Jo Arnell gets ahead of the bulb game with fuss-free picks for every part of the garden
I had an aunt who, as soon as the longest day was over, would start talking about Christmas. ‘The nights are drawing in’ she would say before we’d even broken up for the summer holidays. It feels a bit like that talking about bulbs right now, as if I’m wishing the rest of the summer away and heading straight into the squirrelling months of autumn. It seems weird to be preparing for next year already. But, just as the seed catalogues thud through the letter box in January, when it’s far too cold and dark to sow seed, so the bulb books arrive in July, when preparing for a spring spectacular is far from our minds. I am not usually drawn into placing early orders for bulbs, but this year, for varied reasons, there may be glitches in the supply, so it might pay to start thinking early.
We tend to lump all the spring bulbs together, so that – in our minds – and in the garden centres, there is a happy throng of glorious colour that just needs to be planted in the ground in the autumn for a guaranteed show the following year. Most of the time this will work – in the first year at least. Bulbs are forgiving little packages of squashed up stem, leaf and flower, primed by their breeders to not need much more than a bit of a substrate and water to get them to grow and bloom.
We tend to lump all the spring bulbs together, so that – in our minds – and in the garden centres, there is a happy throng of glorious colour that just needs to be planted in the ground in the autumn for a guaranteed show the following year. Most of the time this will work – in the first year at least. Bulbs are forgiving little packages of squashed up stem, leaf and flower, primed by their breeders to not need much more than a bit of a substrate and water to get them to grow and bloom. In fact many of the forced bulbs, like prepared Hyacinths and Paperwhites, will happily do so in a slim necked vase of water. It is magical to watch them grow roots and unfurl before our eyes, shooting up to bloom and cheer us in the darkest, shortest days. This is fine for a short term fix – they are treated like a cut flower that we grow ourselves – and then, if we remember, planted outside somewhere to flower again. If we want our outdoor show to be reliable and continue performing well, it helps to know that not all bulbs are the same. They are often from different environments, even from opposite parts of the world. If you are planting your bulbs directly into the ground, rather than in pots and want them to thrive, then it’s worth thinking about the conditions they need.
All bulbs have evolved to cope with situations that are tricky for part of the year. It is hard to hang on in there if there’s no rain, or if you are plunged into shade for eight months of the year. These clever plants are able to make the most of early spring rains or the brief time when the trees have no leaves, by popping up and flowering in a rush. When the conditions change they are able to retreat back under the ground, put themselves into storage and wait for their moment to return. The thing to remember is which type of impossible growing conditions they are trying to avoid – heat and drought, or extreme shade.
Woodlands, meadows or mountains
Woodland bulbs have timed their flowering to coincide with the cycles in deciduous forests and woods. They will often be the earliest to flower, shooting into growth before the dense canopy of leaves starts to grow over them and block out their light. They will prefer to grow in humus rich soil, in semi-shade and won’t mind the dampness of the winter. The woodlanders are also good at naturalising – spreading out in a carpet between the trees. Snowdrops, bluebells, dog’s toot violets, and wood anemones are found in these situations. They do not like to dry out, which is why you often see them for sale ‘in the green’, so that they can be planted straight after they flower.
Meadow dwellers, such as narcissi and crocus will happily naturalise in grassy areas. These will grow almost anywhere, but Snake’s Head Fritillaries and the later flowering Camassias appreciate a damp meadow, and won’t mind areas of cold wet clay. Bulbs from more arid places will rot in such conditions, which partly explains why tulips – originally from mountainous regions in Turkey and Iran where summers are hot and dry, find it hard to keep going. Tulips need a sunny and very free draining position and will not enjoy sitting through the winter with wet, soggy bottoms (I’m with them there).
Bulbs will always perform when first bought, but plant them fairly deeply to ensure that they flower well. After their first season it’s up to the prevailing conditions and the care they receive to ensure that they keep on flowering. Dead-head to stop them wasting energy making seed and let the leaves die back naturally so that they can build up strength for the following year. Sadly this does mean mowing around naturalised bulbs in areas of grass, not ‘tidying’ them up into knots
Tulips can’t always be trusted to come back into bloom each year. After flowering many types tend to split and then take a while to bulk up again. Darwin hybrids are fairly reliable, and as a general rule, the closer you are to the species, the more perennial they are and these seem to be less prone to viruses too. The worst disease affecting tulips 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 – as late as the beginning of January has been known without any ill effects. That way the cold weather should kill off any spores before the bulbs go in.
Bulbs in borders
Because of the small amount of space bulbs take up when they’re dormant, they are very useful in borders, especially those that need to look good all through the year, or in small spaces. Winter and spring bulbs ‘disappear’ and make way for annuals and bedding plants, or are covered by the growth of new perennials so that their dying foliage is hidden from view. If you (like me) are often digging about in the border and moving plants around, it is a good idea to grow your border bulbs in groups, as sprinkling them all through the space could mean that you inadvertently slice through quite a few with spade or fork. To avoid this – and the sight of dying bulb foliage, you could then lift the whole lot (and either heel in somewhere, or dry, ready to plant out again in the autumn). The same space can then be used for summer flowering plants.
Spring bulbs are the mainstay of pots and containers and work well on their own or mixed in with other plants. You can prolong the performance of a container by layering the bulbs like a lasagne within the pot. Start with the later flowering and biggest, and place them in the middle of a pot half filled with compost, then add some more compost and another layer of bulbs that flower slightly earlier than the first lot, add some more compost and then a final layer of small early bulbs to start the show. In theory you should get flowers all through the spring. In practice, the pot can get a bit choked with leaves, so you may have to perform a cardinal sin and cut a few off, or choose varieties that aren’t too leafy.
I am a fan of bulbs in containers, as they are easy to move out of the way once the flowers have finished and can then die back out of sight behind the shed or somewhere out of sight. Depending on how many pots I have available, I then either leave them until next year (you will need to feed them if you do this) or lift and plant somewhere in the garden. If I’m feeling organised I’ll plant up a plastic pot with bulbs and wedge it inside another container, then lift the plastic pot out when the bulbs have finished. This means that the container is instantly ready for some summer bedding and the bulbs can die back undisturbed. It does mean that the back of the shed can get a bit crowded – and a bit depressing with all the fading foliage.
So while I’m definitely not ready to talk about Christmas, and I definitely can’t face up to the fact that the nights are starting to draw in, it’s never too early think about spring flowers. Let’s start planning a splurge for next year’s bulb display.
For details of Jo’s design courses visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk or contact Jo on 01233 861149
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