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Planting bulbs and life after pests: October tips for balcony and urban gardeners

Alice Vincent in her balcony garden
Alice Vincent in her balcony garden

Been a bit of a damp squib, October. Seemingly relentless rain marking a premature end to many of late summer’s offerings, among them my white window box cosmos, which started the month off quite blowsy and bright and is now something of a straggle; I'll pull it out soon enough, to make room for something else.

Among these downpours, there have been other small upsets on the balcony; namely, vine weevil. It was not my first experience of the notoriously container-prone pest, but arguably the most devastating: half a dozen once-prideful heucheras and tiarellas savaged from the roots up. 

Vine weevil are pernicious beasts, the kind of pest that casts a pall just by mentioning its name. I may have cursed this column simply by mentioning them. They’re nasty little bugs – in the summer the adults (beetle-like, near-impossible to spot in daylight as they lurk undercover until nightfall) leave cartoonish munch-like cuts in leaf edges. Worse is yet to come: the white grub offspring that devour roots, annihilating the plant. 

In the past I’ve treated them with nematodes, dissolved in water and applied to damp soil in the height of summer. But while I’d clocked a few foliage nibbles earlier this year, I was, frankly, idle and turned a bit of a blind eye. I shan’t again.

Mercifully, vine weevil are relatively choosy and much of the balcony went unscathed. One of the heuchera was nearing a division-worthy heft anyway, so I suppose it saved me a job. I cleared out all the grub-inhabited soil and it’s been intriguing to see the left-behinds (a Japanese painted fern, in particular) fill those spaces. Life moves on. 

Rocket micro-greens

The winter green seeds I sowed in September have been surprising, as seeds often are. The liberally sprinkled expired packet of rocket seed duly exploded in what felt like a matter of hours, so I’ve been enjoying impromptu microgreen feasts while I garden. The spinach is rather slower growing but coming along. Both have been supplemented by an Organic Plants delivery, and so lambs lettuce, winter purslane, mizuna and a couple of rather ambitious arctic king lettuces now plug some of those vine weevil gaps. 

With Daylight Savings’ upon us, so my frantic searches of online nurseries increase. I long to be one of those gardeners who gets their bulb order in by early September and then smugly sees out summer while awaiting that satisfying thud on the doorstep, but I am not. Still, there is plenty to be said for picking up a box of the basics with the grocery shop – I’ve used Sainsbury’s miniature paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus papyraceus, £2.50 for 10) for the past three years and they have always been reliable. 

Narcissus bulbs planted for forcing Credit: Alice Vincent

Why the annual replacing of things that are so famously perennial? Well, so much goes in and out of pots in the in-between months I can never fully remember how many bulbs were put in the year before, and I always force at least a handful (the pots go down to the bike shed, where they are usually rushed out, too tall, slightly yellow and somewhat forgotten, in early December) after which they are rarely good for a small-space show. 

The paperwhites went into the bare, brighter spaces on the balcony – a crescent beneath the Fatsia japonica, another around the astrantia, which will be well gone by the time they turn up, a few where some rather lacklustre anemones barely got going last year. 

It’s a modest show by 2018’s standards, when I planted some 100 bulbs across 20 or so pots, but I’m saving my energies for some more delicate displays. I’ve several Victorian terracotta seedling pots that did, until this week, hold as many sad succulents. With nature shifting towards its annual death outside, I couldn’t bear it inside too. So they’ve been evacuated, the etoiliated and the crispy, and I’m going to fill those pots with life, instead: Iris reticulata, muscari and fritillaria. Small and beautiful things.  

Alice Vincent’s next book, Rootbound: Rewilding a Life, is available to pre-order now. For more urban gardening, follow her on Instagram.com/noughticulture