Create a living carpet of colour with spring bulbs
Gerry Daly describes how you can achieve this effect without spending a lot
Flower bulbs tend to occur in nature in sheets of flowers, such as the carpets of wild bluebells that bloom in late spring. Many garden bulbs can do so too. If soil and location are suitable, it's natural for the bulb plants to produce seeds, the bulbs then split to make a spreading clump, eventually colonising an area of ground.
You could purchase a sack full of bulbs in the autumn and painstakingly plant them over a large area. This approach can work very well, but it can also fail completely. It works well if the location happens to have the right conditions for the type of bulb planted, and it fails if they are not.
The best thing to do is experiment by planting small clumps of bulbs in a few places, trying to select the right conditions in each case. In a couple of years, it'll be easy to see which places suit best, because those bulbs will be thriving. The next stage is to lift and divide the bulb clumps every two or three years, immediately after flowering, establishing new clumps to give nature a helping hand.
In this way, large numbers of bulbs can be propagated for little expense. The re-planting can be quick and easy - just drop small clumps of bulbs in at the back of a spade. Don't worry about depth of planting as bulbs find their own level.
Some kinds of bulbs will begin shedding seeds and increasing numbers. This happens usually where there is not much competition from grass or fallen leaves. Snowdrops are the best-known and the first of the spring bulbs to flower. They like the soil to be fertile and not to dry out in summer, while not being waterlogged in winter. They grow well in the light shade of trees and shrubs but can be killed out if the shade is too heavy.
Crocus species vary quite a lot in their preferences. Crocus tommasinanus loves to grow in light shade with weak grass and often finds the conditions in such places conducive to prolific self-sowing. The ordinary large Dutch crocuses prefer an open sunny place with well-drained but fertile soil. The purple and white kinds are more robust than yellow sorts and are more likely to succeed.
Daffodils of the less fancy sort are good for naturalising, increasing by division more than by seeds, although the delicate wild daffodil increases by seed. Daffodils are largely species of mountain meadow in good open light. They can cope with light, high shade but eventually get shaded out if shade is too heavy.
Normally grown on rockeries, where they freely self-sow in the gravel surface, scillas can also be grown in the open soil, but choose a place with free-draining soil and little grass competition. Scillas have a few small blue flowers on each stem. Glory-of-the-snow is similar to the scillas, with more open blue flowers with a white centre.
The spring-flowering Greek anemone, Anemone blanda, produces daisy-like flowers in spring in shades of blue or white with occasional pink blooms. It copes well with competition from mown grass, and in light shade, but flowers better in sunshine.
The small spring-flowered Cyclamen coum has a rounded tuber and carries small purple flowers. Best planted in light shade with weak grass, it self-sows in suitable conditions and likes well-drained humusy ground.
For more gardening advice on everything from soil to sowing, read our free booklet, 'Get Growing with Gerry Daly'; and discover our vegetable seed giveaway on page 2 of the main newspaper.
FEAST YOUR EYES: If you want to see sweeps of spring bulbs, many gardens open to the public have them on display during March but Mount Usher Gardens in Ashford, Co Wicklow, is exceptional. It's a Robinsonian garden guided by the principle of 'as nature intended'; mountushergardens.ie
LEARN A TRICK OR TWO: Garden designer Arthur Shackleton, of Fruitlawn Gardens, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, shares his secrets of 'Designing & Planting Your Garden' at Waterford Regional Gardening Club's lecture at the Edmund Rice Centre, Barrack Street, Waterford, this Thursday at 8pm. Booking essential: 086 408 3419.
STAY BLIGHT-FREE: It's time to chit up your spuds - but if you're worried about blight, try one of the new blight-resistant varieties such as 'Carolus', a floury, high-yielding spud with a superb taste; early maincrop 'Bionica', which has won taste awards; or the red-skinned 'Alouette' and 'Sarpo Mira'. The blight-free star of the moment, though, has to be 'Vitabella' - a very clean, yellow, second early with a lovely creamy taste. They are all available at Fruit Hill Farm: fruithillfarm.com