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A golden host of my own

With spring bulbs, a minimum of effort is overwhelmingly repaid.

Wild daffodils (Narcissus Pseudonarcissus) bloom near Bridgend, in South Wales.
Rex Features/AP/File
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  • Christopher Andreae

The small bright signs of spring have come and not yet gone: White drifts of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have shown up, as always, earlier than everything else, but this year, in our southwestern Scottish garden, a mild winter has encouraged the arrival of other miniature bulbs playing catch-up. 

At the same time as the snowdrops the crocus species are flowering (I particularly love those purple ones with petals paler inside and darker outside), and now the short wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are budding like duck beaks and will soon clothe the grass of our undulatory garden with a multiplicity of dancing yellows. 

No wonder the Lake District poet William Wordsworth (though preempted, in fact, by his sister Dorothy’s description in her diary) was tempted into memorable and endlessly quoted verse about a “host of golden daffodils” encountered along the shore of Ullswater.

The emergence of all these small spring bulbs is, in my book, by far the most rewarding time of year, gardenwise. A minimum of effort is overwhelmingly overpaid by a reliable increase, season by season, of self-propagating, spreading, unthinkingly generous horticultural gems. All we have to do is gaze out the windows, relish, and admire.

Well, more or less.

A certain degree of practical know-how will encourage what is essentially wild naturalness, rather than the persnickety labor-intensive processes often promoted by demanding garden professionals. Too often, feelings of guilt attach themselves to gardening, particularly concerning lawns, hedges, and edges, as well as weeding, clipping, training, pruning, and weeding. Did I mention weeding? Oh! Weeding! 

A garden is surely a place to sit in and look at. It invites nature in to share the enjoyment. We certainly have foxes and squirrels that agree with this approach, not to mention birds of various persuasions, from very small wrens and long-tailed tits to bullfinches, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, occasional owls, crows, wild ducks, and herons. And we have frogs. They are attracted by our modest string of six ponds, and in turn the herons are attracted by the frogs.

The foxes don’t really get the idea about gardening. Or maybe they do. They clearly think our garden is a haven of inactivity. They curl up in convenient sun patches and go to sleep, and they cast doubt on the question of ownership when they see us coming into their domain. One feels apologetic, not wanting to disturb. 

Not wanting to disturb is the whole point where the wild bulbs are concerned. They need to be left in the grass to their own devices. The one thing the gardener must definitely not do is mow them. Not before midsummer, anyway. If mowed too soon, they will gradually send up grassy leaves each spring but no flowers. 

Our daffodils – all derived from a mere six I found years ago thriving in a Sussex wood ­– have multiplied many times over. We have hundreds. This must have been the case with Wordsworth. He and his sister concluded that somehow seeds must have blown in across the lake and proliferated in a habitat that suited them. 

This is what ours do, though they do not object to a little productive interference. One may carefully dig up the clumps the daffodils form, break them up, and plant the slender bulbs separately, thus giving the plants some breathing room. Obligingly each bulb flowers the next season.

For some years I wondered how to time this process. I would wait until summer, but by then I couldn’t find them. They had disappeared into the earth. Now I dig them up just after they have flowered. They don’t mind.

Which brings me to the garden hoses.

Each of our ponds requires its own source of water to stay fresh and allow the waterlilies to flourish. There is a faucet at the highest point of the garden’s slope, and I have buried hoses from there to three of the ponds. But the system needs completion so that nobody can see how ingeniously contrived this “wild garden” is. And of course the hoses must be dug in while the bulbs are still visible, or numerous bulbs might be ruined. 

So here we go! The natural wilderness effect we prefer still requires scrupulous attention and timing. And work.

It’s a process called “gardening,” and there is no escape from it. Unless you are a fox or a frog.