Tuesday 16 January 2018

Gardening: Diarmuid Gavin... blooming bulbs

As autumnal weather takes hold, get planting those bulbs now for a luscious spring garden

Planting bulbs
Planting bulbs

Diarmuid Gavin

Step into your Tardis (okay, your potting shed!), set the dial to early spring and open the door... Look around the beds and the borders, the pots and tubs. Are they bursting with colour? Are they spreading delight around as if a magician's wand had been waved? I bet for a lot of gardeners the answer is no.

We love spring colour. We adore bulbs because they are so easy and seem so exotic. We anticipate their little beaks pushing out of the soil ready to unfold that package of promise, that wonderful flower that gives us hope for a new gardening year. And yet so often we forget to plant bulbs or we don't take any chances - we might go for the same old red and yellow tulips and some daffodils, possibly a few grape hyacinths. But you have a chance to make it all right.

That really is the beauty of bulbs, they offer almost instant satisfaction and they're very easy. Most just want to be overwintered under a blanket of soil and they'll push up when the days start getting longer, creating a symphony of colour.

They can be subtle or dramatic - you can use them throughout so many areas in the garden. We mainly associate them with spring but you get different types right through to the autumn.

There are a few simple rules. Generally, you place them two to three times their own size deep in soil. To care for them properly they would love a bit of slow-release fertiliser to build up the bulb for next year.

The subtle ones can be fantastic but you may need to plant them en masse for best effect. For instance, a carpet of anemones pushing up through a lawn underneath some deciduous trees or a banked slope of bluebells set in a woodland are some of the great horticultural sights. And there are so many different species available.

So, with our soil still warm(ish) and pliable, it's a perfect time to start planting bulbs for next spring. Your local garden centres and nurseries will have their stock in now so there's plenty of choice available.

The first area I am planting is under a large silver birch tree in my front garden. It has low-spreading branches and in full-leaf there is little that would grow there. But the leaves will soon fall and the ground will be bare and open until leaf-burst next May, so it's an ideal place to put in some low-growing spring bulbs. I toyed with planting a purple carpet of crocus tommasianus or perhaps a mass planting of blue 'glory of the snow', chionodoxa. Snowdrops would also look beautiful but as they are best planted in the green next spring, I have opted instead for anemona blanda (below). These small dark bulbs look like a bit like walnuts and it's not immediately apparent which side up in the ground they should be placed. Try to look for some root scars to guide you but don't worry, the stem will find its way towards the light even if they are planted upside down.

They are actually tubers and it's a good idea to soak them overnight before planting. I am planting a mixture of 50 blue and white bulbs so this bare patch will be a delightful tapestry of these pretty daisy-like flowers and ferny foliage that will gradually colonise further each year.

The next spot is my newly-planted mixed borders. While there's plenty of mid and late summer colour such as roses, salvias, rudbeckias, achillea and verbena, they will benefit from some earlier blossoms. I've chosen a few different types of tulips but I won't plant them until November to reduce the risk of tulip fire blight. I've chosen 'queen of the night' with its rich plummy-purple colour as well as tulipa viridiflora spring green, a very elegant cream with fresh green stripes. Some tulips will return year on year but many disappear or lose their colour so to be sure of a display, you can treat them as annuals and plant yearly.

To do this week

While the weather is still pleasant, do a bit of a tidy up outside of fallen leaves and plants that have died back. Net ponds before leaves start falling.

Take semi-ripe cuttings of evergreen shrubs, eg. hebes, camellias, holly as well as herbs such as rosemary and lavender, and conifers. Choosing healthy material, cut about 4 to 6 inches in length, just below a leaf and pot up as soon as possible. You can also do hard wood cuttings of roses now.

It’s a good time of year to establish new lawns or repair damaged areas. Feed established lawns with high potassium feed for autumn strength.

Apples are ready for harvest when you can gently tug them from the tree.

Plant biennials such as foxgloves and honesty for flowering next year.

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