B is for Bulbs :: A to Z of Gardens

Daffodil bulbsPlanting spring bulbs is a pure act of gardening optimism. I feel a wonderful sense of anticipation when I plant bulbs, of seeing those first bright green shoots pushing upwards through the chilly, brown soil in late winter. That sight is one I look forward to every year. It’s a reminder that spring is coming. It provides a welcome boost to my mood after I’ve endured too many short, dark days indoors. Late winter is a time when my depression can rear its ugly head. The excitement of Christmas and New Year is well over, but the weather is still drab and it’s too cold to be outside for long. And let’s not forget the dramatic drop in Vitamin D that this lack of sun exposure causes. For someone who grew up in the tropics, January in England sometimes feels like torture.

But then, up pop the snowdrops. These neat, white flowers really lift my spirit. They shine like little beacons in a dank, damp winter garden. Bulbs essentially work as anti-depressants for me. A couple of years ago, when I was going through a particularly black time, I took a trip to Walsingham Abbey in north Norfolk to walk through the snowdrops. It didn’t cure my depression, of course, but it definitely made a dent in it. Maybe the effect will not be as dramatic for you, but the sight of a gleaming new flower in deepest winter can only be cheering. And it’s now the time of year to buy and plant your spring bulbs.

Tips for buying bulbs

  • Bulbs can be bought as cheap as chips if you look in the right places. I find the best value bulbs come from Wilkinsons, supermarkets or DIY stores like Homebase. Bear in mind that you will have a greater choice if you shop in a garden centre or nursery.
  • Check the bulbs carefully before you buy them, and make sure none of them are squishy or obviously mouldy.
  • Read the packet! Buy the right bulbs for the right place in your garden. Choose alliums for a bright, sunny border, and wood anemones or aconites for dappled shade under deciduous trees and shrubs.
  • Buy a range of different bulbs to ensure your display goes on from late winter to late summer, with one kind of bulb following on from another. If you buy snowdrops, daffodils, crocuses, irises, tulips, hyacinths and alliums (pompom and drumstick kinds), you could have flowers from January through to August.
  • If you’re buying bulbs for a specific garden border, consider your colour scheme and flowering times. Alternatively, a ready-made, colour-coordinated bulb collection can be bought in many shops for as little as £5-10.

How to plant bulbs

  • To achieve a naturalistic look when planting bulbs in the lawn, scatter your bulbs and then plant them where they land. I’ll be planting crocuses this month, and plan to simply lift squares of turf, scatter the bulbs and then lay the grass back down.
  • For larger bulbs, use a bulb planting tool. This removes a plug of turf and soil, so you can put the bulb in bottom of the hole. Then when you make the next hole, the plug is pushed up out of the top of the tool, and can be replaced in the first hole.
  • When I’m planting in the borders, I tend to just use a pointy trowel or dibber, depending on the size of the bulb.
  • Always plant bulbs with the pointy end up and rooty bit down! (This can be tricky with really tiny bulbs, so do your best but don’t worry too much, as the shoot will naturally grow towards the surface.)
  • As a rule of thumb, plant them at least twice as deep as the size of the bulb, i.e. if your bulb is 2 inches tall, then plant it 4 inches deep, measured from the top of the bulb. But always check the packet as there will be some exceptions.
  • Finally, mark where you’ve planted any bulbs in the borders, so you don’t accidentally chop them with a spade when you’re digging later. I tend to pop some pebbles over the soil or push a short cane in.

My Favourite Spring Bulbs

  • Tulips – I prefer classic, single tulips, like the almost black ‘Queen of night’ and peachy-orange ‘Prinses Irene’, over the more fancy doubles and frilly parrot tulips. This year, I’ll be planting a tall, coral-pink tulip called ‘Menton’ in a new border. Wait until October to plant tulips, to avoid soil-borne fungal diseases.
  • Daffodils – I know some people are not keen on daffodils and consider them a bit garish. The bog-standard yellow daffs are certainly not a subtle flower, but their bright, sunny flowers sing out to me in spring. There are prettier, more delicate varieties out there. Try narcissus ‘Paperwhite’ or the creamy, primrose yellow ‘Hawera’ if you think you don’t like daffodils. Pack lots of one variety into a container so you have a mass of flowers in spring. You might change your mind.
  • Crocus – I always enjoy seeing the stubby purple, yellow and white flowers covering the grass verges on Earlham Road in Norwich, every spring. These have been on my wishlist for a couple of years, and I’ve just bought two packs of specie crocus to put into my back lawn. I’m hoping they will naturalise and spread.
  • Snowdrops – If you have a woodland area in your garden (by which I mean just a space under some trees) you should definitely plant snowdrops. They’re the first spring bulbs to flower and if they’re happy, they will self-seed freely.
  • Snake’s Head Fritillaries – I’ve loved these since I first saw them. The pattern on the petals is just like snake skin and the flower heads seem so fragile, bobbing on top of delicate stems and leaves. I first planted them in a border but they got rather lost among the other plants, and I now think they’re best grown in grass. They like moist conditions.
  • Iris Reticulata (Dutch Iris) – These were new to me last year, bought as part of a bulb collection. I love the open form and texture of the flower, and their bold colours. They flower in February to March.
  • Alliums – These are my absolute favourite bulbs for borders. There are so many varieties, you can have some in flower throughout the whole spring and summer. Their flower form is irresistable, ranging from huge, starry pompoms to tiny, firework-like flower bursts to dense, fuzzy drumsticks. They can be white, pale lilac or pink, blue, deep purple or rich magenta. And the spent flowers look quite beautiful as they dry out. I usually leave them in the borders until they literally fall over. You must try ‘Purple Sensation’, ‘Sphaerocephalon’ and ‘Globemaster’.

So go on. Plant some bulbs and give yourself something to look forward to.

Bulbs in potsSnowdrops

Snowdrops at Walsingham Abbey Grounds and Garden, Norfolk, January 2013.