There’s no getting away from the fact a change of season is in the air. Although autumn’s a time of rich harvests and vibrant colours, it does mean the days are getting shorter and night-times are getting longer. So, it’s away with the shorts and shades and out with the jumpers and jackets.
A season of growth, and periods of drought, have left our green spaces looking the worse for wear. But that doesn’t mean we have to down tools, lock up the shed and turn our backs on the garden until next year. Instead, take a moment to think ahead to next spring and the growing possibilities: endless blooms emerging from the soil, filling flower beds and borders with structure and colour. For maximum results, and with a little effort, spring bulbs could be just the thing to get your green fingers twitching with excitement.
From tall alliums peering out from the back of borders, to the delicate uncurling of the first snowdrop under a dormant tree, bulbs have something to suit every grower.
Depending on the variety, bulbs can happily grow in full sun, part shade or nestled in the depths of a woodland undergrowth. Also, they can cost less than buying plants and give you a higher flower count. But wherever you get your bulbs from, buy them sooner rather than later, as they will be fresh and healthy. If you wait until later in the season, stocks start to wane, choice becomes limited and sometimes so does the quality. When choosing bulbs, ensure they're firm, smooth, free of blemishes and any signs of mould. On receiving the bulbs, rub off any excess soil. Not only could this soil be harbouring potential diseases, the moisture it contains could rot the bulbs before they've been planted into their final growing positions.
Spring bulbs are usually planted from September to December, and before the first frost. That way, they have a chance to set roots and become established. However, for tulips, try to wait until at least November. With colder temperatures, there’s less chance of them being affected by the fungal disease, tulip fire, which can result in the browning and distorting of foliage. Therefore, plants should be dug up and destroyed immediately to avoid spreading the virus. Also, avoid planting tulip bulbs in the same spot for at least three years.
Whether you opt for daffodils, tulips or hyacinths, the thing to remember is that bulbs do not like sitting in wet soil as this can cause them to rot. So, good drainage is key. If you have a heavy soil, or an area that can become waterlogged during the winter months, add horticultural grit to the dug hole when planting, and incorporate further grit, leaf mould or well-rotted organic matter to the surrounding soil. If your soil is light, add a good compost such as Dalefoot Composts ‘Bulb Compost’. Bulbs appreciate a healthy, fertile soil, so this compost is ideal. If the soil is moist on planting, you may refrain from watering. Otherwise, give the newly-planted area a good soak.
Bulbs should be planted to three times the bulb's height, and two bulbs apart. Do not force them into the ground as you can damage the root plate and hamper growth. When planting, ensure the bulb tip is facing skyward. By sinking them at this depth, not only do you help prevent the fully grown tulip from rocking and becoming unstable, you're protecting them from the rigours of winter. Once bulbs are covered over, refrain from walking over the area as your weight can squash and force the bulb to split. Therefore, place a stick, or bulb label, in the planted area, so you know where to avoid treading.
Planting large swathes of bulbs can result in breath-taking display. Or, plant them alongside paths and patios, which will highlight and guide you through a particular area, and give you a real spring feeling. If you’re hoping for a more natural looking planting scheme, simply scatter them across the growing area, and plant bulbs where they land. Although, a garden trowel or bulb planter are great tools for planting, if you’re hoping to plant a large number of bulbs into a small section of lawn, try using a spade. Cut away the section of lawn, at three times the depth of your bulbs, ensuring it remains intact. Plant your bulbs, replace the cut lawn and firm it in. You may also need to fill gaps with compost. Finally, water in well.
As we head into spring and the foliage starts to emerge, give bulbs a high potassium liquid feed every seven to fourteen days. Once bulbs have flowered and the foliage begins to die back, stop feeding.
For gardeners with limited or very little space, consider growing bulbs in pots, containers, troughs and hanging baskets. You can set them up on the patio, on a window ledge, or as a floral welcome to visitors who come to your front door. If the weather’s too cold to go out, you can still enjoy their colours from the warmth of your home.
If you’re feeling creative, try ‘lasagne’ planting, layer spring bulbs according to their flowering period. For example, at the bottom of your pot, plant tulip bulbs which are usually the last to flower. Cover them over with soil then plant a layer of bulbs which flower before tulips, such as daffodils. Cover over and continue the process finishing with an early blooming bulb, like snowdrops. It’s a great way to get the most from one pot and gives you continuous colour throughout spring. For maximum results, opt for Dalefoot Composts ‘Bulb Compost’ when potting up.
Finally, once bulbs have flowered, don’t be tempted to cut away the old foliage as bulbs need this to harness the sun’s rays, energising the bulbs for next year’s display, so let their foliage recede naturally. If you can’t wait, lift the bulbs and surrounding soil, popping them into an empty pot, and placing them somewhere where they can continue to die back. The bulbs will happily sit there until autumn, when you’ll re-plant them into a position of your choice.
Whether it’s an early crocus or the yellow trumpet of a daffodil heralding in the new season, by planting now, you can look forward to a blooming marvellous spring.
Watch Agent Ade in action as he creates a bulb lasagne
I’m Ade Sellars, and I’m a gardener, presenter, writer and content producer, with a passion for growing my own food in my kitchen garden. As well as running my own gardening business, I write for magazines, produces tailored video content for gardening brands, flower shows and outdoor events and I regularly deliver talks and demonstrations around the country.
I co-write the award-winning gardening and food blog, Agents of Field, with my wife Sophie; you can follow our adventures on Twitter and Instagram, or by subscribing to our blog.
Website: www.agentsoffield.com / www.adesellars.com