A wide range of spring bulbs are now available in the Greenfingers Superstore. Christopher Lloyd gives some handy hints and tips on how to get the best out of them
It is easy to spend a lot on bulbs. They are so tempting, and their acquisition nicely bridges that awkward and rather unpleasant gap that divides autumn from spring. The bulbs themselves look packed with latent promise and their finished appearance is liberally illustrated in bulb catalogues.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can well forego most of those bulbs, notably hyacinths, which have been specially prepared by heat treatment, to flower prematurely (for them) but in time for Christmas. Without any special treatment, hyacinths will start to flower for me at the end of January, and that is when I am most glad to see them.
What with a selection of early, mid-season and late flowerers, those you flower indoors will lead on to those, unforced, which will flower in pots, window boxes and the open ground without coaxing and right up to the end of April. As I am particularly fond of the scent of hyacinths, I welcome this prolonged pleasure. Their bulbs will last indefinitely, grown outside, if undisturbed, and it is nice to pick blooms to bring inside as part of a mixed bunch to be savoured close at hand.
Those that you grow in bowls to bloom indoors, are the better for being given a potting compost, with nutrients in it, rather than totally inert bulb fibre and the stiffer texture of a potting compost enables you the more easily to support their foliage and stems with pieces of cane that will gain a purchase on the compost they are stuck into.
After they have flowered, and assuming that you don't want to throw them away, stand the bowls in a light window in a cool room and remember to water them from time to time. Watering is most easily and thoroughly done by holding the bowl under a tap turned to a thin stream of water. When the water has reached the surface of the compost, support this and the bowl contents with the fingers of one hand while you tilt it with the other until all the unabsorbed water has dribbled out. A thorough watering of this kind generally needs only weekly repetition.
By April, the flowered bulbs will be able to be stood out in a cold frame or greenhouse, but foliage may suffer if the much-increased light strength is experienced too suddenly. If you appreciate the danger, it is easily avoided. Eventually, dry the bulbs off and use them again, wherever you'd like to have them.
Paper white narcissi are naturally early flowerers and if you'd like to have them at Christmas, the problem may be to prevent them from flowering too early. Pot the bulbs up immediately on arrival, but keep them as cool as you possibly can, even outdoors in a shaded position, so long as they they don't get frosted. Then bring them into warmer conditions when you judge the time to be right. I usually grow two batches and encourage them to flower in succession.
If you are growing narcissi in containers, it is nice to have a pretty dense display. There is an old dodge for managing this. Use a deep pot and plant the bulbs in two layers, the upper layer placed so that they are not immediately above the crowns of those below.
I usually keep my container-grown tulips in a cold frame throughout, from the time I plant them. If there is an autumn rush on to get everything done, remember that tulips are much more tolerant of being planted late than most bulbs, whereas narcissi appreciate early planting.
For early flowering outside, choose short-stemmed varieties of tulip that will not get too battered by March winds, since their petals are pretty brittle. One of my favourites for this purpose is the Fosteriana hybrid, Yellow Emperor, which has large, pale yellow blooms and broad, glaucous leaves. It opens wide to sunlight and makes you feel more aware of spring sunshine through your clothes and on your back, just for looking at it.
When purchasing bulbs, it is wise to receive them direct out of storage from the supplier, keeping them cool yourself until planted, rather than from an exposed shop stand, where they have been submitted to dehydrating draughts and fluctuating temperatures.
Click here to buy spring bulbs from our Superstore.
Click on the following Helping Hands workshops for useful advice:
Planting a bulb in earth
Planting a bulb in grass