Bulbs: dig deep now and reap the rewards come spring
Now is the time to plant bulbs that will give you armfuls of spring and summer flowers
I love the magic, the promise and the muddy-fingered industry of planting flower bulbs in autumn. Not only does it feel like an expression of hope, but it’s also an exercise in patience- one that comes with the sweet reward of armfuls of spring flowers at a time when they couldn’t be more welcome. With that in mind, here’s a shortlist of bulb species/ varieties that are well worth seeking out for planting in the garden between now and late October. The only exception is the tulip, which you should delay planting until November. But order them now, while stocks of the best varieties are still high.
Muscari latifolium I first saw this lovely species of the grape hyacinth in Holland a few years ago. A native of Turkey, its two-toned flowers (inky blue buds, topped off with a crown of violet-blue flowers) appear in March, and are a much more elegant alternative to the common grape hyacinth (Muscari armenaicum).
For best results, plant the bulbs 4in/10cm deep into moderately fertile soil in either full sun or light shade. (Height and spread of 6in/15cm x 4 in/10cm)
Camassia leichtlinii Some bulbous plants struggle in our damp, mild climate, but not Camassia leichtlinii, a species that hails from the damp meadows of North America and flourishes in moist soil and dappled shade as long as it’s given adequate drainage.
Dublin-based garden designers Oliver and Liat Schurmann of Mount Venus nursery have used it to dramatic effect in one Wicklow garden they’ve recently designed; a sloping mountainous meadow where the plant has become naturalised, producing tall, starry flower spikes en-masse (these are typically blue, but there’s also a white-flowering form “Alba”) in late spring/early summer. Plant bulbs 3in/7.5cm deep, 8in/20cm apart in drifts. (Height and spread 1m x 1m).
Iris reticulata: Its tiny flowers typically appear in February/March and look best grown in a handsome container, or a raised alpine/ gravel bed, where their subtle veinings and markings can be properly appreciated, while the plant also appreciates the extra- sharp drainage. Look out for Iris “Harmony” (deep blue flowers with yellow/white markings), “Alida” (blue with yellow markings, vigorous) and “Katharine Hodgkin” (yellow with blue/green markings). Plant bulbs 5in/12.5 cm deep and 4in/10cm apart into well-drained, rich soil/loam- based compost in full sun. (Height of 5-6in/ 12.5-15cm)
Gladiolus communis (subsp byzantinus) If you can’t help thinking that all gladioli are a little, shall we say, brash, then Gladiolus byzantinus will change your mind, proving that species-types are often so much more graceful than their overbred hybrid counterparts.
A hardy perennial that enjoys full sun and a very well-drained, sheltered site (it’s also quite happy in a pot/ container), its tall, deep magenta flower spikes appear in May/ June and are a lovely accompaniment to other early summer-flowering plants such as delphiniums, euphorbias, foxgloves, astrantias and silver foliage plants. Plant the corms 4-6in/ 10-15cm deep, (height 60cm)
Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ A Victorian variety named after the famous Irish gardener William Robinson, this hardy, dainty woodland plant is happy in light shade and moist but well-drained soil, so give it a spot beneath the branches of an early-flowering deciduous shrubs (for example witch hazel) or a small tree. Its ethereally beautiful, pale blue flowers are produced in April-May.
Plant the rhizomes 2-3in deep in generous drifts (height and spread of 6in/15cm x 12in/ 30cm)
Narcissus ‘Sailboat’: Another exceptionally fine bulbous variety that I first saw flowering in De Theetuin, the gardens of the Dutch garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet southeast of Amsterdam. A jonquil-type daffodil, its deeply scented, ivory-white/primrose yellow flowers are carried in small clusters atop slender stems, and appear March-April. Give it full sun/light shade and a well- drained soil (height and spread 12in/30cm x 4in/10cm).
Tulips: Varieties that I’m planning to plant this autumn include “Pittsburgh” (April-May flowering,Triumph-type, 50cm tall, raspberry-pink with a silvery sheen); “Purple Flag” (April-May flowering,Triumph-type, 45cm tall with royal purple flowers); “Belle Epoque” (double-late type, 45cm tall, with antique-pink ruffled double flowers). Plant bulbs very deep (at least 10in/25cm) into fertile, well drained soil to encourage them to reflower in subsequent years.
Crocus tommasinianus: If you’re looking for a crocus that will naturalise itself in wilder areas of the garden to create gentle drifts of colour in early spring, this is the one. Happy in poor to average soil, either in full sun or in light shade beneath the branches of deciduous shrubs and trees, it produces its star-shaped, golden-stamened, purple flowers in February-March. Plant the bulbs 4in/10cm deep in generous drifts. Height 4in/10cm.
Recommended Irish specialist bulb suppliers include Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) and Beechill Bulbs (bulbs.ie), while good specialist UK suppliers include Avon Bulbs (avonbulbs.co.uk), Sarah Raven (sarahraven.com) and Peter Nyssen (peternyssen.com).