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It’s Bulb-planting Season! 10 Tips for Getting it Right

With the soil still warm and bulbs plentiful, October is the perfect month to get planting bulbs for spring displays

Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More

Now is the ideal month to plant up your garden for spring blooms, and garden centres will be filled with an array of glorious bulbs to plant either in drifts or dotted through the borders; to naturalise in grass or create an eye-catching container display. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Prepare for planting
When planting bulbs in open soil, prepare with well-rotted organic compost and, if your soil is heavy, dig in some horticultural grit for drainage. Good drainage is also important when planting bulbs in containers.

Make sure, when selecting bulbs, you choose big fat firm ones, as some smaller bulbs won’t flower in the first year. Also reject any that are soft to the touch and show signs of mould.

Plant your bulbs within a week of buying them and before they start to sprout. If you’re unsure which way up to place them, lay them on their side – the stem will always find its way up. Make sure you plant them deeply.

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As squirrels often dig up bulbs and eat them, you could always place a piece of chicken wire over freshly planted bulbs for some extra protection, creating a small enclosure.

Where possible, deadhead after flowering to prevent the plant wasting valuable energy forming seeds. The deadheading will help build a strong bulb for the following year.

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Prettify your lawn
Planting bulbs in grass is a great way to brighten up lawns. In areas of shorter grass, bulbs such as the familiar jewel-bright crocus will thrive. The earliest January-flowering crocus is Crocus tommasinianus, a mini, mauve, candle-shaped bloom that seeds very well. Another good bulb is the dwarf Narcissus cyclamineus ‘Jenny’, which grows to 30cm in height.

The best way to plant the bulbs is by removing a layer of turf with a spade; as already mentioned, plant your bulbs as deeply as possible to avoid them being dug up by squirrels, then replace the turf. You can use a bulb planter for smaller areas or for dotting bulbs around. Wait until the foliage has died down before you do your first mow around June.

For longer grass, try Fritillaria pyrenaica, which grows to 45cm tall. Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus – or old pheasant’s eye as it’s commonly called – also does well, as does the trumpet daffodil, Narcissus ‘WP Milner’.

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Create a bulb entrance
With pots, you can plant your bulbs closer together than you would in beds or elsewhere in the garden, creating a wonderful spring display. Drainage is key in planters, so make sure yours have at least a few holes in the bottom, covered with rocks to prevent them getting clogged with soil.

If you’re only planting one layer of bulbs, then plant as you would in the garden – deeply. This means at least twice their height; also keep the pots well watered to prevent the bulbs from drying out.

If you want to plant a succession of bulbs to come up at different times – a style the Dutch call ‘bulb lasagne’, then layer the bulbs, with the largest, latest-flowering ones – such as tulips – at the bottom. Cover these with a few inches of compost and bulb starter, if you wish, then perhaps put in some hyacinths as the middle layer, repeat the compost and bulb starter and then finish the top layer with crocus bulbs covered in a layer of compost.

Pots can also be moved into beds to plug gaps in the borders during the winter months and throughout the year to add interest.

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Dig a daffodil
Daffodils are considered the flower of friendship. Belonging to the narcissus family, they are one of the most popular spring flowers and, although they are easy to grow, many people find they have problems with flowering year after year.

Daffodils are split into 13 divisions, or types, using the RHS System of Classification, with many known for their fragrance, or for the way they naturalise in grass. Our native wild British daffodil is Narcissus pseudonarcissus and is probably the most successful for naturalising in grass.

To avoid ‘daffodil blindness’, where you end up with lots of leaf and no flower, always make sure you plant the bulbs deeply. Choose the right variety for the area you wish to plant: for a naturalistic look, you can also try ‘Peeping Tom’ or ‘February Gold’; for a window box display, try the scented, multi-headed, white ‘Ice Wings’; for a later-flowering variety that’s great for a pot, try the dainty, scented, primrose-coloured ‘Hawera’.

Try, where possible, to leave mowing daffodils in grassy areas until around six weeks after flowering; leaving the green leaf stalk in place means they will produce food (or photosynthesise), helping to build up the bulb for the following year. Also, if you deadhead where you can, they’ll direct energy into stronger growth and more flowers for years to come.

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Take a tulip
Tulips are one of the most colourful of spring bulbs, and can either be planted in pots or in the borders.

Tulips are divided into 15 types, depending, for example, on whether their flower characteristics are single, double, cup-shaped, parrot, lily flowered, fringed or goblet-shaped. The bulbs are best planted later on in November when the soil is a bit colder to avoid fungal diseases, such as tulip fire, which produces brown spots and twisted, distorted leaves.

