climate zones. Whereas in Sydney I have always struggled with daffodils, at the farm these grow effortlessly in robust clumps, unmistakably shouting 'Spring is here!'. These bulbs definitely seem to need winter chill and summer baking - our Sydney summers are usually too wet for their liking and our winters too warm. However, I have had luck at home with some tiny little daffodils that someone gave me years ago in a pot from a florist - possibly 'Tête-à-Tête'. They have multiplied over the years to a nice clump and appear in mid to late August. I also have had success with one called 'Silver Chimes', which blooms every year but hasn't increased much over time.
There are literally hundreds of jonquils in the farm garden, ranging in colour from pure white, through cream to the bright yellow and orange 'Soleil d'Or'. They exude a delicious perfume throughout the garden. These bulbs I can grow in Sydney, though they tend to flower in mid winter rather than late winter/early spring here.
Similarly, snowflake bulbs (Leucojum aestivum), in full bloom at the farm last week, are past their peak in my Sydney garden now (hastened in their decline by the torrential rain); however, they are a reliable bulb in our climate as well as doing well in cold areas. Interestingly, a taller version called 'Gravetye Giant', given to me by a keen plant collector years ago, flowers later and stands up nice and tall, unlike the species, which tends to flop. They are a good choice for shady spots though will also cope with sun.
The winter iris (Iris unguicularis, syn. Iris stylosa) is a rhizomatous plant that flourishes brilliantly in cooler climates yet languishes in my Sydney garden - I probably get about five flowers a year. In the farm garden, there would have been easily 100 blooms or more, and it has only just started flowering! I have a lovely white version growing at home, which rarely blooms, so I decided to donate it to the farm garden and look forward to it doing much better there.
Another cool climate bulb that simply refuses to bloom in Sydney is the grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) - it has the most stunning blue clusters of tiny-bell-shaped flowers, and my grandmother used to pick huge numbers of them for vases. I have tried them many times in my garden but they are not happy, so now I content myself with admiring them in the farm garden, where they grow like weeds.
Freesias were just about to bloom at the farm and these I can grow at home - all too readily it could be said. However, I would never want to be without their lovely spring fragrance. The original cream-coloured one does best, but in recent years I have had quite a good pink one that stays upright instead of falling over like many of the coloured ones.
I have introduced some bulbs to the farm garden, with mixed success, over the years. It has only been in recent times that I have realised (courtesy of information from a reader who lives in the same region) that rabbits were digging up and eating the bulbs after I had just planted them. I now have rabbit-proof fences around the garden beds and the bunnies have been thwarted. Once the bulbs are well established, the fences can possibly be removed. Last week, the starflower bulbs I planted there were in full bloom. These pretty bulbs are now called Tristagma uniflorum but were previously known as Iphieon uniflorum. They are amongst the first bulbs to flower in late winter in my garden and come in colours of pale, milky blue, purple, white and bright blue. They multiply happily and require no special care.
I'd love to hear which are your favourite bulbs for this time of year - no matter where you live!
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