A garden without spring bulbs is somehow a cheerless place; forget-me-nots and wallflowers definitely need a few bulbs bobbing above them and it really is the easiest way to inject some early colour into containers and borders. Planting bulbs is an act of faith, of believing that spring will return – sorry that does sound rather tragic, but as the days get colder and darker it’s comforting to know that once planted, they’ll sit safely under the ground; stems, flowers and leaves neatly compressed into tight packages, waiting for the spring like small, flowery time bombs. So before you hang up your trowel and come inside for the winter, plant some bulbs and by the spring you’ll be pleased that you did.
Border design and succession planting
Bulbs take up such a small amount of space in the border, especially when they’re dormant – what could be better than a plant that comes up, does its thing and then disappears again, politely leaving room for the next plant? Their neat, ‘don’t mind me’ habit makes them very useful in borders that need to look good all through the year, or where there isn’t room for much else. Winter and spring bulbs make way for annuals and bedding plants, and those that flower at other times of the year can be used among foliage plants, or to pop up in between flushes of summer flowers. I find lilies that flower in July quite useful here, as this is when much of the early summer colour is over and the late bloomers haven’t yet started. You could even be the ultimate cheat and slide pots of bulbs into gaps in the border and then remove them to do their tatty dying back out of sight behind the shed.
Most early flowering bulbs originate from countries that have brief spring rains and hot dry summers – many are from the Middle East, where they’ve adapted to survive cold winters and dry summers by hiding underground. At the end of the winter they burst forth, making the most of the brief spring rains before disappearing again. Imagining them in their natural habitat will help you to make them feel at home (or not) in your garden. Most will prefer a sunny and very free draining position and will not enjoy sitting through the winter with wet, soggy bottoms… It’s worth incorporating some horticultural grit into the planting hole if you’re on claggy clay. Bulbs from woodland will tolerate shade and slightly damper conditions, and the snake’s head fritillary thrives in damp meadows, and won’t readily reappear, which is irritating, as these conditions are quite hard to replicate. Encourage your bulbs to flower again the following year by feeding with a balanced fertiliser; just sprinkle it around the base of the plants when they’re sending out new roots.
Tulips are the most glamorous of bulbs and became so coveted during the seventeenth century they drove men to reckless acts. This was the time of ‘Tulipmania’, where once a single bulb sold for the price of a house. Handsome is as handsome does, even in the bulb world I guess, and in my book, tulips are completely fickle and untrustworthy. As a general rule, the closer you are to the species, the more reliable they are – the Darwin hybrids (esp. the big, bright red variety called Appledorn) are perennially persistent. These seem to be less prone to viruses too, which is helpful because tulips notoriously suffer from all sorts of nasty conditions. The worst disease affecting them is Tulip Fire, which is a fungal infection that spreads easily (like fire) among the bulbs. This is the reason it’s advisable to plant your tulips late – and as late as January has been known without any ill effects. The colder conditions should kill off any spores before the bulbs go in.
Bulbs that will spread and naturalise well
For a natural effect, throw handfuls of bulbs about at random, and then plant them where they land. Carpets of spring bulbs look wonderful beneath trees and in grass – but if you’re growing in lawns, make sure you don’t mind waiting six weeks before cutting it. Crocuses and narcissi are well known for spreading themselves around, enjoying the edge of woodland and meadow situations. Snowdrops will colonise and naturalise readily too, but if you’re just starting out, plant them ‘in the green’, which means not planting dry bulbs in the autumn, but bulbs with foliage on. They can be dug up and divided from existing clumps, or bought as container plants or mail order, after the flowers have died down. Anemone blanda will carpet the ground in shades of blue, white and pink – watch how after flowering the seed-heads bend down to the ground and almost bury themselves. A word of warning though, if you’re tempted to grow wild plants like bluebells and ransoms (wild garlic); these will rampantly cover the ground so are best left to run wild outside the garden.
Extend the flowering period and cook up a pot full of bulb lasagne by layering bulbs that flower at different times in a container. Three tiers works well, and it’s worth choosing different types – some short, some tall and not too many tulips, as they’re quite leafy and planting too many will fill the pot with foliage. Bulbs also work well in mixed containers with pansies and other spring bedding.
Bulb planting tips:
Planting depth – will vary according to the size of the bulb, but planting at a depth of three times the height of the bulb is about right. In mixed borders plant bulbs really deep to avoid slicing through them once you’ve forgotten where you planted them …
To lift or not to lift…
This will depend on how much time you have, how often you replant your borders and the type of bulbs you’re growing. If you’re planting in blocks of colour, it can be useful to lift your bulbs and store, labelled, in a dry place for the summer. You can then plant out summer bedding in their place, as they do in many public spaces, replanting them in the autumn. Tulips especially don’t like sitting in damp ground and may do better when lifted. But let’s face it, life’s a bit too short for all this, even if it does mean losing a few bulbs.
So cute, until you see them sitting on the fence, laughing and eating their way through your bulb collection. Chicken wire buried just under the soil on top of susceptible bulbs (rodents of all kinds especially like tulips and crocuses), is a solution, but remove it as the foliage starts pushing through. This is a very good method for protecting bulbs in containers, but harder to achieve in open ground. There are other, more violent options available to combat pesky rodents, but I don’t recommend them unless you’re utterly desperate, or a good shot.
Tatty dying foliage
After your bulbs have flowered, don’t remove their leaves while they’re still green; let them die back naturally. Bulbs gain their strength from their foliage, helping them grow and produce new flowers next year. Photosynthesis continues for weeks after the flowers die and is vital to the following year’s flowers. Dying foliage can be hidden (bulb leaves never die off prettily) with low spreading plants, like geraniums, alchemilla mollis, forget-me-nots or wallflowers as companions, which will grow up and cover the leaves. Grow smaller narcissi like ‘Tete a Tete’ or ‘Thalia’ in borders, as the huge ‘King Alfred’ style daffodils, have lots of foliage that flops about looking unsightly, (or stands neatly tied up in a knot, but looking just as unsightly) once the majestic flower has finished.
Every year I think that perhaps I have enough bulbs, and then I remember how unreliable some of the most gorgeous tulips are and how I don’t grow that indestructible red one (it’s just a bit too tall and, well, red), and then the catalogues arrive and after that, strangely, it seems that I definitely need just a few more… oh hang it, let’s get out there and plant a spring spectacular.
For a natural effect, throw handfuls of bulbs about at random, and then plant them where they land
After your bulbs have flowered, don’t remove their leaves while they’re still green; let them die back naturally. Bulbs gain their strength from their foliage, helping them grow and produce new flowers next year
- words: Jo Arnell
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