Species tulips, bred from wildflowers, are different from the majority of hybrid tulips, which are best replaced annually, as they may not flower well, if at all, the following year.

Tulips dislike very wet soil and prefer a sunnier site. Plant your bulbs deeply at about 20cm down and 8cm apart and use a grit bed if your soil is heavy and has poor drainage.

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Champion your shady spots, too
Not all bulbs need sun and there are many woodland varieties that do best in shady parts of the garden, such as Anemone nemorosa and Erythronium dens-canis (dog’s tooth violet), for example. Make sure your soil is humus-rich by adding leaf mould or composted bark if you need to, but avoid manure.

Other good bulbs include Scilla siberica and Scilla bifolia; both can be invasive left to their own devices, self-seeding everywhere. However, they can look stunning on dull days, wherever they emerge.

For a carpet of white, choose our native Galanthus nivalis or common snowdrop. They prefer a moist soil where possible, and will multiply rapidly into drifts. As these bulbs are very prone to drying out, plant them immediately with leaf mould or garden compost, making sure the soil doesn’t dry out in the summer months.

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Don’t despair of damp soil
Bulbs that do well in damp soils include the delicate snake’s head, or Fritillaria meleagris, with its stunning, chequer-patterned flowers, which is quite rare now in the wild. Scatter the bulbs, throwing them out and planting them where they land, for a more natural, drift effect, but try to make sure they’re planted deeply, around 15-20cm down, using a bulb planter.

Other good bulbs for moist soils are camassia, or the wild hyacinth as it’s known, which has star-shaped, blue flowers that open from the bottom of the stem upwards. Plant camassia at around 10cm deep and 15cm apart. As their leaves take longer to die down, make sure you plant them in areas where you’ll be happy to let the leaves do this naturally.

The Leucojum is a relative of the amaryllis family. It’s sometimes called the spring snowflake and is often mistaken for a snowdrop, but this flower is much taller and will bloom much better in damper soils. Leucojum bulbs produce tall, elegant stems with pendant white bell flowers that have attractive green tips. They will also be happy under trees – but beware of hungry slugs on early-emerging spring foliage.

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Boost your hedge
Planting under a hedge is often very hard due to the dense nature of the hedge, the roots and the dry shade. Some bulbs, however, do well in these areas, including Anemone blanda, which will cope in the shade, and Chionodoxa forbesii, or glory of the snow, which has small, intense and starry blue flowers and which will self-seed in time, creating a mass of blooms.

Anemone bulbs or tubers are strange in shape. They are very dark, almost black, and look like soil. As they dislike being dried out, it’s best to completely soak them overnight before planting. They’re happiest planted on their longest side, around 5cm deep and 8cm apart. Mix in leaf mould if you can when planting.

Under a hedge in sunnier areas, you could try some species of tulip. Tulips such as the bronze or stripy orange flowers of Tulipa Whittallii will colonise the area and look particularly good under beech hedges.

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Plant indoors
What could be nicer in the more gloomy months than walking into a room filled with the heavenly scent of paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) and the brightly coloured flowers of hyacinth bulbs, flowering in glass vases without the need for soil.

For planting paperwhite bulbs, choose tall glass vases that will support the stems as they grow, and fill the bottom with decorative shingle or pebbles. Place the bulbs on top of the shingle, pointy side up, and fill the vase with water to just below the bulb, so it won’t rot. Refill with water as necessary, making sure you don’t drown the bulb.

For hyacinths, choose a bulb vase that allows one fat bulb to sit in the neck at the top. Fill the vase with water, but don’t let it touch the bulb. Place the vase in darkness until the roots develop, then bring it into a sunny area to enjoy.

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Style up your Christmas table
If you want a dramatic display for your Christmas table, try planting hippeastrum, or amaryllis, now, as they take 10 weeks from planting to flowering. The huge flowers come in various shades of pink, salmon, white and red, with many striped varieties as well.

Once you have a bulb, it’s best to place the roots in lukewarm water for a few hours. Then, using a good, nutritious compost, plant the bulb up to its neck, firming down the soil around it and being careful not to damage the roots. Two thirds of the bulb should be above the surface.

Amaryllis need to be placed in a well-lit, warm spot – up to 70 degrees – to allow for the development of the stems. Water sparingly until the leaves appear, and then more frequently. Move the pot often so the stalk doesn’t grow towards the light. When in flower, you can move the pot to a cooler position to extend the flowering period.

Which bulbs do you have in your garden or pots? Do you have any tips to share? Let us know in the Comments below.

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