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Down to Earth with Robert Barker

Full of hope, joy and colour, spring-flowering bulbs are among nature’s greatest wonders, writes Cambridge garden designer Robert Barker

April is without a doubt one of my favourite months. As a garden designer it’s a particularly important period: not only is it very busy, it’s the time of year when I am reminded that I don’t just produce two-dimensional plans and deal with day-to-day admin - I create living, breathing environments. Nothing reminds me of this more than the sight of tulips.

Garden bulbs, such as tulips and alliums, never cease to amaze me, even after all these years. I just can’t get over the fact that a bulb, something that can fit into the palm of your hand, can produce such an amazing spectacle. For most of the year it lays dormant, deep under the soil, but when the cold arrives it wakes up and starts putting all its energy into producing such wonderful flowers in such a brief amount of time. This flower then lasts for a few weeks, and then gradually wilts before returning back to its deep sleep until the following year.

Spring-flowering bulbs lift the spirits, says Robert Barker (31336012)
Spring-flowering bulbs lift the spirits, says Robert Barker (31336012)

This process takes me back to my time studying Buddhism while living in London and is yet another reminder that, when we experience something as wonderful as the sight of new life within our gardens, we must make the most of it and enjoy the moment because soon, like all things, it will pass.

At the start of my career, after recently graduating from college, I stupidly over-ordered a large amount of tulip bulbs and was left with a mass of spares without a home. Not wanting them to go to waste, my wife and I gave them to friends, neighbours and decided to plant as many as we could in our own garden.

In the autumn cold, my wife, my daughter and I spent the day digging and digging hundreds of bulbs into the ground. My daughter, a toddler at the time, was so excited about the thought of this alien-looking ball turning into a flower that we let her plant one by herself in a pot of her own.

Patiently she waited for it to grow over the coming months, watering it, talking to it and longing it to flower. Every year since, when I see tulips flowering in spring, I can hear the screaming of joy in my ears from that toddler form of my daughter; that sound of joy at the sight of green growth, a sign of life and wonderful things to come.

* See robertbarkerdesign.com for more.

April’s Jobs

If winter took a toll on your lawn, now’s the time to repair the damage. If you’ve just got the odd patch here and there, it’s worth buying a length of turf and cutting pieces to jigsaw into the gaps; if the whole lawn looks ropey, though, you’re better to seed and feed the whole thing.

April brings sunshine and showers: ideal growing conditions for weeds, as well as the rest of the garden’s plants. To hamper their progress, take a two-pronged approach: pounce on them with the hoe as soon as they start to shoot and install some barriers, too, such as a bark mulch and border edging boards.

As the fear of late frosts subsides, it’s safe to set hardy annual seed straight into pots and borders: sow marigolds, nasturtiums, night-scented stocks and sunflowers now and by late summer you’re sure to have a show. Vegetables such as beans, carrots, onions and peas can also be grown outside as of this month.

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