Wednesday 6th September 2018
Presentation by Rosemary Thomson - Pot Luck


I was a bit surprised and apprehensive when Barb asked me to do this but I do THANK YOU for asking me to give a short talk on potted bulbs because it made me realise that I do have a large number of potted things and made me really think about ‘why’ and ‘how I sort of manage them”… And my apologies if the photos and labels don’t work out - I’m learning !

I’m not a scientist: I’m a gardener and have been gardening for about 75 years … By the time I was 5 I had my own small plot with radishes, carrots, some alyssum seeds and some grape hyacinths etc. in my parents’ garden in Canberra.

Wednesday 6th September 2018
Presentation by Rosemary Thomson - Pot Luck


I was a bit surprised and apprehensive when Barb asked me to do this but I do THANK YOU for asking me to give a short talk on potted bulbs because it made me realise that I do have a large number of potted things and made me really think about ‘why’ and ‘how I sort of manage them”… And my apologies if the photos and labels don’t work out - I’m learning !

I’m not a scientist: I’m a gardener and have been gardening for about 75 years … By the time I was 5 I had my own small plot with radishes, carrots, some alyssum seeds and some grape hyacinths etc. in my parents’ garden in Canberra.

Rosemary Thomson
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My father grew all our fruit and vegetables and my mother grew the ornamental trees and shrubs and flowers … there was quite a bit of unacknowledged competition especially with my father’s family in Sydney … boxes of stone fruit, raspberries and currants as well as new season’s vegetables and flowers were sent by the night train to Sydney and in return came chokos, early tomatoes and lemons, as well as new seeds to try. That’s the background.

My first foray into pots was a disaster … cactus in pots at about age 10 or 11 … and my little brother fell across them. By the time my mother had removed the spines from his tummy my father had thrown the cactus and pots out.

Apart from a very unsuccessful attempt to replicate the wonderful hanging pots I saw in the UK in Bath or the grouped pots at Great Dixter that was it.
Until Tania and I went to a Rhododendron Conference in Hobart in 2002 and visited Essie Huxley’s garden I really didn’t give pots another thought …

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She was a noted plantswoman who rescued and bred among other things the rare cream and yellow waratahs. Her garden had all kinds of pots tucked in everywhere with all kinds of plants … large, small, rare, ordinary … wonderful little bulb treasures, a half water tank of lily of the valley, small rhododendrons, Tasmanian natives etc. and I realised that they can be very useful and that plants, especially bulbs, are a lot more forgiving than we realise. That gave me confidence …
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So the WHY ?
I think it is ….
- To enjoy fleeting moments of flower that might be lost in the garden growth.
- For the delicate treasures.
- For specific conditions which are not available in your garden - soil, aspect, protection from frost or sun.
- To trial new bulbs or plants.
- To bring into the house without picking.
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- To enjoy the bulbs from inside or keep a watch on their progress
- To keep some bulbs separated and raised up for closer viewing eg snowdrops or mini daffodils … which one is which, what is the difference ?
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OR … simply because there are already too many bulbs in the ground ! A common problem … After 55 years in our house every time I put a spade in the ground during the dormant season I am likely to slice another bulb.
Because I am a lazy gardener I don’t have many permanent pots – mine are very seasonal and bulbs are ideal ! Pot or repot … set out and wait with anticipation for little shoots …. Enjoy the plants and flowers ……
allow to die back a little (with a bit of feeding) … and then hide them under the camellias or shrubs and leave them there until I need to repot or plant out. No need to water … sometimes they get splashed as I wave a hose around but usually the rain is sufficient …. Some bulbs require a dry summer or a dry winter … you need to know some of the specific requirements but in general I find that bulbs are very tolerant !
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‘How do I manage them ? … I generally have pots in three or four areas …

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…. one where I can enjoy them from the kitchen … another is more protected

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another is sort of an overflow and is under an oak tree so shaded in summer but exposed in winter

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… and another near my work table by the camellias is the area where I keep most of the bulbs and pots for giving away or growing on for the Society.

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The time schedule has changed a little. With the January Show I need to empty some pots out as soon as they die down … late November, early December but otherwise the general routine is to tip out in January and February the pots I want to check, divide or replant … I have an old table near some camellia bushes and I work on that …
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The sugarcane mulch, soaked coir fibre, potting mix plus some Perlite or Vermiculite, propagating sand and anything else like charcoal or dolomite that I use are just piled up nearby or under the table …
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It’s not very scientific … a very simple system …

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- The pots are washed in a big tub or left out in the rain … if I plan to be giving them away I’ll wash them with detergent but for my own use I don’t bother.
- If I have any I’ll use a piece of flywire or hessian in the bottom to help stop the soil filtering out but if not I put a handful of the sugar cane mulch in and tamp it down a bit.
- If the plant or bulb likes moisture I add a layer of the soaked coir to help conserve moisture and encourage the roots to grow down. I used to mix it in but find that a layer works better. I don’t like using the water crystals. If it prefers sharp drainage I will mix extra propagating sand or Perlite or Vermiculite into the potting mix to keep it open.
- Add a layer of potting mix and then the bulb.
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Once again if it is a bulb that likes dry feet such as some of the specie tulips or if the bulbs are really tiny and I want to know where they are when I next tip the pot out … then I put a layer of propagating sand in and plant on that …. And top with more potting mix.

