When snowdrops, crocus and daffodils start to appear in the garden they bring a smile to our faces and the certain knowledge that spring is on its way. Their bright and cheerful blooms make bulbs essential in a well-planned garden. They offer a wide variety of colour and form, from bright, primary shades of Tulips to the delicate, pastel hues of Iris reticulate ‘Katherine Hodgkin’; and from the tall spikes of the Gladiolus byzantinus to the dainty bells of the smallest fritillary. Whether they form bold patterns in a formal bed, fill in the detail of a mixed border, provide a splash of colour in a container, or create sweeping drifts beneath trees or in grass, bulbs bring vitality to the more permanent planting of the garden.
Growing bulbs is an easy way of brightening up the garden. The key characteristic of bulbs is that they provide visual interest for only one season, remaining dormant and unnoticed for the remainder of the year. This can be an asset with careful planning, making bulbs invaluable as border plants as well as ideal for naturalizing in grass or growing in containers. Planted in layers under bedding plants in pots and containers adds extra interest throughout the season.
In many gardens, bulbs may be left to increase naturally from year to year while their dying foliage is hidden by the developing growth of herbaceous plants or shrubs that provide a succession of interest. Many bulbs, including the popular crocuses, daffodils, and snowdrops, increase very rapidly in most sites. Bulbs may also be lifted after flowering and replanted each year to create room for other seasonal plants, making them especially convenient for small gardens or restricted areas.
Where to grow bulbs
If given the well-drained soil that they need to grow and flower well, bulbs are among the easiest of all garden plants to cultivate. There are numerous cultivars and species now available that thrive in all aspects except deep shade.
Many bulbs in cultivation come from areas with a Mediterranean climate, so need to be grown in sunny sites and prefer hot, dry summers – although a huge range of bulbs flourishes in the open garden in regions with summer rainfall.
Bulbs that would normally grow in woodland thrive in moist, light shade. Many others, including some bulbs described as “sun-loving”, are happy in light shade cast by nearby shrubs, walls, or trellises. Even dry shade is tolerated by most hardy cyclamen. Bulbs with white or pale flowers appear almost luminous in dusky light, also look very effective when planted in a shaded site.
Whatever setting, bulbs look best planted in groups of the same species or cultivar, whether in clumps or drifts bringing colour to a formal bed or in grass.
Mixed plantings for spring flowering
Planting bulbs in a mixed border extends the flowering season, and provides an array of fresh, bright colour from late winter through to early summer. Before the herbaceous perennials and deciduous shrubs in the border begin to grow and spread, bring the front of the border to life with the smaller daffodil species, pale or dark blue reticulate irises, snowdrops, and the golden cups of winter aconites. Plant starry carpets of pink and blue Anemone blanda, Chionodoxa, and Scilla bifolia, beneath early flowering shrubs.
How to plant bulbs in borders or grass.
- Check each bulb and discard any that are soft or rotten.
- Plant with the shoot (point) at the top and the roots or disc where the roots will grow from at the bottom.
- As a rule plant bulbs 3 times the depth of the bulb.
- In a border throw down a handful of bulbs and plant where they fall using a bulb trowel.
- Do the same when planting Narcissus in grass, cut out plugs of turf using a bulb planter.
- When planting crocus in grass use a spade to cut the outline of a letter I, open the middle out like a book throw down the crocus bulbs making sure they are the right way up then put the turf back as it was.
Top bulbs for partial shade
- Anemone blanda
- Narcissus (daffodil)
- Galanthus (snowdrops)
- Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebell)
- Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite)
- Erythronium (Dog’s tooth violet)
Top bulbs for pots
When planting in pots do not let bulbs touch each other.
- Snowdrops (Galanthus) – 9cm pots 5 bulbs in each.
- Plant Oct-Nov – flower Jan-March.
- Iris reticulate ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ – loves growing in pots, sometimes the first bulb to flower in Jan – Feb. Plant Sep-Oct, 3 bulbs in 9cm pot.
- Crocus – Any pot 1-2cm apart. Plant Oct, flowers Feb-March.
- Daffodils – plant Sep-Oct, flower March-April.
- Scilla – vivid blue flowers March –April, they are especially distinctive when grown in pots. Plant Sep-Oct, 3-5 bulbs in 1L pot.