Put some spring in your garden
20 September 2019
“She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
"Winter is dead.”
“Daffodowndilly” - A. A. Milne
The first of January is my favourite day of the year. Not because I am a complete Grinch and happy to have the silly season behind me (well maybe a little), but because the start of the new year brings with it the promise of spring. No matter the weather we have passed the summit of the hill of winter and can look forward to the milder, lighter days of spring, before the balmy days of summer. Those tiny green shoots valiantly pushing through the frosty soil bring with them the promise of colour, and some of the loveliest, most diverse and fascinating plants. To have a garden without at least some spring flowers is like having a fine meal without a starter; ultimately enjoyable but with the feeling that something was missing. Whether an impressive display of swathes of hundreds of tulips or a single pot of daffodils, everyone can bring a bit of spring cheer into their garden and now is the perfect time to start planning.
What to plant
There are an infinite variety of spring bulbs in a range of colours but choosing those that are right for your space will ensure a successful display. The majority of bulbs like well-drained soil and can rot if too wet. Exceptions are Fritillaria and Camassia. Whether your plot is sunny or shady will also determine what you can grow. Tulips do best in full sun, where as Narcissus provide cultivars for sun or shade. Muscari, Galanthus, Anemone nemorosa and Chionodoxa all take shade and look fantastic planted in groups around the base of trees and shrubs. If unsure about the best bulbs for your garden, check with your supplier or on a reputable website, such as the RHS.
Left: Iris reticulata 'Harmony' contrasts well with this green pot and creates some interest under a deciduous shrub.
How to plant
Plant your bulbs according to the effect you wish to achieve. If you are after a very geometric look, you may wish to plant them in blocks or rows. A more natural look can be achieved by weaving taller varieties, such as Tulips, Alliums and Narcissus, through other plants. There are plenty of resources online to help with planting density for the look you wish to create. Smaller bulbs are best planted in clumps and some are particularly good for naturalising in grass. Crocus, Galanthus, and some of the smaller varieties of Narcissus and Tulip create a beautiful carpet, and some taller varieties of Narcissus and Camassia create a striking effect in a natural grass area. If you are lucky enough to have trees and shade, it is hard to resist the beautiful impact that a mass planting of English Bluebells will provide.
Above: Block planting of a single variety of Allium makes a striking display, while a natural carpet of Bluebells contrasts well with the emerging tree foliage.
Planting depth is extremely important to ensure bulbs thrive and return year after year so always check. As a general rule the larger the bulb, the deeper it needs to be. Use a bulb planter to help or, if planting in large groups, dig a wide hole to the right depth. Some horticultural grit can be added at the time of planting if your soil is more prone to moisture. Bulbs contain everything they need to grow but you can give them a boost when planting with a product containing mycorrhizal fungi, such as Empathy Bulb Starter. Planting can take place between September and December. If planting Tulips, wait until November to avoid the disease Tulip Fire.
Always buy bulbs from a reputable supplier. You really do get what you pay for and the flowering rate of cheaper bulbs can be unreliable. Ideally plant within a week of buying them. Plant with the pointed end up but even if you get this wrong, bulbs have an amazing ability to find their way to the light. Some bulbs, such as Snowdrops, do best when planted in the green. This means transplanting them after they have finished flowering.
Try mixing bulbs with other plants, such as Tiarella, Astrantia, Geranium, Digitalis, Bergenia, Hellebores and Heuchera. Other plants can also help disguise the dying foliage.
Bulbs in containers are a relatively inexpensive way of adding some seasonal colour to your garden. You may want to put a single type in small pots and group them together or have a large mixed container. My favourite option is a bulb lasagne. This is where you plant layers of bulbs with different flowering times to provide a display over several months. Later, larger bulbs such as Tulips go at the bottom, slightly earlier bulbs such as Hyacinths in the middle, and smaller Crocus or Muscari on the top. Make sure your containers have good drainage. I usually top dress with some gravel, which looks neater while your waiting for the foliage to emerge. The results can be stunning and it is a great way to experiment with colours and combinations. Try matching or contrasting them with your hard landscaping, front door or a piece of furniture. When the whole display is finished, rather than throw the bulbs away I take them out and pop them in my garden beds. Many have taken well and continue to provide flowers each spring.
Left: Remember that some bulbs, such as Narcissus, are toxic to dogs. Always check and take care if you have a digger and nibbler.
Right: A bulb lasagne gives a long lasting display, and mixed size pots of single varieties contrast well with the bench.
If possible deadhead after flowering to prevent wasted energy but do not trim the foliage. It must be allowed to die back naturally, which puts the energy back into the bulb to make it stronger for the following year. If bulbs are in grass, wait until the foliage has died down before mowing.
Bulbs have many different cultivars to flower in different months. Use the chart below as a guide and have fun creating your own sensational spring displays.