Few things are more exciting for the gardener than planning the planting for the next season, particularly when that season is spring.
By early September the nights are noticeably drawing in, autumn fruits are ripening in the hedgerows, and there’s a definite chill in the air. Children are back to school and all our thoughts are turning to Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night.
The fantasy of spring bulbs is a bright light at the end of the cold tunnel, and now is the time to get those bulbs in the earth. I’m starting with the ‘big three’ – delicate little snowdrops, trumpeting daffodils, and gaudy tulips.
I love the way these late winter/early spring bulbs ease us gently into the new season. A brash yellow daff might send us reeling after the darkness of a long winter, but the shaking, nodding heads of the snowdrop are the perfect introduction to the joys of spring. There are numerous varieties, and collectors pay unbelievable sums for a single, prized bulb, but my two favourites are cheap, cheerful, and readily available.
The species, Galanthus nivalis, is the one you will probably be most familiar with. Dainty and beautifully simple, it is a classic choice for lighting up the floor of a woodland garden or a shady corner. G. nivalis ‘S. Arnott’ grows to twice the height and so makes more of an impact. You could try it in a long window box or in a container on a garden table - it has a delicious honey-like scent so lift it up to enjoy it. Snowdrops don’t like to be disturbed, so move containers to a hidden spot for the rest of the year rather than replanting seasonally.
The bright golden daff is a familiar feature along our roadsides and in our parks and gardens. If you find this type a bit brash or simply fancy a change, look out for softer, creamy varieties. Historically daffodils used to be much more modest, with smaller blooms in quieter colours. Ruffled petals make a refreshing change from the more common pointed star shape. There are numerous varieties so it’s best to pay a visit to your local garden centre to see what’s available.
A personal favourite is the pheasant’s eye daffodil (Narcissus poeticus is the name to look out for), which has white petals with a small but intense dark orange trumpet. They look more like a wild flower and are beautiful planted in twos and threes in an area of long grass, or massed together in a rustic container. If you’re planting a large area try scattering the bulbs at random on the ground and plant where they fall.
Ever since the Dutch tulipmania of the 1630s people have adored this bulb for the sheer variety of flowers it offers. We no longer sell our houses for a single specimen, as they did then, but you don’t have to look hard to see that the tulip is an enduring favourite. There are two main design options: chic and simple using a single colour for a contemporary effect; or ‘explosion in a paint factory’, with a selection of the brightly coloured little jewels to create a cheerful and relaxed picture. elebrated designer Tom Stuart-Smith has edged his own vegetable garden using the latter technique and the effect is wonderful.
As with daffodils, there is a tulip variety for everyone – ruffled or bi-coloured, in all shades from white to almost black. Designers’ favourites include ‘Spring Green’, a lovely fresh green-to-white flower, and ‘Ballerina’, a hot and daring orangey-red with gently pointed petals. When planting tulips in containers a good tip is to plant in two layers, with the top layer in the gaps above the bottom layer. This creates a full display and will make a real difference to the look of your pots.
Owners of small gardens should find all they need at local garden centres, but if you’ve got a larger area to plant have a look at the online retailers who offer discounts for bulk buys. Peter Nyssen and Bloms Bulbs both enjoy excellent reputations. For inspiration, make a date in your diary to visit Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. They have a fantastic winter walk and one of the best snowdrop collections in the country, and there’s even a good café and shop for when you need some respite from that winter chill.
Next time: The best of the rest: crocuses, winter aconites, hyacinths and more.