Black Star glad for Bowie fans

Gladioli are highly decorative, easy to grow and available in a range of gorgeous colours

Tucked away inside the pages of an old family album is a photograph of my grandfather's back garden, taken on a late summer's day some time in the late 1950s. It shows a small glasshouse filled with fruit-laden tomato plants, and neat borders lined with stiff rows of flowers that are as strangely evocative of that particular era as melamine tableware, Eagle comics or teddy boys. The flower to which I'm referring is the gladiolus – or, if we're talking plurals, gladioli or 'glads'.

Sadly, I can’t tell you the varietal names or colours of those tall, ruffled blooms that grew in my grandfather’s garden – the photo is in black-and-white – but in my mind’s eye, they are in Jell-O shades of shrimp pink and tartrazine yellow, Perkin’s violet and pillar-box red.

Even if I knew what the particular varieties were, they are probably no longer available. As gardeners’ interest in the gladiolus started to wane in the late 1960s, so the flower began its fall from grace.

Unlike the dahlia – in many ways its spiritual soulmate, but rescued from “naffness” by the late Christopher Lloyd – the gladiolus has remained deeply unfashionable in many gardeners’ eyes ever since, with the result that many of the older (and in fairness, often gaudier) varieties have been lost to cultivation.


Its recent but much-overdue rehabilitation is down to a number of factors. One of these is the burgeoning interest in home-grown cut flowers. Highly decorative, relatively easy to grow and available in a range of sumptuous colours, most gladioli flowers have a long vase life (up to 14 days), an important consideration when you consider the short-lived nature of many other home-grown blooms.

Another factor is the range of new varieties available, many of them in sumptuous shades of magenta (‘Plum Tart’), crimson (‘Ruby’), magisterial purple (‘Purple Mate’ and ‘Purple Flora’), and chocolate-red (‘Espresso’). For something more ethereal, you could try Gladiolus ‘Sancerre’ (creamy-white) or ‘White Star’ (pure white), while there is even a lime-green variety, called ’Green Star’. Some of the older hybrids are also worth tracking down, including ’Lucky Star’, which has fragrant pale cream flowers, their inner petals marked with a slender, central, dark-pink stripe.

All of these hybrid types of gladiolus enjoy a rich, moisture-retentive but free-draining fertile soil in full sun, where they will (excepting the more compact forms) reach an average height of 90-120cm. Order or buy them now as corms, for potting under cover from March to early May and planting out in the garden from May onwards.

You could also plant the plump corms directly in the ground from early May to late June, positioning them 10cm apart and 10-15cm deep, but the chances of success are not as high as with young, pot-reared transplants. Planted straight into cold, wet soils, they have a tendency to rot. You’ll need to protect them from rodents, which like to eat them (to stop this happening, cover the corms with wire mesh), while slugs and snails also like to graze on the emerging foliage. To ensure as long a display as possible, stagger the planting over a few weeks rather than planting them all at once.

Harsh frosts

In cold gardens, come late autumn and the first harsh frosts, lift the plants and store the corms somewhere cool and dry but frost-free over the winter months for replanting the following spring, making sure to carefully snap the new, young corms away from the old, spent parent corms before doing so.

If you garden in one of the milder corners of the country, you can get away with leaving the plants in the ground as long as you make sure to give them a thick, autumn mulch and protect the foliage from late spring frosts.

Keen gardeners have long realised that many of the species types of gladiolus also make excellent, garden-worthy, clump-forming perennial plants. Examples include the May- to early June-flowering Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus, (best planted in autumn) with its graceful spikes of cerise flowers that look right at home even in more naturalistic, meadow-style plantings.

Another is the autumn-flowering Gladiolus callianthus (formerly known as Acidanthera murielae), a close relative whose small, pale, scented blooms – each with a central chocolate-purple blotch – appear in autumn. The latter is reliably perennial only in mild gardens; otherwise, you’ll need to lift the corms to overwinter somewhere cool but frost-free for replanting the next spring.

There are also some hybrid varieties, such as the compact, reliably perennial Gladiolus colvillei ‘The Bride’ whose dainty, delicate white flower spikes appear from May until July, and the late summer-flowering Gladiolus ‘Ruby’ (also reliably perennial in milder gardens), that retain the natural grace of the wild species. Dwarf forms, many of which include the hardy nanus and primulina types, are particularly suited to container planting. My gladiolus of choice for 2016 is ‘Black Star’ (yes, Bowie fans, there truly is such a variety), which I plan on growing potager-style in the kitchen garden this summer next to scarlet-leaved lettuces. Its Gothic, soot-red flowers might be very different to those Jell-O coloured ‘glads’ of the 1950s, but I like to think that my grandfather would approve. Recommended online stockists of gladiolus corms include Mr Middleton (, Johnstown Garden Centre (, Beechill Bulbs (, Avon Bulbs ( and Sarah Raven (

This week in the garden

Sow parsley
Now is a good time to sow parsley seed under cover for transplanting outdoors later in the spring. But if you've had trouble in the past – germination can often be slow and erratic – then a clever, time-saving alternative is to buy a pot of parsley from a supermarket and then gently tease apart all of the baby parsley plants typically squeezed into it. Pot these baby plants into small individual pots using a good-quality compost, water well and place under cover in a polytunnel or glasshouse, or in a bright porch.Within a few weeks, you should see signs of new growth. The same technique works well for other shop- bought herbs such as coriander and basil.

Order annuals
Order seed of hardworking annuals, which will add fizz and colour to the summer border and provide food for pollinating insects as well as providing you with lots of lovely, home-grown cut flowers. Many (but not all) have edible petals, which can be used to add pops of colour to summer cocktails, ice-creams, cakes and salads. Suitable kinds include Ammi majus and Ammi visnaga, Calendula, Nasturtium, Centaurea, Nigella, Helianthus annuus, Borage and many different varieties of Cosmos. Recommended seed suppliers include Mayo-based Seedaholic ( and UK-based Sarah Raven (