A bulb is for life, not just for Christmas
It’s bulb-planting season and after telling us how she learned to love the orangey hues of Autumn, Annie Frost, owner of Gorsty House in Powys, shares her top tips for planting bulbs to create a Spring full of joy.
I love bulbs, and plant them in their thousands. It sounds a lot, but when you garden on a couple of acres, believe me, it doesn’t go far. You can have a bulb in flower at practically any time of the year. You put them in and off they go, increasing year on year, and justifying every penny spent on them. There is an obvious exception to this, but for now, let’s just admire their tenacity. Autumn is the main planting time, and if you follow a few simple rules, success is guaranteed. So here are a few tips to help you on the way to a lifetime of horticultural joy with minimum effort.
1.Buy in quantity. On the whole, bulbs can be bought cheaply enough (with some glorious specialist exceptions), but if you want a glorious display of daffodils, you can pick them up in quantity quite easily. I usually buy online from specialist suppliers, but you’ll find them in local garden centres and many supermarkets. When buying bulbs, check that they are a decent size, and most importantly, firm. If they are soft and showing signs of mould, don’t buy them. But if you’re happy with the quality, buy as many as you can afford. The return is well worth the investment.
2. Plant in drifts. It’s tempting to dot bulbs about, but for impact, a large patch will draw the eye. The way to plant is to throw the bulbs on the ground, and plant them where they fall. If the ground is uneven and a dozen bulbs fall into a two inch dip, then use your discretion, but try to remember that nature doesn’t plant in rows.
3. Make sure your bulbs are planted the right way up. This may sound obvious, and you’re unlikely to plant a daffodil upside down, but with smaller bulbs, it’s worth taking the time to check. Allium spheracephalon, for example, will require concentration, while Anemone blanda will need your undivided attention. Bulbs will work their way into position (no, I’ve no idea how), but being planted upside down tends to give them an insurmountable and life-threatening problem. If in doubt, plant the bulb on its side. This is sound advice in any case when planting large fritillaries (Fritillaria imperialis and F. persica, for example). The bulbs usually have an open top, and if water gets in, they are prone to rot, so planting them on their side reduces the likelihood of them disappearing in their first year.
4. Bulbs should be planted three to four times as deep as the height of the bulb, so a one inch bulb needs to be planted three to four inches deep.
5. Don’t plant bulbs too early. September to October is ideal for most spring flowering bulbs, but leave it until at least late October and into November for tulips. They have a shorter growing season, and are also prone to various viral diseases that can be avoided if planted after the first frosts. You can often find unsold bulbs for sale in supermarkets and garden centres for pence late in the year, and providing that they are still firm, there doesn’t seem to be a problem – they just flower later. But don’t quote me.
6. Some bulbs (snakeshead fritillaries, camassias, leucojum) need damp soil to really thrive, but most will rot if left sitting in water. For large bulbs, including tulips, I usually add a scoop of grit into the bottom of the planting hole, or dug well into the soil, to ensure adequate drainage. Having said that, I have found daffodils to be wonderfully obliging, and happy just about anywhere.
7. I hear a lot of complaints from gardeners who say they’re giving up on certain types of bulbs ‘because they just won’t grow’. This is often because the bulb has been eaten soon after planting, so here are my tips for planting smaller bulbs which are often at the mercy of rodents who see them as a delicacy: soak the bulbs for 24 hours in Indian tonic water before planting. The mice and other small critters seem to dislike the quinine in the tonic. Plant deep, and then sprinkle the area with a strong smelling talc to disguise the smell. If it rains soon after planting, top up the talc. It’s not foolproof, but I have a very good success rate. Small anemone bulbs should always be soaked before planting anyway to soften them up, it gives a much better chance of growth. Daffodils, by the way, seem to be immune to rodent attack, and don’t need this special treatment.
8. Now for the elephant in the room: tulips. Contrary to everything I’ve said about the wonder and longevity of bulbs, tulips are the real anarchists of the bulb world. They live for the moment in a joyous explosion of colour, and then they die. I was put off tulips for a long time after planting them in large quantities, only for them to largely disappear after one season. Many of the large gardens treat them almost as an annual, but most of us can’t afford to do that. Tulips are only truly perennial in their native Turkey and the Himalayas, requiring very cold winters and hot, dry summers. All is not lost, however, and there are ways around it. First of all, do some research and choose your tulips with care. There are some varieties which are much more reliably perennial than others. Queen of (the) Night, Ballerina, White Triumphator, all of the Viridifloras, Darwin hybrids. Sarah Raven has done a lot of research into this subject, and it’s worth checking her website to see which varieties she advocates. The species tulips are wonderful, and many will naturalise. Always plant tulips deep, and make sure that the soil is very free draining. I have read that you should dig tulips up once the foliage has died back, store them in a cool dark place, then replant in the autumn. I did this for the first time this year, and I will never do it again. I ended up with a large quantity of small bulbs that I will probably do nothing with; life’s just too short. One piece of advice thatI was given by Jack Wilgoss of Wildgoose Nursery is to give the plants a high potash feed after deadheading, but before the foliage dies back, and I’ll certainly try that next year. Despite the drawbacks, tulips are glorious, and well worth the extra effort to get it right.
So that’s my basic advice for growing bulbs. I add to my stock every year, and the rewards are enormous. So be generous in your planting, and enjoy a spontaneous display for years to come. Go on. You know you want to.