For most people the word bulb probably conjures up images of brightly coloured spring— the familiar , tulips and so on. However, the word bulb is, in fact, a term that encompasses all sold in a dormant condition. As well as true bulbs, these include corms, tubers and rhizomes, which produce such flowers as gladioli, dahlias and flag irises respectively.
The shape and size may differ, but they all fulfil the same basic function — that of tiding the plant over adverse conditions such as winter cold or summer drought. In order to fulfil this function they share certain characteristics, including food storage, and quick growth under suitable conditions. Their life cycle, too, is the same; during growth and flowering the following year’s flower is formed in miniature, so that when a bulb has finished flowering its leaves and roots simply die away.
This rather self-sufficient method of reproduction means that flowers from bulbs are easy to grow because their success is virtually guaranteed. You might say that common-sense plays a more important part than green fingers! As with other plants, bulbs should be planned as part of the overall garden scheme. Springare particularly useful in this respect, because they add a bright, cheerful note when little else is showing colour.
Bulbs can, of course, play a similar role to annual summer flowers, filling in spaces in newly planted. However, as with annuals, a riotous mixture of pink, yellow, blue and red can be somewhat overpowering in our opinion. A greater impact can be made by groups of one particular flower or a mixture of not more than two.
There are, in fact, bulb flowers to suit almost every purpose in the garden. Miniature spring flowering bulbs such as Narcissus nana, Iris reticulata, snowdrops and muscari, are ideal for rock gardens. The charm of their tiny flowers is undeniable, and they are welcome as a seasonal addition to alpine plants, most of which flower in mid-summer. Moreover, there are varieties of crocus to flower during autumn, winter and spring. Plant the bulbs in pockets of peatybetween rocks, where they will spread and establish themselves, their delicate flowers forming a satisfying contrast to the solid feeling of the rock.
Narcissi (including daffodils) and crocus are particularly suited to planting in grass, where they will naturalize. This need not be restricted to the formal lawn area; indeed the effect is one of distinct informality. Naturalized bulbs are successful on a grassy slope or bank, in an area of longer, rough grass, beneath a solitary tree or large shrub which has interest for a limited period of the year, or in a woodland type of garden, with a number of established trees.
In order to achieve the desired effect of informality, it is essential to avoid planting bulbs in straight lines or geometric patterns. They should simply be scattered over the area and planted where they fall, provided that they are not so close to each other that their natural growth would be restricted. Once planted, the bulbs will take care of themselves, increasing naturally from year to year. As time goes by, you will probably notice that the flowers become slightly smaller and lighter in colour.
Growing flowers from bulbs is a fast way of achieving colour and interest. You can move into a new house in early autumn and have masses of bloom just a few months later. The temporary nature of the flowers allows for a breathing space meanwhile, and during this time the permanent layout of the garden can be planned. The bulbs can, of course, be planted again as part of the layout in the following autumn.
Buying and planting bulbs
When buying bulbs look for ones that are heavy for their size, plump and free from scars and firm to the touch. If they are not to be planted straight away, open the bags for ventilation and store the bulbs in a cool, dry place.
Bulbs grow well in almost any soil thatwell, in sun or partial shade. If the soil in your garden is heavy, or clay, then add sand and peat to help ; if it is sandy, mix in a quantity of peat.
Planting time for bulbs varies. Daffodils can be planted in September, and not later than November. Tulips can be planted from October to the arrival of hard frosts, hyacinths from September to November and small bulbs like crocus and snowdrops between September and December.
Make a hole in the soil with a trowel, to the correct depth for the bulb being planted. This varies according to its size, and is approximately twice the depth of the bulb itself. Thus crocuses and snowdrops are set approximately 3in deep, hyacinths and daffodils 5-6in and tulips approximately 4in. A similar space should be allowed between bulbs.
Be sure to plant with the pointed end uppermost, cover with soil and gently firm. The soil should be kept slightly moist during the bulb’s period of growth, and it may be necessary to water during dry weather, particularly bulbs in containers.
When the bulbs have flowered and the petals start to fade, remove the dead blooms but allow the leaves to die down naturally as they will replace the food store. If bulbs are planted in grass, the leaves should die down before the grass is cut.
Bulbs can be removed from the soil when the leaves have withered; they should be cleaned, and stored in a cool, airy place that is free from frost, and can be replanted the following autumn.
If the bulbs are left in the soil, they can increase quite quickly, and may become congested after three or four years. When this happens dig up the clump, divide the bulbs and replant the largest bulbs in fresh sites where a sprinkling of bonemeal has been forked into the soil.
Which bulbs to grow?
Everyone is familiar with daffodils, crocuses, tulips and hyacinths, but there are many more less common bulbs that are well worth growing.
Less usual autumn flowering bulbs include colchicum — similar to crocuses — and nerines, delicate members of the lily family. Winter and spring see the flowers of allium, the golden ornamental garlic; anemones and fritillaria — snake’s head, which has intriguingly patterned, hood-like flowers.
Also worth growing are winter aconites, less usual species of narcissus, including N. triandrus albus, with flowers that almost resemble fragile birds in flight, and ornithogalum, the Star of Bethlehem.
Bulbs for cut flowers
Many bulb flowers are excellent for cutting. Naturalized bulbs can generally stand up to being raided with a pair of scissors. They grow in such profusion that the removal of a few blooms will not spoil the display, although the leaves should be cut as little as possible. This is also true of the miniature, such as snowdrops and muscari (grape hyacinth); both make charming table decorations.
However, it is a pity to spoil a natural outdoor display for the sake of enjoying the blooms for only a few days indoors. If you are keen to have plenty of cut flowers then, as for annuals, allocate a special part of the garden for the purpose. Summer flowering bulbs such as gladioli, freesias and dahlias can be grown with the summer annuals, since they must be lifted at the end of the growing season and replanted the following spring.
Spring flowers such as narcissus, tulips,and Dutch iris can be grown in a permanent area. The taller flowers should be staked as they grow, to give support and encourage straight stems. Bent stems are a flower arrangers’ nightmare!
Nearly all bulbs should be cut when the buds are just beginning to open, and the best time of day for cutting is early morning, when the dew is still on the flowers. After cutting place flowers in about three inches of tepid water in a clean bucket and leave for at least six hours in a cool, dark place. Narcissi should be kept separate, as these exude a milky liquid that affects the vase life of other bulb flowers.