Bulbs are everywhere at the moment, in the garden centre, the market, supermarkets and online. I’m going to grab them now while the stock is new and fresh and set my garden up for spring and beyond. I wised up to bulbs last year, investing in big bagfuls of tulips, narcissi and alliums and taking time to learn how to plant them properly. I was rewarded all through the spring and summer, starting with sweet shop coloured crocus in blues and golds, cheery daffs, pale narcissi, then wine dark tulips. In the summer, I had purple pom pom headed alliums and giant fragrant white lilies. It’s a really cost effective way of filling borders and pots, and it doesn’t require a lot of know-how to gain spectacular results.
One of my last spring’s success stories (above).
There are some truly gorgeous options out there. Sit and have a think about what colours you want to go for, and where you’ll plant them. Sticking to a limited palette looks effective, whether you prefer hot brights, exotic darks or pale tones. Also consider how you can get a succession of flowers popping up through the season by working out what flowers when. If, like me, you’re considering moving house, or you’re in rented accommodation, then pots are the answer – and bulbs love them, so you don’t have to miss out.
Where to buy
Mail order is very simple and convenient. I really like http:/www.bakker.com for multi buy bulbs at very reasonable prices. There are always fresh and interesting ideas to try from this company. New this year are their ombre grape hyacinths. Called ‘Night Eyes’ the tiny round flowers descend in shades of sky blue to rich indigo. They will flower from March to May, but the little green shoots start poking through early, a welcome sight when there’s not much doing in the garden during January and February. The bulbs cost £5.99 for 20.
‘Night Eyes’ grape hyacinth by Bakker
Also at Bakker, I’m intrigued by the new Bulls Eye double tulip, which has a red eye framed in green petals. These are £9.95 for five, and might work well by a door or on the patio where they make real impact. Equally striking is ‘Texas Flame’ (below).
For inspiration, I sit and drool over the Sarah Raven catalogue and I love her tips and hints for putting together delicious colour combinations. http://www.sarahraven.com
I’ll also pop some bulbs in my trolley at Morrisons and Wilko, but be quick, they sell out fast and the shelves were empty at both of my local branches this week.
Photo: Flower Council of Holland (a website full of great plant advice).
Ideally, you need to plant bulbs by the end of November. Tulips can handle going in a little bit later if the ground isn’t frozen, so don’t panic if you haven’t got them all underground by the deadline. They’re amazingly resilient. I confess that I found some forgotten lily bulbs stuffed in a shed in February. They didn’t look too healthy, but I put them in a pot with some rich compost, forgot about them – and got a knock-your-socks off display in July.
How to plant
Avoid straight lines and go for a group. This looks much more natural. Don’t stint on quantities either. You can buy a bag of 60 bulbs for under £12, so it’s not going to break the bank. Dig a large hole and group some together rather than planting individually. Opt for a space 20 by 30 cm for six to eight bulbs. As a general rule of thumb, plant them three times their own depth in the soil. Remember that the pointy end goes upwards, the little tangle of roots points down. Replace the soil and press down. Mark the spot where you’ve planted them so you don’t accidentally crush the first tender shoots.
If you’re going for pots, line them with bubble wrap for extra frost protection, and add a layer of grit at the bottom. Fill with potting compost, water with a full can, and let the magic begin.
Tips and tricks
- If you struggle with wildlife digging up your bulbs (squirrels are prime culprits and they love tulips), go for a bulb that will take deeper planting. Crocus ‘Pickwick’ is one example. Or opt for daffodils, which squirrels avoid. They should also steer clear of Siberian Iris and alliums. For a natural repellent, try sprinkling some chilli flakes on top of your planted pots or borders.
- Think carefully about colour combinations for the prettiest pots. Old terracotta looks fabulous with blue hyacinths and grape hyacinths (muscari). Zinc looks chic with dark blooms such as purple black tulips (Queen of the Night are the classic variety), or an all white scheme. Put snowdrops in old enamel containers, or create a zingy pop of colour by combining blue with orange (tulips and grape hyacinths, for example).
- Bulbs often need to be refreshed each season. Many will come back – my alliums never let me down, for example, but tulips are trickier and you may need to replenish them annually.
Think beyond spring. You can buy bulbs for all seasons! Illustration: Fiona Cumberpatch
Bring the outside in
Finally, when winter comes around, don’t forget to bring some bulbs inside for extra cheer. They will enjoy a burst of glory in your home, and then you can plant them out afterwards. Here are some of my favourites from last year.I used vintage terracotta pots and a jelly mould from a car boot sale for planters for these muscari, paperwhites and crocus.A plain pudding bowl made a pretty temporary home for these scented paperwhites.
I loved the old zinc bucket with the blue muscari. Once they’d passed their best, I planted them out in a border.