Growing summer bulbs

by Adam Pasco

It won't be long before daffodils, tulips and hyacinths signal the arrival of spring, but if we want summer and autumn to provide similar displays we have to start planning and planting now.

Adam Pasco holding a pot of Eucomis in flowerIt won’t be long before daffodils, tulips, fragrant hyacinths and a host of other colourful flowers signal the arrival of spring, but if we want summer and autumn to provide similar displays we have to start planning and planting now.

That’s the thing about gardening: it's important to always remain one step ahead. If you don’t sow it or plant it then you can’t pick it or enjoy its blooms.

I’m always keen to find bulbs that deliver real value for money. Some varieties have a really short flowering season – too short to offer value in my book. What I want is a display that lasts for as long as possible, and for longevity the pineapple flower, Eucomis, is hard to beat. Many different varieties are available, particularly from mail order suppliers, but all produce attractive rosettes of foliage, stunning heads of flower, and seed heads that look great well into autumn. They’re also reliable and particularly trouble-free.

Dahlias are also valuable, developing more and more flowers as the season progresses. They also provide great cut flowers, or just simply take a single flower and float it in a glass bowl of water as a simple table decoration.

Another favourite is Tulbaghia, and in particular a variety called ‘Silver Lace’ with silvery-white stripes down the edges of green strap-like leaves. Like so many summer bulbs, tulbaghia is a native of South Africa. This means it isn’t completely hardy, so is best grown in pots and provided with some winter protection.

Eucomis originate in South Africa, too, but many are remarkably hardy. Some have even self-seeded in my garden, although whether they’ve survived last winter I’ve yet to see. So much depends on the altitude from which they originate, I believe, with those coming from higher altitudes being far hardier.

Another trick when growing them in the garden is to plant deeply – perhaps 20cm or more down – so that they’ll get through winter without being frozen. You can often do the same with dahlias and gladioli, perhaps with just a mulch over the top to provide additional insulation.

I’m not dismissing summer bulbs with a shorter season of interest like lilies, galtonia and liatris. They all have a place to provide a real ‘hit’ of colour for a short period, but then need to be replaced by something else. And so for me this makes them a perfect choice for planting directly into pots over the coming weeks. They can be grown on in the wings and brought centre stage for their summer performance, and then moved away to make room for something more stunning.

For more inspiration there’s a great feature called ‘Get set for Summer Bulbs’ by Toby Buckland in the February issue of Gardeners’ World magazine, including advice on planting gladioli to provide 100 days of flowers.

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Talkback: Growing summer bulbs
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Gardeners' World Web User 07/02/2011 at 15:05

I've just received my Polianthes tuberosa bulbs -20 of them- which I will plant in four big pots to give me a line of wonderfully scented flowers for the summer. In between seeing to the summer months to come, I am planting snowdrops, anemones and Tulipa tarda in the green and reveling in the thought of joys to come as I notice, while doing so, that my beautiful peonies have two inch sprouts showing. The most beautiful thing in my garden today? Iris unguilaris,which is taller than the reticulata irises but not as tall as the summer ones and is a lovely soft blue colour. I've come to the conclusion the only quiet time in the garden is when it is under snow!

Gardeners' World Web User 07/02/2011 at 15:35

When is the best time to plant dahlias and is it a good idea to start Dahlias off first in pots or plant them straight in the ground.

Gardeners' World Web User 07/02/2011 at 19:26

Do any of the spring bulbs provide a good sources of nectar for bumblebees?

Gardeners' World Web User 09/02/2011 at 16:39

Had a lovely day yesterday in Somerset photographing snowdrops at East Lambrook and at Avon Bulbs... great to feel the sun on your back and see the flowers at last!

Gardeners' World Web User 11/02/2011 at 09:03

Reply to honestgreengrass: Yes, I think many spring bulbs provide food for bees. I enjoyed watching a large bee (not a bumblebee) feeding from crocus last spring, and covering itself with yellow pollen in the process. So while I have seen bees feeding from spring bulbs I haven't specifically seen bumblebees feeding. Not sure if anyone else has.

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