Planting Bulbs With Andy Sturgeon
Before you read any further I want you to think of a type of bulb, the very first one that pops into your head, and then hold that thought. If I was a betting man I’d say that the odds on favourite that flashed across your mind was a daffodil winning by just a nose ahead of crocus and tulip. Am I right?
So embedded are these beautiful flowering bulbs in our gardening psyche that we find it hard see beyond them, which is actually a bit of a shame. At this time of year the garden centres and nurseries are groaning with not just the traditional spring flowering bulbs but also some far more exciting and quite frankly, rather classy, late spring and summer bloomers and it’s time to get planting.
For late spring and early summer you can do no better than the alliums. The common name is’ flowering onion’ but I feel rather sorry for them being lumbered with this undignified moniker which really doesn’t do them credit. The flowers grow on leafless stalks so it’s good to plant them amongst other perennials which will hide the scrappy lower leaves and a well-drained soil in full sun is really all that you need for success. The summer flowering A.’Purple Sensation’ has emerged as one of the favourites in recent years. Growing to about a metre high it has spherical heads of star-shaped, deep violet flowers but in order to stop paler seedlings appearing in subsequent years you have to cut down the old flower heads before the seeds ripen.
A.’Globemaster’ is a little shorter but as the name suggests the flower heads are really something to write home about reaching almost 20cm across. For some real height at the back of the border, A.giganteum will grow up to your chin in June by which time the wonderful blue grey leaves have died down. At the other end of the scale is A.sphaerocephalon, the excitingly named round headed leak. Look out for the small insignificant bulbs and plant them now in a gritty soil facing the sun. The diminutive rounded flower heads are a purpley red and look superb in July and August bobbing around between knee and waist height amongst the silvery green grass Carex ‘Frosted Curls’ or it’s bronze leaved cousin C.buchananii.
Nectaroscordum siculum ‘Bulgaricus’ always used to be considered an Allium and if you crush a few leaves the smell will let you know why. The stalks carry drooping bell shaped flowers with a green and purple tinge but as the seedheads ripen they reach skywards to make pointed clusters that look like a clump of toadstools. They’re very chic.
The foxtail lily, Eremurus robustus is actually a tuberous root like a Dahlia. In late May and June it sends out an elegant, stately raceme of pink flowers on a stalk nearly three metres tall. I’ve grown this plant since seeing the sulphur yellow flowers of E.spectabilis growing wild on a rocky slope in Turkey but they seem to do best here in a sandy fertile soil with sharp drainage. There’s also a rather graceful white version E.himalaicus and all will benefit from a sheltered spot and a good mulch in autumn and as an added bonus will do pretty well in alkaline soils.
Some of the more interesting bulbs are harder to find and you need to search in some of the bulb catalogues. The Asphodels can be planted in March or October and one of their major assets is the ability to do well in fairly poor soils. The spring flowering yellow Apshodel, A.lutea seems to do okay in well-drained or slightly damp soil where it sends out its spikes of star shaped flowers.
One summer flowering bulb which has always eluded me is the giant lily Cardiocrinum giganteum. This uber lily has wonderfully fragrant white flowers on stems 2 to 2.7 metres high and is truly awesome. On the downside it takes a couple of years to flower from a bulb and double that from offsets. I’ve twice planted it in sheltered corners of my garden in deep soil laden with leaf mould and compost but I keep moving house before anything appears above the glossy green leaves. My present garden is everything this lily hates; chalky, dry, sun baked soil so things aren’t looking good.
Bulbs can be naturalised in grass or in borders to make them look like wild flowers. The usual thing to do is to plant carpets of a single coloured daffodil or crocus but if you choose a number of different species the result will look far more ‘natural’.
Snowdrops spread rapidly which makes them ideal for naturalising but are best planted ‘in the green’ which means dug up and transplanted after flowering. Planting them from bulbs at this time of year isn’t to be recommended.
The Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum nutans also spreads quickly and can be planted as bulbs in the coming weeks. The silvery white star shaped flowers have a green backing and they do well in light shade under trees. At about 25cm tall they can make quite an impact.
Bluebells notoriously invade borders so it makes sense to naturalise them under trees in grass although they compete rather too successfully with lawn and can leave it rather bare in summer. The Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica is the best for naturalising.
For heavy, damp soils the summer snowflake Leucojum aestivum looks somewhat like a massive snowdrop reaching 60cm high and there’s an even bigger variety which is fairly easy to get hold of called L.a.’Gravetye Giant’.
Snakeshead fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris like the same heavy damp soils and in April and May produce nodding heads of delicate looking flowers in purpley maroon and less frequently white. For some reason they’ll either love your garden or they won’t as there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with them.
Also flowering through late April and May are the Camassias which have star shaped flowers in spikes. The best for naturalising is the deep blue Camassia quamash but cool years make them flower less well the following spring. One drawback is that you can’t cut the grass until the seed ripens at the end of July or they won’t spread.
The Glory of the Snow, Chionodoxa grow to about 15cm and have star shaped flowers in blue, pink or white. They need a well drained fertile soil and although they will grow in sun they tend to get a bit fried so it’s best to plant them in some shade. Chionodoxa forbesii has blue flowers, C.f.’Pink Giant’ is a soft pink and C.sardensis is a strong blue like that of hardy plumbago.
Bulbs can be naturalised in borders and woodland but by far the most popular setting is in grass. Once in the bulbs can be left alone to spread and increase by seed or offsets and eventually you’ll have a carpet of colour. You need to make sure that you either use bulbs that come up before the grass starts growing in spring or later flowering species which can then compete with grass.
One way to naturalise bulbs is to throw them randomly onto the grass, take one of those hand held bulb planters which in theory extracts a core of turf and soil and then spend days crawling round on your hands and knees. Fortunately there is a better way.
First you need to mow the grass so that it is still fairly short when the bulbs come up in spring. Next cut an ‘H’ shape into the ground about 5cm deep using a spade or half moon edger which tends to be a little more accurate.
Fold back the turf on either side and if necessary fork over and remove some of the soil depending on what types of bulb you will be planting. As a general rule smaller bulbs like crocus will need 5cm of soil above their tips and larger bulbs will need 10cm.
Throw a handful of bulbs into the hole and plant them where they fall so that you don’t end up with evenly spaced bulbs in straight lines.
Make sure each bulb is the right way up and very gently rotate it to settle it into the soil and get rid of any air gap underneath. Don’t, however, force the bulb into the earth because it may get damaged.
Put any soil which was removed back into the hole and fold back the flaps of turf. Gentle tread down the turf but don’t stamp on it.
Don’t mow the grass for at least six weeks after the flowers have faded to allow time for them to build up their nutrient stores for the coming winter. This will ensure a dramatic display every year.
Arum italicum subsp italicum ‘Marmoratum’, Lords and Ladies
Growing from a tuber this perennial has bright red berries which appear in autumn followed by arrow shaped leaves with silvery veins. These leaves then last until spring.
Grow in a humus rich soil in a sheltered site.
Plants can be bought in leaf from nurseries in autumn or you can divide the clumps and tubers and replant 15cm deep.
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In early summer it bears pale greenish white flower spathes if grown in full sun. They are then followed by orange-red berries. The leaves are bigger and better if grown in shade.
The root of the native plant A.maculatum can be cooked and eaten and is the source of arrowroot. The name Lords and Ladies is thought to be a polite name introduced by the prudish Victorians to replace Cuckoo pint and various other names which were apparently quite rude.
A.creticum has creamy white or deep yellow flower spathes and plain unmarked leaves.
Article provided by Andy Sturgeon, winner of multiple gardening awards including six gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show amongst many international awards.