There are plenty of great things about bulbs. The first thing to understand is that they’re pretty much guaranteed to flower.
How can you be so sure? Well, when you buy them in the garden centre a tiny flower bud has already formed inside the bulb and will emerge with very little effort from you in a few weeks or months time.
Also, mostly, you don’t have to plant them the minute you get them home. As long as you don’t keep them in the freezer or on top of a radiator (the shed or the garage is fine), you can wait a week or two before you put them in and they’ll come to no harm.
But, best of all, not only are they pretty much guaranteed to flower in their first spring, but you’d have to plant them somewhere pretty weird or do something pretty strange to them to stop them flowering the next year as well. And if you were to give them some fertiliser after they’ve flowered and before they die down (try Flower Power for great results) well – wow! – you’ll get more flowers the second year than the first and so on… pretty much for ever! These are five bulbs you can pretty much plant and forget – but if you look after them they’ll multiply into the best value plants you ever bought. Look out for them in colourful packs in the garden centre.
Neat little plants in sparkling spring colours, plant them in clumps of five or six so that in their first spring they look as if they’ve been there for ever. That usually means that one pack will make two clumps or a large pack will make four or five. Never, ever plant them in rows as they look so unnatural – this applies to all bulbs. Plant them where they’ll get sun in the spring when they flower, it doesn’t matter much of they’re shaded after they’ve flowered. And they’re absolutely ideal in tubs and window boxes. Those labelled “Dutch” crocus have the largest ‘Pickwick’ with purple and white stripes is always eye-catching. But varieties of Crocus chrysanthus, with smaller but often prettily patterned flowers, have the scent. ‘Cream Beauty’ is creamy white with bronze streaks and a yellow eye. Grow to around 10-15cm.
In more and more colours and more and more flower forms, from 15-45cm in height, flowering from Christmas to May – there are thousands of different daffs and there’s a great choice in most garden centres. These are the best value – all you have to do is look at the picture and focus on the ones you like, then check the height to make sure they’re OK for where you want to plant them. And fill up your cart. But if you can only plant one variety, make it the early flowering ‘February Gold’. The only thing about daffs is that after they’ve flowered you’re left with the ragged old leaves. Never cut them off or tie them in knots. It’s the leaves that provide the goodness to fatten up the bulbs for next year. Plant them amongst leafy perennials like hostas which will hide the daffodil leaves until they fade away.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari)
Grape hyacinth? What? You mean I can make wine out of them? Err… Not so fast. But, as you can see from the picture, the flower heads are like stretched out bunches of grapes and even come in grape(-ish) colours: from deep blue to pale blue (plus white). Muscari armeniacum is great value (ie cheap!) and spreads well. These are perhaps the toughest, the most resilient, put-up-with-anything of all small bulbs. Often they’re the one bulb that survives for years (decades, even) in abandoned gardens, some of them spread by seed as well as by the little bulbs splitting into more. Ideal in tubs and window boxes and at the front of the border. Again, clumps not rows please. 10-20cm.
Often the first flowers of the year, the arrival of their dancing white blooms signals the beginning of the end of winter. Hooray! They’ll even shove their way through the snow to open their charming little flowers. Some of them are even scented, especially when you cut them and take them inside to make little posies. To be honest, snowdrops are best planted as soon as you get the bulbs home but you can also often buy them after Christmas, in flower in pots, which is also a good idea. But once they settle down they’re as tough as grape hyacinths. And look out for the double flowered ones, ‘Flore Pleno’ with masses of extra petals. Grow to 10-20cm tall.
Now, there’s a couple of really important things about tulips. Firstly, unless you plant them in a sheltered place, or with other plants all round them, the tall ones will probably either blow over or be bent by rain. Not good. Secondly, there aren’t many that will come back reliably year after year like daffodils and make fatter and fatter clumps. So choose dwarf varieties, many of which also have prettily marked leaves, and plant them in a tub or window box where it’s easy to give them a regular pick-me-up of liquid feed, such as Flower Power, to fatten them up for another year. ‘Red Riding Hood’ has scarlet flowers and purple-striped leaves. Grow to around 25cm tall.