Last Sunday I decided to clear out my tulip bed. The tulips have finished flowering, and I wanted to prepare the bed for the dahlias.
I love digging in my raised beds. I have added plenty of compost to lighten my clay soil, and it is now easy to work. It is rich and crumbly. When I sinking my sharp spade into it, it slices like a dark chocolate cake.
If I dig down deep (40-50cm) then I can lift up the whole tulip bulb with its foliage. This is really satisfying! There are lots of little games I play when I am gardening. I lose myself in the challenge I have set myself.
It is also really interesting to dig down and see the tulip growing from the bulb deep in the soil. I can see all the work that the tulip did before its leaves even burst out of the soil. It went in as a bare bulb, and since then has sprouted a whole head of hair (the roots), not to mention the stem, leaves and flower head.
The bulb went into the soil in November looking like a smooth onion. Now many of the bulbs have developed little baby bulblets around the edge, and so the bulb looks like a head of garlic.
I could nuture these bulblets in a pot, and over a couple of years they will be big enough to produce full-sized tulip flowers.
But I am a greedy and self-indulgent tulip-grower. I like to grow different varieties each year, playing with new combinations of colour, texture and flower form. (You can see the fun I have had this year and last year).
It might seem a bit wasteful, but tulips tend to diminish each year in our heavy clay soil.
So I dig them up, and snap the stem, leaves and spent flower away from the bulb. The foliage goes in the compost, and the bulb gets tossed behind the compost heap. Each year, a few of these bulbs survive and flower behind the compost heap. It always delights me to spot this motley crew of survivors.
I asked my daughter Cate to take some photos of me digging up tulip bulbs. Then she asked if she could help. We spent a lovely half hour digging together, tossing bulbs into the wheelbarrow.
Once we had finished, Cate asked what else she could help with. We went to the greenhouse and Cate helped me move the dahlias onto the patio so that they can be hardened off for a week.
Dahlias are the perfect succession planting for following on from tulips.
You plant tulip bulbs in November; they grow away through the winter and flower in April and into May. Then you can either leave them in place and over-plant them with dahlias in mid to late May. The dahlias will start to flower in early July and continue until the first frosts in November. The dahlia tubers can either be left in place and compost earthed up on top, or dug up and stored over winter in dry compost in the garage or shed. You plant out the tulips and the cycle starts again…
I start my dahlia tubers off in big pots in the greenhouse in March. They take about three weeks to start sprouting. I water them once a week initially, and then twice a week once they get going. I pinch out the tips to encourage bushy growth. In the first or second week of May, so long as there are no frosts forecast, I take the pots outside and harden them off for a week or two.
Cate said at the end of this that she thinks she really likes gardening. As you can imagine, this was music to my ears. Not only because I love gardening so much, and it is good to have a shared interest.
But also because Cate has been working really hard. When the UK government announced a few weeks ago that GCSE exams were cancelled this year, Cate didn’t really know what to do with herself. She launched herself into more study, starting her A Level syllabus. Whilst I am pleased that she loves to learn, I also think it is really important to be able to relax. We have talked about how hard she finds this.
Cate said that she enjoyed these gardening tasks because they had a purpose, and she could see the difference.
There are sensory pleasures: digging through soil, snapping off stems. There are games to play, like extracting a tulip in tact, or tossing bulbs into the wheelbarrow. There are things to observe and learn, like the way worms extend and contract when you hold them up, or the way slugs hide under pots by day, waiting to munch your dahlias by night. Gardening lends itself to a flow state; one thing leads to another, and before you know it, you have spent a very happy hour in the garden (I have written about ‘flow’ here).
Cate liked that she could see a meaningful difference, in that we had cleared a bed, weeded a patch, and moved pots. It was purposeful activity, and leisure, and relaxation, all at the same time.
It might be challenging to find purposeful activity right now.
I set myself very small goals. I might weed a tiny patch for five minutes. It is amazing how many weeds you can pull in five minutes.
Whilst I am there I will almost inevitably come across something interesting and unexpected: hear a bumblebee, or tune into birdsong. I might notice the scent of foliage. I might play with how long I can squat or whether I can throw weeds into a bucket.
All this is valuable. Not only am I playing, and learning, and entering a ‘flow’ state. I am learning how to be with myself. It’s a bonus if someone else joins me. But being alone, and being comfortable with that is also purposeful activity.
Please do share your thoughts in the comments section. If you found this post helpful or unhelpful, I would be interested to know.
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