Tulips by the barrowload

A Black Cat Abroad

‘A Territorial Gunner’s Selected Memories of WWII and the Italian Campaign 1943-1945’ by R.E.H. Hadingham CBE, MC and Bar is published by Unicorn on 11th November.

Edited by his daughter Steffie Shields MBE

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
November 2022

Steffie Shields welcomes good news for 2023: Spalding Flower Parade will be back!

November, the month for memories… remember, remember. As we tick off the list of chilly, outside chores this month, putting garden or allotment to bed, we cannot avoid a growing awareness of failing light, passing time, and changing season.

Parades and poppy-adorned memorials rightly recall those whom we have lost in world wars.

Tending a garden space, balcony or window-box, touching living plant material and soil, is great therapy in bereavement. Most gardens, whether grand or small, contain touching memories of family life, our dear-departed relatives, close friends and even our heroes. If you intend planting a tree in memory of a loved one, choose a long-lived species that should outlive you.

In the drought this year, we lost a striking caesura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, planted in memory of that great TV gardener Geoff Hamilton. It was his favourite tree, bearing heart-shaped green leaves that turn a rich orange and pink in autumn. When these are crushed, they release a scent of burnt sugar, candyfloss, or strawberries.

You might choose to keep our late departed Queen Elizabeth within consciousness, as someone who served and has always been there in our lives.

Therapeutic gardening
Meanwhile, keep warm by concentrating on raking wind-blown, desiccated debris, rotting fruits, and fallen leaves. Direct current worries about paying electricity and heating bills to the back of your mind. Better still, besides exercising your muscles, stimulate and gladden your brain by planning floral colour schemes.

How will you replace the dahlia tubers you have lifted, or those less than hardy plants brought indoors, to protect from frost? Which bulbs might enrich your surroundings and trumpet winter’s departure?

Yes, paradoxically, November offers opportunities for looking forward. As the celebrated lexicographer Samuel Johnson once realised, ‘It is necessary to hope… for hope itself is

No better way to cheer yourself up than by planting warm-coloured tulip bulbs. Roll on spring 2023 and its fabulous flowers!

Spalding Flower Parade returns
What good news that the once world famous annual Spalding Flower Parade, a popular part of the town’s heritage for almost a century, is being resurrected after a 10-year break, thanks to enthusiastic volunteers from the local community and with the support of local businesses.

As you read these paragraphs, barrowloads of tulips are being planted in garden, field, glasshouse in preparation for all manner of amazing floats and pageantry.

So, mark your diaries with the date – Saturday 13th May. Organisers are calling for donations online (www.spaldingflowerparade.org.uk) with the promise that it will be free, new, and fresh, with elements of nostalgia – and huge!

display dozens of tulip varieties to gladden the hearts of local families with young children.

Traditional links with the Netherlands in the area remain strong. Talking of which, my father was born of British parents in 1915, during World War I in Holland, as this low-lying country was called, where my grandfather, a young naval officer, was interned. Officers at that time were allowed to have their wives live with them!

A passion for tulips
Perhaps a little Dutch DNA in the air during the first three years of Dad’s life rubbed off, and filtered down to his children. Both my sister and I have always had a passion for tulips.

These Eurasian wildflowers were first cultivated as early as the 11th century in Constantinople.

Since the first “tulip mania” in the 17th century, when wealthy merchants paid eye-watering prices in exchange for prize bulbs, tulips have been associated with the Netherlands. Keukenhof is up there as one of my unforgettable, favourite gardens, in a lifetime of garden visiting in Italy, France, Germany, and America. No more than eight years old, I remember being so excited. The glorious flower borders were as thrilling as the most spectacular firework display, ablaze with armies of vivid tulips under stately beech trees dressed in tender spring green.

I was desperate to borrow my sister’s ‘Box Brownie’ camera to capture close-ups of cheerful, shiny cups. That first magic of flower portraiture has never left me.

During the pandemic, TV viewers started sending in short video clips of their gardens to Monty Don to feature on Gardeners’ World. One young lady demonstrated an easy, time and effort-saving idea that floated my boat.

Come November, when planting out her tulip bulbs, instead of casting around for spaces in the borders and for an array of different-sized pots, she simply spread a layer of compost in a wheelbarrow. Moments later she had quickly positioned loads of bulbs randomly a few inches apart, like chubby candles on a birthday cake. She then quickly piled another thicker layer of compost on top, followed by a gravel mulch to deter greedy squirrels, and, lastly, gave the buried bulbs a healthy dose of water. Job done.

Most professional gardeners discard hybrid tulip bulbs once their spring display is over because they usually lose their vigour when planted in containers. I usually plant them in among orchard grass for another year at least.

This new idea stirred me to give a redundant, old, and sufficiently deep enough, builder’s wheelbarrow a quick lick of paint, before planting it full of last year’s pot bulbs. I left the barrow in a sheltered corner, partly under the eaves at the back of the house.

spring, as green shoots began to emerge. It was easy to wheel the barrow into an open, more prominent position to show off.

I imagined a fantastic show of blooms, lasting for weeks. Life never goes exactly to plan. I soon discovered that, yes, the tulips were mixed, but all, without exception, displayed shades of deep plum and maroon – definitely not the rainbow, sugar-coated ‘Smartie’ colours I had envisioned. Tulip ‘Slawa’, a recent hybrid strain from the popular ‘Gavota’, stood out, an attractive warm purple with unusual copper-coloured edges.

Undeterred, I positioned the barrow in full sun next to a bed bursting with bluebells, borage and forget-me-nots. Here, among various, predominantly blue shades, a couple of contrasting, flaming orange and yellow Triumph tulips have been flowering since long before we arrived 22 years ago.

I achieved my long-anticipated ‘Smartie effect’ after all! This proved an inspiration for a painting. Of all my impressionist attempts with acrylics this year, this was the one that my daughter pinched to brighten her walls. It would seem tulip fervour has filtered down to the next generation!

The old wheelbarrow then spent the summer months loaded with coral geraniums and Mexican daisies, Erigeron karvinskianus, basking in the record breaking summer heat.

In the coming weeks, determined to jumble the colours this time, I shall be planting a stripey Tulip ‘Curiosity’, the excellent lily-flowered classic, ‘Ballerina’ and a sprinkling of my all-time favourite fluted tulip, ‘Lasting Love’, to complete the picture.

Its elegance and happy-making red will be a reminder of those special family and friends we have lost, but will always remember.

Hope to see you at the Spalding Flower Parade!

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