Your autumn bulb planting questions answered

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It’s a busy and important time of the year for garden forward planning with the added pressure that many of these tasks are time-sensitive too; at AMPG, there’s no doubt that we entering prime planting season. But whilst you’re considering plugging border gaps with herbaceous, trees or shrubs, don’t forget about that group of plants which are indispensable in extending your garden’s interest early in the year, bulbs.

Now’s the perfect time to reach for your plant catalogues and think about planting spring-flowering bulbs. Here at the studio, we’re in the thick of collating all our bulbs orders, with Mary Guinness heading up all our client requirement lists.

Adding bulbs to a border is an easy way to inject interest and colour into a flat border before many perennials have got going, with the added benefit of taking up a minimum of space. And whilst the addition of bulbs will create an added sparkle in late winter and spring, early pollinating insects will certainly thank you for the additional food source too.

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions from our clients. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, then feel free to ask in our comments section, here at AMPG, we’re always happy to help.

What spring bulbs flower best in shade?

Our native bulbs; bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemones and lent lily daffodils, are all primarily woodlanders, so try and reproduce these soil conditions for shade loving bulbs to do well. In natural woodlands the sheer volume of fallen autumn leaves means that the soil is naturally light with a high humus content.Dig over the soil where you plan to plant adding compost, leaf mould, or fine composted bark, then plant carpets of blue Anemone blanda, golden Eranthis hyemalis, marbled Cyclamen hederifolium, blue Scilla bithyinica, Chionodoxa forbesii and Anemone nemorosa. Or why not try Erythroniums (dog’s-tooth violets), massed snowdrops (try G. ‘S. Arnott’ or ‘Magnet’), Leucojums, daffodils, fritillaries (particularly F. meleagris, thunbergii and acmopetala), Epimediums, Muscari or delicate crocuses such as lilac-coloured C. tommasinianus or the bright blue, autumn flowering C. speciosus. Finally, Lilies with turks cap flowers such as Lilium martagon and L. lancifolium are also happy to bloom in moist shady conditions.

Can you suggest what bulbs to plant for a succession of bloom during spring and early summer?

My favorite bulbs to provide early flowers in the year include daffodils (Narcissus ‘Tete a tete’, N. Thalia and N. ‘Hawera’), the larger flowering blooms of Crocus tommasinianus, starry gentian-blue Chionodoxa lucillae, and my favourite snowdrop Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, followed in quick succession by a feast of tulips. I have hundreds of Tulipa ‘Havran’ mixed with Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ and Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ in pots and border through my garden. For early summer, I wouldn’t be without the bold pom-poms of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ striding through borders, followed by scatters of the tiny, but effective, purple-green buttons of A. sphaerocephalon.

I’d like some fragrance in my garden, which spring bulb varieties can I grow to give me this?

Hyacinths produce clouds of perfume and I love to grow them in shallow pots on the garden table, to be quickly transferred indoors as a table centerpiece when in full bloom.  One of the most beautiful hyacinths, ‘Carnegie’ offers gorgeous pure-white blooms, whilst ‘City of Haarlem’ has soft, primrose-yellow flowers, ‘Hollyhock’ is extra special because of its double red-pink blooms. A classic variety, ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ bears rich, deep violet-blue blooms that contrast beautifully against lighter-colored flowers. All smell great.
For scented tulips, I’d recommend three old favourites, orange flamed deep red ‘Prinses Irene’, the bold orange color of T. ‘Ballerina’ tulip, darkest red ‘Couleur Cardinal’ (dark red with purple-blue flaming) and blush-pink semi-double ‘Angelique’ with itspeony-like blooms. As far as daffodils are concerned, Narcissus ‘Thalia’ offers beautiful pure white blooms that are exquisitely fragrant. A gorgeous heirloom from the 1920s, N. ‘Actaea’ offers white petals, a red-rimmed cup, and a spicy scent, whilst a variety dating back to the the 1930s, N. ‘Geranium’ boasts orange and white flowers with a good strong fragrance.

‘Once my daffs and hyacinths have flowered what do I do with them so they will flower next year.  They are in pots on my terrace.’ 

If you’d like a new display next year, why not add your bulbs to flowerbeds and borders once they’ve finished blooming. There’s no doubt that new bulbs planted annually will give the best display, but if given plenty of plant food and water, many bulbs will continue to give a good show for several years.

I’d like to know what I need to do to the daffodil bulbs once the flowers have bloomed in spring, and I’m just left with the wilting green leaves.  

Though they look ugly, don’t be tempted to tie cut spent daffodils off for at least six weeks after flowering. Whilst dying back, the leaves help provide food stores for the bulbs for next year. You could try planting your daffs with perennials which will flower once the daffodils have finished and disguise the foliage too. Favourite camouflage plants include Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’, Nepeta ‘Six Hill’s Giant’ and Paeonia’Buckeye Belle’.

What way round do I plant bulbs – point up or down, I can never remember.

Plant your bulbs with the flat side down, and the pointy end up. If this isn’t obvious, you can plant the bulb on it’s side, the foliage and stems will find their own way up.

I love my tulips but find that the wind often breaks their stems. What can I do to prevent this eg grow in tight clumps or are some tulip varieties sturdier than others?

A few well hidden short bamboo canes and a loop of twine can do wonders. Also, too much feeding, especially with a high nitrogen feed can cause weak stems. It may seem obvious, but do make sure your tulips aren’t planted in too windy a position. Or, finally, choose those with shorter stems including the Kaufmaniana and Greigii hybrids whose  large flowered short stemmed flowers come in a spectacular range of bold colours. They are perfect for container cultivation and include fiery red large flowers of Tulipa ‘Double Red Riding Hood’, unusual orange and red T. ‘Early Harvest’ and warm yellow, striped scarlet red T. ‘Stresa’.

Why do my daffodils produce lots of leaves but no flowers?

This tends to happen when bulbs have become overcrowded and unfed after a few years in the ground; bulbs are healthy but haven’t got enough energy to produce flowers; commonly known as ‘blindness’. Lift and divide congested clumps and replant them into prepared ground, keeping them well fed and watered. Sometimes a pest or disease can be the cause of bulb blindness, but the foliage would be affected too.

What are the best tips on growing bulbs in containers?

Plant bulbs densely, without touching, much closer than you would in the open border. And why not plant bulbs in layers, one variety above another to create a succession of bloom and a long show of flowers. Feed regularly, water well and place containers well out of the way of drying, toppling winds.

Should I deadhead my bulbs like other garden flowers?

Definitely. Your bulbs won’t necessarily produce more bloom, but the energy used in producing seed is better retained in the bulb to provide a good display next year. Ideally cut the flower stem (not the leaves) back to the base, but a quick nip of the whole fading flower head is sufficient.