Bulb planting is not a task for the faint hearted. It gives no instant gratification and can be back and wrist breaking work, especially if the soil is hard and compacted, but it is one of those jobs in the garden that provides a reward that far outstrips the effort involved. Even more so if, like me, you have completely forgotten the pain by the time those little shoots start pushing through the soil.
Last November I must have planted close to 5000 bulbs in various gardens in London and Surrey. They ranged from tiny crocus and grape hyacinth to the huge exotic crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) and everything in between. Planting bulbs at this time of year is an excellent way of getting the garden ready for the winter. You are absolutely forced to clear every weed and leaf from the borders and to cut back perennials to give you debris free ground on which to position the bulbs ready for planting. There is something very beautiful about drifts of unplanted tulip bulbs, perfectly placed, glinting softly in the autumn sunshine in the exact positions where the vibrant blooms will appear in April or May.
I like to plant tulips in teardrop-shaped drifts, daffodils in clumps and alliums dotted through borders in a continuous sine wave shaped line from the front to the back of the border along its length. I use snowdrops and crocuses near front doors, along driveways and close to the house. They look particularly good on banks and under trees too, but the squirrels love them, so watch out! Cyclamen hederifolium is perfect for under acers when the timing works perfectly. You will just get the autumn leaf colour when they come into flower and then the fallen leaves form a colourful carpet beneath.
I plant daffodils in groups, in odd numbers. I particularly like dwarf and miniature daffodils for containers. A couple of my favourite dwarf varieties are the bright yellow Tete a Tete which is an excellent naturaliser, and the less common Elka, a delicate free flowering little daffodil with milky white pointed perianth petals and a creamy yellow trumpet that fades to creamy white.
For large borders, I love mid-season tulips for their bold colour in April and May. They have strong stems and are therefore weather resistant and give you the opportunity to have some fun with colour.
Try Annie Schilder, a stunning soft orange flushed with pink merging to golden orange at the edges of the petals, with a very dark stem that contrasts beautifully. I also love the apricot orange of Apricot Foxx, the petals are flushed with salmon pink on the outside and merge to soft apricot yellow at the edges. New Design is another favourite. It has a soft yellow flower merging into light pink towards the edges of the petals that are outlined in rosy red. It also has unusually attractive foliage that has a silvery edge with a flush of soft pink. Or for a really zingy deep fuchsia pink, try Barcelona, it is spectacular. If you are a purist and simply must have white, White Dream is a lovely example of a classic rounded bloom and long lasting too.
If you are going to choose one single allium, Purple Sensation is always a great addition to the June border. But if you want to try something a bit more unusual, plant Allium cernuum, with pendant pink flowers on near black stems, or Allium Hair which is just like sphaerocephalon with long, irregular fresh green stems emerging from its rich reddish-purple centre. Both are lovely in large planted containers for an early summer display and make good talking points too!
If you got your bulbs in last autumn, you should be starting to see the appearance of snowdrops now and maybe the beginnings of the dwarf and early daffodils. So sit back and watch those hidden gems emerge!