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Small effort, disproportionate feeling of pleasure - spring bulbs

One of the joys of gardening is discovering elements which look really impressive and give great pleasure, for very little effort.

I can think of nothing more fitting of the phrase “small effort, disproportionate feeling of pleasure” than planting spring bulbs. It’s an act of hope, an act of faith in the future - and it takes very little effort, time and money, relatively speaking.

Why now?

September is the ideal time to plant spring bulbs, when the rest of the garden is going into relaxation mode. The ground is still warm and easy enough to work with the recent rains softening the earth. You can pick up daffodils, crocuses, alliums, tulips from now onwards, either at garden centres, specialist nurseries or even at the local supermarket. It'll be cheaper than a new top, or a takeaway, and much better for you.

All about alliums

Alliums - lollipop pompoms exploding into the sky - come in a wide range of sizes and shapes to suit all budgets. For an architectural showstopper, you can’t go wrong with Mount Everest. This is a giant of an allium, on a long strong stem of over a metre high with masses of tiny white flowers at the top. It’s a real magnet for bees, and the strong stem means it will withstand blowy spaces. If you want something more gentle on size and budget, allium sperochaleum are as cheap, if not cheaper, than chips. They look brilliant woven through other plants. Beware of buying allium christophii without checking the height - the lovely pictures on the front of bulb packs will show you their giant showy heads but only grows to about 50 centimetres. It’s good if you need something lower growing, but can look a bit out of proportion in a larger border.

Alliums. Architectural. Attractive to pollinators. Admirable on many levels.

Camassias - the cool kids on the block

In addition to the well known bulbs, there are some hidden treasures to be found. For a shady spot under trees or walls, try the camassias - tall, elegant, mid-spring plants that gently spread over time. These come into their own in May/June, just when tulips may begin to sag and look a little pathetic. They come back every year and spread out over time, so investing in some now means that you will have years of joy to come.

Camassias - late to the party, but they stay forever.

Tulips: the good, the bad and the not-so-bad

I feel quite conflicted about tulips. The more vibrant and extrovert the colour, the less likely the plant is to come back and give you the same exuberant hit in following years. In the longer run, it will cost you and the environment more each year to grow, transport, package and buy them. But plant a few in a pot, and their bright and pure colours can transform an otherwise dull view out of the kitchen window.

If you want something longer lasting, have a look out for species tulips, which will gently naturalise over time. They are perfect for planting in splodges in grass or under trees. Tulipa humilis even has a sweet scent to add another sense to your delight.

How to plant bulbs

As a general rule, plant bulbs at least twice the depth of their size to ensure they get a good grip on the earth to keep them strong in spring winds and rains. Plant with the pointy end facing upwards towards the sky. Give them a headstart with some compost dug into your soil, and a gentle watering. And then do nothing. The bulb and nature will do the rest.

Bulbs look like onions. The pointy bit will become the stem, so put the bulbs in with that bit facing upwards.

Container bulbs

No soil or garden to speak of? No problem. You can share in the delights of spring by planting up a container for a window box, flat balcony or front doorstep. Anything with drainage will do. Fill it with compost and plant the bulbs in. A popular bulb “lasagne” for a pot involves layering tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Put the tulips at the deepest point, then the daffodils, and finally the crocuses. Water in, sit back, and feel smug when they start to peep through. Spring will come again.

Crocus, muscari, tulips and a summer flowering perennial are cosying up in this pot. This combination will be in flower from February to late summer.

This Editorial Note first appeared in the Basingstoke Observer on 15th September 2022. To read the full article, please click here.

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