When a garden is designed, the advice is to start with Winter and think about the features that will provide a display. Dogwoods are favoured for their striking naked stems and Viburnums (tinus and bodnantense), Mahonias and Ericas for their flowers. Bulbs tend to be thought about, not so much in the planning stage of a garden, but rather as the autumn and winter months approach. There is a panic about colour and the potential lack of it during the dark cold months ahead. It cannot be denied that bulbs, these fascinating specimens of self-sufficiency, will provide a solution, be it as a woodland carpet, upright flowering stems in formal borders, in alpine gardens, outdoor pots, indoor displays or as cut flowers.
What is a bulb?
For simplicity, gardeners tend to refer collectively to corms, tubers and bulbs as “bulbs”. They are the prime example of vegetative reproduction, essentially growing a new plant from some part of an old plant. The other horticultural term of great significance in the case of bulbs is perennation – the ability to store food and survive from it over Winter. These are the original energy-saving bulbs. The fat bit around the base of a bulb is the compact stem, and the fleshy scales that it supports that enclose the reproductive parts are the leaves. It is within the leaves that the food (in the form of starch) is stored for overwintering.
Selecting and Buying bulbs
Bulbs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Alliums are very large, providing a clear indication of their close relationship with onions. Daffodils (narcissi) are almost as big, Hyacinths and Tulips are a little less mighty, and crocuses, snowdrops and cyclamen can all be planted as smaller forms. Be sure to plant cyclamen bulbs the right way up, as it can be difficult to the inexperienced eye! When selecting bulbs, ensure your selection provides something of a display throughout the seasons. Bulbs should be firm and healthy-looking, with no cuts to the surface. If any stems are visible at the top they should be short and thick, otherwise it is too late to plant them for a strong stem to emerge. Ideally buy then when you are ready to plant. Store them for no more than a week (two at the absolute most) in a cool, airy, frost-free position that is not in direct sunlight. Remember that some bulbs are not mature or strong enough to flower in their first year so be patient with your selection. There are two exceptions to mention. Snowdrops and Cyclamen dry out quickly as bulbs. Ideally purchase snowdrops after they have flowered, when they still have foliage. The cyclamens should be in pots. In terms of flowering period, the obvious choice for Winter is the snowdrop (Galanthus). You should also consider Chionodoxa luciliae which is a low-growing, prolific seeder that is a good competitor against most weeds and can provide a glorious carpet of starry white and blue blossom given the right conditions. Associated with Spring are daffodils, and there are dozens and dozens of varieties. There are double-flowered kinds such as ‘Irene Copeland’ and if you like daffodils with yellow and white flowerheads, the butterfly-shaped centres of ‘Love Call’ and ‘Tricolet’ are a joy. There are daffodils that will flower later, providing a display through to the summer. Crocuses and tulips are the other staples. Crocus chrysanthus provides a variety of colours and many start to flower earlier than spring. Tulipa clusianna provides a beautiful contrast of pink and white. Irises and alliums are the more common Summer-flowering bulbs, and Allium giganteum can be really impressive in a mixed border, providing height and structure. The seed-heads dry well for indoor displays. If you are clever with your selection, you will have bulbs flowering in Autumn, when most others are only thinking about what to purchase for the Winter. Colchicum, confused frequently with autumn crocuses, are referred to as naked ladies because they produce their flowers before their foliage. Colchicum speciosum is the most widely found in gardens, predominantly the lilac-flowered variety. My favourite at this time of year is Nerine bowdenii. I couldn’t write about bulbs without mentioning fritillaries. They require a little extra care when planting, but they are worth the effort. The bulb scales are damaged if exposed for too long and they should be planted with a layer of grit underneath them so the bulb base does not become soggy, but Fritillaria meleagris (snakeshead lily) is one of the most delicate, pretty-looking flowers of late-spring/early-summer. They aren’t as impressive as a mixed selection, so try groups on their own. Selections could include ‘Charon’ (deep-purple), ‘Aphrodite’ (white) and ‘Poseidon’ (soft-rose purple).
As with and kind of planting preparation, make sure your soil conditions are suitable. Bulbs like well-drained, humus-rich soil so if you do not have that, then improve it. It’s important to plant bulbs at the right depth so follow the planting instructions closely. If you do not have them to hand, you won’t go far wrong if you plant each bulb at least twice the depth of its size and space them about twice their width apart. Push the base of the bulb into the soil so that the roots make contact. I first heard the advice of scattering bulbs that are to be naturalised from watching Monty Don. He advised that you plant them where they fall, and I wouldn’t argue with that. Bulbs are not always planted underground. Cyclamens are a good example of this.
Once the bulbs have finished flowering, give them a foliar feed and leave the foliage to die back naturally. When the leaf swords turn yellowish-brown, the leaves have finished photosynthesising to feed the bulb for the following year and if you don’t cut the foliage back then you are asking the bulb to carry on working when it should be resting. You are then sacrificing the quality of next year’s flower. Recently on Gardener’s World, I watched Monty Don scrub away the small bit of foliage left visible above ground after he had cut back the main leaf blades. He said the remaining bit of visible foliage could provide a nesting bed for grubs. It seems sensible to follow his advice. Do not tie up the foliage. If you do, then not enough leaf blade is showing for sufficient photosynthesis activity to occur. Remember that nature has a way of working these things out by itself.
September is the best time to prepare a display of indoor bulbs, ready to flower for Christmas. Crocuses, hyacinths and daffodils can all be planted in a shallow bowl of bulb fibre. Water the fibre and wrap the bowl in newspaper and place it in a cool, dark, airy space until November/December. Hyacinths will grow in just water if you purchase a hyacinth vase, but make sure the bottom of the bulb stays dry or it will rot. If you have planted cyclamens outdoors in pots, they can be brought back inside. Poinsettias need 14 hours of darkness to produce their flower buds, so find them a special place to rest.
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