Natural splendour
Country Life UK|September 15, 2021
Val Bourne finds out the secrets behind the astonishing swathes of naturalised bulbs grown at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
Val Bourne

EVERY autumn, the team at Waddesdon Manor plants half a million bulbs in only a few short weeks, a task accomplished with help from volunteers and local children. ‘We start in Daffodil Valley,’ says Mike Buffin, head of gardens. ‘This is part of the original Victorian landscape garden, where we aim to plant 40,000 reliably perennial narcissus bulbs in two weeks.’ The team uses a simple recipe containing four persistently perennial daffodil varieties, which will flower from January until April. ‘Heights and flower shapes vary, so it looks very natural.’

The large, open areas are planted with a specially hired bulb-planting machine that allows a huge number of bulbs to be put into the ground quite quickly. ‘The machine lifts the turf and the bulbs slide down both sides of a hopper before being covered up again,’ Mr Buffin explains. Areas that are steeply sided or have tree roots have to be covered with a variety of different hand-held bulb planters. The gardeners make the holes and children from local primary schools help by dropping the bulbs in and covering them back up again. ‘Some holes are made mechanically with a clever piece of equipment, designed to cut holes in golfing greens. The aim is to plant each bulb at twice its depth.’

One of the flatter areas is shaded in summer, but open and well-drained in winter and early spring. Here, the team grows a succession of miniature blue and yellow bulbs that are designed to flower before the leaves reappear. Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) perform first, producing bee-pleasing golden-yellow orbs of flower. By March, Scilla siberica mingles with hoop-petticoat daffodils, Narcissus bulbocodium, and there are also two miniature irises, the speckledyellow Iris danfordiae and the subtle bluegrey and yellow Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’. Mr Buffin has added more Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’, a bold violet-purple that isn’t as weak-necked as many ‘tommies’ are, and spring-flowering Cyclamen coum. These will be left to self-seed.

One bulb meadow, mown on a regular basis, used to rely solely on the diminutive, multi-headed buttercup-yellow ‘Tête à Tête’. To this has been added a jaunty American narcissus, with a near-red trumpet, named ‘Jetfire’. This resilient, easily grown daffodil does very well in grass, bulking up year on year, and the trumpet becomes brighter and redder as the flowers mature.

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