Bulbs can add a splash of early spring colour to borders, beds and containers.
Tulips come in all shades, from dark purple to white, and bloom at a time of year when many plants offer muted colours. Other bulbs, such as Snowdrops and Winter Aconite (technically a corm), are some of the earliest flowering plants in the garden, brightening up the short days of very early spring.
As the autumn has been relatively mild, there is still time to plant some for next year. We’ll give you a quick guide to planting bulbs.
The plants we know of as bulbs are deciduous perennials – that means they shed their leaves annually and then come back year-on-year. The actual bulb is an underground energy storage unit – like a battery – and is formed from specialised leaves. The bulb will store sugars, proteins and nutrients throughout its underground rest period, which are then released when temperatures rise in the summer.
Just like a battery, bulbs are portable and can be carried around and stored for later use. When we plant the bulb, we ‘plug it’ into the ground.
They come in all shapes and sizes, and some bulbs are highly sought after by collectors. The most valuable ones are Snowdrops, and a Snowdrop collector is called a ‘galanthophile’ after the Latin name for Snowdrops, Galanthus. The record price for one specimen was £1,390 for a single 'golden fleece' Snowdrop in 2015. Saffron, which comes from the plants of the Crocus bulb, is literally worth more than gold – the highest quality saffron sells for about £49 per gramme, compared to £45 for a gramme of gold. But you do not have to spend that much to enjoy bulbs; you can pick up 30 Daffodils for just over £5.
Bulbs are planted at different times in the year, but most of them are put in the ground in Autumn. Usually, bulb-planting season ends in October, but with warmer, wetter winters, you can extend that a bit.
You can plant bulbs in several ways:
‘Naturalised’ in lawns – planted in clumps as they would be in nature; In beds or borders, as blocks or waves scattered throughout to give a flashy display of spring colour; In containers – just make sure you have enough soil in the container for the plant to spread into.
When planting bulbs, it’s important to plant them at the right depth to ensure you get to enjoy the flowers. Bulbs that are planted too deeply may produce only foliage at the expense of flowers, or decay in the ground and not emerge at all. Too deep is better than too shallow, however, which puts the bulbs at greater risk of being dug up accidentally, or purposefully by squirrels, which love bulbs as a tasty winter snack. A rule of thumb is to plant your bulbs a depth of two-and-a-half to three times their size, so a Tulip would go in about 20cm, whereas Crocus or Snowdrops should not be deeper than 10cm.
Most plants that are grown from bulbs prefer a warm and sunny site with good drainage, as they originate in warm climates.
1. Dig a hole wide and deep enough for your bulbs. Plant most bulbs at two-and-a-half to three times their depth and sit the bulb in the bottom of the hole;
2. Place the bulbs in the hole with their ‘nose’, or shoot, facing upwards. Space them at least twice the bulb’s own width apart;
3. Replace the soil and gently firm with the back of a rake. Avoid treading on the soil as this can damage the bulbs, but do press it in;
4. If the ground is moist or the bulbs are autumn-planted, watering is not critical. Otherwise water straight after planting.
Photo credit: Sheila Brown