Eight things you need to know about growing spring bulbs
Greg Loades reveals what to do over the winter months to guarantee a beautiful display of spring bulbs next year
If your garden in spring has the welcome sight of loud and colourful tulips brightening the place up, then it can feel like an exciting place to be again after the inevitable dull, wet moments of winter. For me, the main feeling is relief. Relief that I actually remembered to plant some. Bulb planting in autumn is one of those jobs that we can have in our minds to do, then before you know it it’s a last minute scramble to find the last bag in the shop, hidden away in a corner to make way for inflatable snowmen and reindeer stuffed to the gunnels with LEDs.
Even when I’m organised, each spring I always wish I’d grown more. Perhaps there is no other group of plants that look as good in repetition as spring bulbs. They are the garden’s very own Pringles. Once you get a taste for them, you can never seem to have enough…
More spring bulb advice:
When it comes to buying bulbs, nothing beats selecting the bulbs by hand, which means buying them from a nursery or garden centre that sells them loose rather than in bags. It’s a bit like buying oranges. If I had a pound for every net of oranges I’ve casually chucked in my trolley, only to find when I get home that some are mushy, I’d probably have enough to buy an orangery of my own. So it is with bulbs. It pays to make sure that any soft bulbs that have a bit of ‘give’ in them, don’t end up in your garden. Choose the biggest, firmest bulbs and they will do so much of the hard work for you.
Making a layered pot of spring bulbs
In a small space, ‘layering up’ your pots by planting three layers of bulbs in the same container gives the chance to still enjoy lots of different flowers. Choose carefully and you can have a pot that is full of flowers from the end of February to well into April. The great thing about bulbs is they are very grown up: even when sharing a lot of space with others at close quarters, they just get on with it and sort themselves out. You can cram them in (close but not touching) and they’ll all find a way to push out their shoots and show off the flowers without it looking messy. A few timely tips:
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- Use a pot at least 30cm wide and deep and start with the biggest bulbs at the bottom, getting smaller as you get to the top. A bottom layer of tulips, followed by daffodils and crocus is a classic layered bulb container planting.
- Plant the first layer of bulbs on top of a 10cm layer of compost, with a handful of grit mixed in. Cover each bulb with a layer of compost equal to two and a half times the height of the bulb.
- Add some winter interest plants on top while you wait for the bulbs to shoot. Try winter pansies, cyclamen or ivy.
Below, Rosie Yeomans shows you how to create a layered bulb display with crocus, daffodils and alliums.
Better late than early for tulips!
The good thing about tulips is that they are far more likely to grow well if you plant them late, (music to my ears!), waiting until November before planting any. They dislike wet and want to live life in the fast line, so the shorter the time they are in the soil before flowering, the better. Planting late also increases the chance of fungal spores being killed off.
A shady solution for grass
With an incredible list of common names (although how ‘common’ some of them are has to be debatable!) Fritillaria meleagris has long been a source of intrigue. Take your pick from: guinea flower, leper lily, snakeshead lily, snake's head fritillary, frog cup, chess flower and Lazarus bells. Whatever you decide to call it, plant them in a damp, shady spot in grass and there’s a good chance that you’ll just want to call them ‘beautiful’!
Bulbs in the lawn
I seem to spend half my life telling children not to throw things but for once, they have a chance to do their thing and help the garden grow! The best way to make a display of bulbs in grass look natural is to throw handfuls of them across the lawn indiscriminately and plant them where they land. As long as one doesn’t land in a bird bath or on top of the greenhouse. The other thing to do to make the display look wild and ‘at home’ in the surroundings is to stick to just one type, of one type of bulb. A jumble of different bulbs can look an almighty mess, like an experiment gone wrong.
Outwitting hungry squirrels!
Try explaining to a young child that that cute, furry, grey-coated friend with the bushy tail that looks so cheerful in autumn is actually plotting the devastation of your beloved bulbs come the end of winter! Perhaps akin to freshly ground coffee in the morning, there’s something about the smell of tulips and crocus bulbs that springs a squirrel into action! To stop them digging up your beloved bulbs, trying to mask the smell by sprinkling chilli powder on the soil when it starts to warm up at the end of winter can be effective, along with covering the soil around planted bulbs with other plants or adding prickly prunings to the surface.
Planting crocus bulbs in pots will give early-emerging bees vital access to nectar and pollen early next year as they start to come out of hibernation. Varieties of Crocus chrysanthus are easy to grow, and start flowering in February. Make sure you move the pots into full sun as the bulbs start to show signs of life, so the bees can forage in warmth. They may even sleep in the flowers because they close at night.
Don't feed them now
There's no need to spend money on extra fertiliser for your bulbs at this time of year. Freshly planted bulbs don’t need any extra food now, rather just enough water to make sure that the compost doesn’t completely dry out at any stage. Feed bulbs after flowering but when the plants are still in green leaf, using a high potash liquid food (comfrey food will do the job) once a week until leaves die down, to encourage good flowering in the following spring.
Did you know?
- The Romans are believed to have brought daffodils to the UK because they believed that the sap could heal wounds. The sap of daffodils actually contains calcium oxalate crystals that can cause irritant contact dermatitis. The sap can also be detrimental to other plants in a vase of cut flowers, so it's wise to be careful what you pair cut daffodils with.
- In 1637, at the height of ‘tulipmania’ in the Netherlands, a single bulb of the white and red striped tulip ‘Semper Augustus’ was worth 10,000 guilders, enough to buy a grand home in Amsterdam. Food for thought for the next time I complain about the price of bulbs at the garden centre!