Those rich vi­o­let spheres bring joy to ev­ery gar­den

Amateur Gardening - - Contents - Anne Swith­in­bank will help you get to know your or­na­men­tal onions

CHOOS­ING al­li­ums for the gar­den is both a plea­sure and a chal­lenge. Do you spend your money on good old ‘Pur­ple Sen­sa­tion’, whose rich vi­o­let spheres on stems to 3ft (90cm) make ef­fec­tive bor­der punc­tu­a­tion marks? Or do you try some­thing dif­fer­ent, such as ‘Am­bas­sador’, ‘Pow­der­puff’ or ‘Pin­ball Wizard’?

For evening, the white spheres of ‘Mount Ever­est’ bring ethe­real beauty, the starry flow­ers touched with green and even­tu­ally black cen­tres. Then there are un­usual al­li­ums with flow­ers like ex­plod­ing fire­works, spring­ing stems such as the drum­stick al­lium

or sur­pris­ing shades of deep pur­ple, blue or yel­low.

These are the or­na­men­tal onions, the showier mem­bers of the onion tribe closely re­lated to garlic, leeks and chives. Planted as bulbs in au­tumn, they set­tle down to flower year af­ter year, mainly from May to July but at their stun­ning best in June, along­side laven­der, lupins, roses and pe­onies. Bees and hov­er­flies are at­tracted to the nec­tar-rich flow­ers and the heads ma­ture and de­velop at­trac­tively, go­ing through sev­eral phases be­fore form­ing parch­ment-like seed­heads.

This abil­ity to die grace­fully presents the gar­dener with a dilemma. We are some­times in­structed to dead­head, be­cause they will of­ten seed them­selves about. I would gen­er­ally view this as an as­set, but al­low­ing them to make seed is also said to drain the bulb and po­ten­tially jeop­ar­dise the size of the next year’s flow­er­heads. Nev­er­the­less, I trea­sure ours, so I al­low them to stay put. By way of com­pen­sa­tion, I make sure the plants are well nour­ished while in leaf.

Look out for this fo­liage, be­cause it emerges from bulbs in spring and by flow­er­ing time, it’s of­ten yel­low­ing and dy­ing away. As this is not a pretty sight, you should make plans to masked the sad leaves with the fo­liage of other plants, such as hardy gera­ni­ums – an easy task, since in June ev­ery­thing wants to grow with great abun­dance.

In fact, you can have great fun de­vis­ing some clever com­bi­na­tions of al­li­ums with roses, grasses and herba­ceous peren­ni­als.

Al­lium cristophii is a clas­sic and does well on heav­ier soils. Short, stout stems 24in

(60cm) tall bear mag­nif­i­cent spheres up to

8in (20cm) across, filled with starry flow­ers of shim­mer­ing vi­o­let A. sphae­ro­cephalon (drum­stick al­lium) adds drama to bor­der dis­plays

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