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  • Sue

Divine drumsticks

We are experiencing wonderful weather for early May. Sunshine, little wind and high temperatures - temperatures of 28C and 29C are forecast for a week's time. These are good conditions for alliums and this year we have our best display yet. May is the best time for allium flowers - which is why Chelsea flower show is normally inundated with them both in the display gardens and in the grand marquee, where several suppliers provide fabulous displays. You can see them in flower and order bulbs for delivery in the autumn. Or, if you live in France, just make a note of your favourites and order them from an EU based supplier in the late summer. It is infinitely cheaper to buy them as bulbs rather than as plants in pots the following spring.

The Allium genus is large genus of around 500 different species and, surprisingly, is a member of the Amaryllis family. Familiar alliums include onions, shallots, garlic, leeks and chives as well as many ornamental species and varieties. The variety which is at its best in our garden at the moment is Allium hollandicum "Purple Sensation". I plant a few every year but last autumn went what I thought was a little bit overboard and planted about 50 in one of our borders. I did not overestimate - you need lots to make a big impact - I might even add more next year. They don't take up too much space (being tall and thin), you get a long season of interest - the leaves appear from March, the flowers are at their best now and the seed heads can remain for months giving structural interest and providing seeds for the birds. If you have a cutting garden they are a perfect plant for it as both the flowers and the dried seed heads look fantastic in arrangements. They are also insect friendly - bees love them.

In this photograph the flowers are still unfolding - they open up into hemispheres and then gradually expand into a spherical shape which they hold until the dried seed head eventually collapses in the late summer.

Providing your soil is not too wet in the winter (which could cause the bulbs to rot) they will come back each year and can naturalise, although in a border this can be a menace as you are forever pulling out little green shoots which are in the wrong place. Far better to lift the bulbs after the leaves have died back and remove any bulbils (baby bulbs attached to the side of the parent bulb). Pot these up, allow them to grow to a decent size over a year or two and then put them back into your garden where you want them. Meanwhile, with a bit of luck, the parent bulb will continue to flower each year and may even have produced offshoots of its own.

Another allium which we have grown very successfully in our alkaline clay (lightened a bit with gravel when we planted the bulbs) is Allium schubertii. This is a veritable firework display of tiny flowers and the seedhead is sensational (if you are careful they can make fab. Christmas decorations if you spray them silver or gold.). This photo shows Allium schubertii with Stachys byzantina (lambs' lugs) behind it and some rather baked soil.

We also have some rogue alliums which seed themselves in the garden every year. These are wildflowers which grow among the vines and clearly enjoy the local growing conditions.

I usually leave one or two if they have planted themselves in a convenient spot - but then end up removing the seedlings, which establish incredibly rapidly, for years to come.

You can see the developing flower in the photograph - it is not very exciting and I initially allowed them into the garden out of curiosity. On the plus side they were a clear indicator that alliums suit our local growing conditions, and so they encouraged me to buy lots of allium bulbs as I was developing the garden.

Meanwhile - in the potager the alliums are

doing very nicely too. We are eating ailettes (baby garlic) and allowing other plants to develop into garlic bulbs which we will harvest at the end of summer. The onions are coming along nicely, we will be planting next winter's leeks soon and the chives, which grow in one of our herb beds, are an absolute menace as seedlings try to colonise the parsley patch.

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