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For my own use I use a very basic potting mix and add whatever I feel is required … sand, compost or fine leaf mould, dolomite or a pinch of lime, or on rare occasions a little peat moss …
I have to confess that I judge the consistency by just mixing and handling it rather than specific proportions !
For giveaways or Bulb Society ones I use a bit better potting mix but I don’t use any potting mixes with soil wetting agents or fertiliser in … if I think fertiliser is necessary I add that when they start to poke through or while dying down.
- Generally the bulb does not need to be planted as deeply in pots as you would in the ground … the usual twice the depth or probably 1 ½ times for larger daffodils or tulips. Once again it depends on the bulb variety .. Belladonna, Drimea and Nerines like the top 1/3 exposed.
- Sometimes, If the bulb or flower stalk needs support, I would put a cane or cage in when I plant the bulb … to try and put it in later risks damaging the roots or bulb. But I tend to grow the little treasures not the great big ones…

- I usually have some empty containers around the back garden area – buckets, bowls etc. that collect some rain water which I use up first - it’s good water and I want to keep mosquitoes from breeding … I also have a small tank next to the work area so I will use that as well to conserve my water use but if necessary tap water is used … because I don’t have a lot of summer flowering bulbs in pots the other pots are then tucked under the camellias or oak tree and they generally survive with the rain.
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- I top the potting mix with propagating sand or grit … it deters snails etc. and tells me that I have dealt with that pot recently. Sometimes the potting mix beds down and I might have to add another handful on top and more sand … Then just place wherever it is wanted or can fit … wait, watch and enjoy …
- They don’t all get this treatment each year … about 1/3 of them would probably get just a top up of potting mix and get repotted the next year …
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- I am notoriously mean with fertiliser as many bulbs in the wild live in less than ideal garden situations – these few photos are typical …

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Stony, dry, sandy, windy, marshy conditions are common. You aim to mimic some of the conditions of origin.

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Plus I used to have a couple of Labradors so anything that had even a smidgeon of fertiliser got tipped out … Now mine might get just a sprinkle of slow release or pelleted fertiliser ( Neutrog rose fertiliser or Seamungus ….whatever I have) when the bulb shoots appear, and after flowering.
Unless I want some seed I deadhead the flowers and as the leaves die down they get either another pinch of slow release pellets or a couple of doses of foliar fertiliser…. A bucket of weeds left soaking in the rain provides a good ‘tea’ or if you have access to animal manure a tea bag made with an old stocking and a trowelful of cow poo left soaking is also good. If you were growing them commercially or wanted them to multiply quickly that would be quite different … they would need specific feeding … Alan or Greg have better ideas on that !
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Barb mentioned failures to me …
- I don’t do too well with seed … summer heat and a failure to be consistent with watering takes its toll … another plus for bulbs !
- slugs and snails … yes, especially as I often mind some family dogs so I am very wary of snail pellets and beer traps etc. which appeal to animals … I might scatter some around if I know that I won’t see the dogs for a couple of weeks or add the snails and slugs into my green bin ! But I’m more likely to work on the theory that I might lose some flowers or leaves but the bulbs are forgiving and usually survive to try again next season -- and the grit and sand are a big help. I don’t seem to have many other pests or diseases … luck or a ‘wait and see’ approach seems to work.
- bad drainage used to be the main problem when I used semi composted leaf mulch in the bottom but the layers of cane mulch, coir, potting mix plus sand seem to be working well now.
- I actually have more failures when things are planted in the garden .. small things get lost, sliced or damaged, or overwhelmed by perennials or shrubs … snails, next door’s cats, koalas and possums …
I used to try and have an all year garden but as I’ve grown old I have decided to enjoy an autumn, winter and spring garden and just do very basic maintenance in summer, enjoy the lilies and summer fruits and catch up on some reading …. Including the bulb catalogues ….. Bulbs are great in pots - even those like the Iris reticulates that prefer being planted out (in a sunny position and well-drained gravelly soil) will do well and can be enjoyed without having to lie down on the gravel to get a closer look !!!