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Sleeping Beauties

Bulb planting season is upon us. Here’s some top tips for getting the job done quickly, efficiently and relatively pain free.

January 4, 2021
Bulb planting season is upon us. Here’s some top tips for getting the job done quickly, efficiently and relatively pain free.

There’s always something to do in a garden, but right now, I’m feeling relaxed about mine. The weeds have stopped growing. Borders are overflowing with glorious grasses and colourful perennials. Autumn berries and crab apples glisten like jewels from branches. And as the first fiery leaves blaze on the Acers, I can take my foot off the pedal- which is why I’ve just succumbed to those tempting bulb catalogues again and ordered lots of bulbs. It’s so easy to get carried away buying bulbs in sunny September but far less appealing planting them in cold, grey November.

Bulb planting is not my favourite job. Give me weeding any day. Hours bent double with little to show for your efforts except muddy boots and an aching back.  

Yet so worth it! Because nothing brings a garden alive in spring like bulbs. Flowering just when we need that injection of colour to lift the spirits after a long, beige winter. 

So, don’t put away your boots just yet. There’s still plenty of time to plant bulbs for a truly breath-taking display of colour from New Year’s Day right up to June, when summer perennials pick up the baton.

Best Bulbs for Successional Spring Colour  

Earliest to flower are those tiny carpeting bulbs growing well under deciduous trees and shrubs, in swathes through your borders, or in grass. Mix species together, they enjoy each other’s company.

Galanthus elwesii, is a tall, elegant snowdrop flowering on New Year’s Day. 

Eranthus hyemalis, winter aconite, has bright, cheery yellow flowers, in early February. 

Crocus crysanthus Blue Pearl
Crocus crysanthus Blue Pearl

Crocus are cheap, reliable and soon bulk up. One of the loveliest is Crocus chrysanthus Blue Pearl- those delicate, pearlescent flowers will stop you in your tracks. Or try mixing Crocus tommmasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ with ‘Bar’s Purple’ for a wash of mauves through grass. Go mad, plant thousands, you need that mass of tiny flowers to create an impact.

Unexpected in winter is exquisite, miniature Iris reticulata ‘J.S. Djt’, with wine coloured flowers, is ideal for pots.

And for a jolt of electric blue mid-March try Scilla siberica, a tiny, nodding squill, great for bumblebees too. 

Narcissus Cheerfulness with Tulips Princess Irene
Narcissus Cheerfulness with Tulips Princess Irene

Flowering next are Daffodils. Narcissus Tete a Tete is a reliable early splash of yellow, lovely in grass or clumps of 20 amongst borders. 

N. minnow has small, dainty flowers, so pretty with blue scillas.

My go-to favourite for borders is Narcissus Thalia. Those delicate, fragrant white flowers are beautiful in clumps of 20 repeated through your borders.

For something frilly and froufrou try N. cheerfulness, lovely teamed with early apricot tulips. 

Narcissus poeticus Pheasant's Eye Rucurvus, perfect for naturalising in long grass
Narcissus poeticus Pheasant's Eye Rucurvus, perfect for naturalising in long grass

Larger daffodils are great for naturalising through long grass which hides their dying foliage. In our orchard we’ve planted thousands of Narcissus Actaea and N. poeticus Pheasant’s Eye Recurvus, their white reflexed flowers perfectly timed with the fruit blossom.

Following from April onwards are Tulips. And with so many colours and flower forms to choose from, you will be spoilt for choice. 

For easy planting I stick to a colour scheme, pick three or four varieties, and mix them together in drifts of 20s amongst the borders.

For a rhapsody of pinks try Angelique, Negrita, China Pink and Mistress.

For apricots mix Princess Irene with Ronaldo, Menton and Apricot Beauty.

For a tonal contrast try dark, sultry Queen of the Night with elegant White Triumphator.

If you prefer only whites, my favourite of all is Tulipa Spring Green with a delicate green wash over white petals.

Tulips will only last 2-3 years but are well worth the investment.

Allium Purple Sensation at Ellicar Gardens
Allium Purple Sensation at Ellicar Gardens

Next up are Alliums. Those purple balls balancing on tall, thin stems appear to float through the garden - magic teamed with silver foliage. I like to mix Allium Purple Sensation with A. Violet Beauty, planted in drifts of 50 in the borders. 

For later flowers try the smaller drum stick Allium sphaerocephalon, fabulous in swirls amongst tall grasses and perennials.


How much is enough?

You can’t plant too many bulbs. We’ve planted over 80,000 here at Ellicar Gardens in the last 10 years and we’re planting another 6000 this autumn.

The key to success is be generous. Think of a number then add a nought. So, if you imagine 20 tulips are enough for that border, better make it 200. If you are dreaming of a carpet of crocus, 300 go nowhere, better make it 3000. Think bluebell woods in spring, try counting the flowers and you start to get the picture.

Narcissus Thahlia with Tulipa Purissima and spring perennials at Ellicar
Narcissus Thahlia with Tulipa Purissima and spring perennials at Ellicar

For tiny bulbs like iris, crocus, snowdrops you could easily plant at a density of 50-100 per m2 or swathe.

For larger flowered bulbs like tulips and alliums, aim for 20-50 per drift, repeated throughout a border for maximum impact.


When to Plant

Mid October – end of December is ideal for bulb planting; tulips are best planted after the first frost.

But I’m going to confess I once left some tulips lurking in their paper bag until early February and they still flowered beautifully.


Bulb Planting Made Easy

The best way to plant bulbs is quickly and efficiently. Like pulling teeth. 

Commercially we plant around 500 bulbs per hour. So forget that single hole bulb planter tool, it will only give you repetitive strain. Best is a narrow spade, a warren hoe or a sharp trowel. Use a large trug to mix varieties together. Divide all your bulbs up into 2L pots (20 per pot) and set them out in position in your borders. Think about how they grow. Early daffodils are followed by tulips then alliums, often flowering in the same spot, so you can plant these together in the same hole, which saves digging the same patch of border several times.

Scilla siberica with Narcissus Minnow
Scilla siberica with Narcissus Minnow 1200

For larger bulbs, use your spade to make a deep, vertical slit in the soil, wiggle it backwards and forwards to open up the soil, then push in 3-5 bulbs. Tread the soil back and repeat in a random pattern.

As a guide daffodils, alliums and tulips are planted a spade deep.

For smaller bulbs ruffle the soil surface with a warren hoe or trowel, then tip out your bulbs, spread them out and simply push them under the soil so they are covered. 

While it is nice to plant bulbs pointy/shoot end up, flat/root end down, this is fiddly and time consuming and not necessary. The stem will grow to the surface and bulbs have contractile roots so will find their preferred depth and position in the soil.

Cover your bulbs with bark mulch and forget all about them until they pop up to blow your socks off you next spring.

For more bulb planning, supply and planting contact sarah@ellicargardens.co.uk

Visit Ellicar Gardens in Winter/Spring 2020 for winter gardens, bulbs and blossom

See www.ellicargardens.co.uk for more information

Mail order suppliers:

J Parkers Wholesale Bulbs https://www.dutchbulbs.co.uk

Avon Bulbs https://www.avonbulbs.co.uk

Gee Tee Bulb Company https://www.gee-tee.co.uk