And so the shift begins, the evenings are closing in that bit faster, there is a bit of a nip in the air, the kids are gone back to school and the warm glow of autumn colours are already starting to emerge. The garden is visibly getting ready for its decent into a wintery slumber which means gardeners can finally take a breather and indulge themselves by deciding what to grow next year, more specifically what bulbs to buy for spring. I like to think this is the well-deserved treat after a busy summer keeping the garden in check and the weeds at bay. Already, bulk bags of daffodils are filling the supermarket shelves alongside tulips and all the other springy delights. This month, I thought it would help to give some sound advice on choosing your bulbs, buying the best bulbs you can find and avoiding those that are past their prime.
What bulbs will you buy?
Daffodils and tulips tend to shout the loudest when it comes to choosing bulbs and rightly so as there are so many to choose from but there are plenty of other spring flowering bulbs that can add equal amounts of delight to the garden when the growing season starts again. Back in the spring, I extolled the virtues of the snowdrop (Galathus nivalis) for the brightest white and the cheeky yellow flowers of the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) which are the earliest to emerge around late February/early March. Both work well in a woodland setting so can be planted under the shade of a tree or the base of a shrub. The handy thing about such earlier risers is they rarely need to compete with larger plants for light or moisture as they have gotten up and finished their display before the trees have even had a chance to stretch their boughs.
Other charming spring bulbs that work well planted en masse, include the humble crocus with a delicate splash of mauve, white or warm, golden yellows. These are relatively short lived, but boy do they pack a punch in cuteness when they emerge. They will readily self-seed so beware if you plant them near a lawn but disappear almost as soon as they have come out so should not be too much of a bug bear. Another beauty that flowers later in the spring but looks particularly well under the dappled shade of a tree is the humble Fritillaria meleagris. These chequerboard or snakehead fritillary are so elegant with their decorated heads drooping to the ground, they sway gracefully in the breeze and stand tall above other spring flowers so work well mixed with other shorter stars of the season. Fritillaria are another prolific self-seeder so you can look forward to your collection multiplying for awe inducing displays in the future.
If you are short on space but want to add colour and interest to the garden next spring you cannot go wrong with splashes of the grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), the star flower (Ipheion uniflorum), or the bulbous iris Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’. For bolder displays why not try the dogs tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) with its unusual recurved petals and bold yellow flowers although they also come in pretty shades of mauve, pink and white.
Bulb Buying Guide
The main piece of advice I can offer is to give your bulbs a good squeeze! The reason being is that bulbs by their nature are underground storage organs with the sole purpose of providing enough energy for the plant to emerge and flower the following season. Think of buying onions, would you buy them if they were soft and squidgy? The same applies to bulbs (onions are bulbs btw). The best quality bulbs will be firm to the touch, plump and have some weight. If they yield to a gentle squeeze or feel light in weight, put them back as this means they are possibly infected with some type of pathogen. It can also mean they have been on the shelf for too long so have started to dry out.
Remember, new plants need moisture and food to grow so if these are lacking when the bulb is initially planted it will result in a poor display come spring. Other issues to watch out for are visible fungal infections. You have probably seen tulip bulbs covered in a blue dusty powder i.e. blue mould or Penicillium. This soil borne fungal disease typically sets in when a bulb has been damaged and produces millions of blue powdery spores which congregate between the bulb scales or on the surface of the bulb. Not fatal on its own but will weaken the bulb and leave it open to other infections once planted in the ground. Curiously enough, this fungus is related to the blue mould you see growing on oranges and the species that makes Roquefort cheese blue!
September is typically the time when you choose your bulbs for spring but there are a number of species which can be forced for display for Christmas. Forcing of bulbs is a technique used to trick the bulb into thinking it has already experienced a cold winter. Deciduous plants go through a natural phenomenon known as vernalisation. This is when the plant is exposed to cold temperatures for a specific period akin to those that occur naturally during the winter months. Once the plant, in this case spring flowering bulbs are exposed to warmer temperatures, this breaks dormancy and triggers the natural growth which would occur in the spring and therefore jump starts the emergence of the foliage and flowers. This can be achieved by storing your bulbs in the fridge at a specific temperature to mimic winter although most forced bulbs have already been treated by the grower. One particular variety of daffodil Narcissus ‘Paper White’, is commonly used for these seasonal displays and packs a punch with its heavily perfumed flowers. Keep the bulbs in containers in a cool dry space (10-15C) for eight weeks before you want them to flower and look forward to a stunning show once they emerge.
During a particularly drab winter, which, let’s be honest can be frequent enough in our cloudy little isle, these scented bulbs offer a glimpse into the future and remind us that longer days are just around the corner. I have successfully forced Narcissus tazetta for a Christmas/New Year display with great results.
Of course, when talking about forcing, hyacinths are probably one of the most common bulbs treated using this technique. Again, look out for ‘Prepared’ bulbs which have been treated by the growers and you can plant them from the beginning of September for seasonal displays come December. One word of warning though, when working with hyacinths always wear gloves as they will cause skin irritation. Be particularly careful not to touch your face after handling them as they will irritate the nose and eyes and cause discomfort.
I hope that has given you some new tips and tricks for spring and hope you enjoy going through the new bulb catalogues as much as I do!
As ever, Happy Gardening Folks!