LOOKING ahead is one of the joys of gardening and planting up next year’s spring bulb display is top of my agenda just now. Although it’s much easier to plant bulbs in the ground, you need a lot of, say crocuses or scillas, for a good show.
But you get a fantastic effect in a small space by close planting in pots. I always have some near to the front door and on the dyke just outside the kitchen window. I can see the blooms up close and enjoy a glorious waft of fragrance every time I pass. Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’, Tulipa hageri ‘Little Beauty’ and the well known Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête always take pride of place.
As we know to our cost, the delicate petals of some of the early flowering bulbs such as crocuses and dwarf irises can be hammered by wind and heavy rain. But during the worst of the weather you can easily shelter pots against a wall or even bring them into the conservatory.
I have always found you get a much more effective show by restricting yourself to one species or cultivar per pot. Mixed colours can be messy and you get fewer flowers at a time with successional planting.
Crocus are brilliant performers. I love the beautifully scented, creamy yellow flowers of Crocus chrysanthus and reddish purple cultivars of the equally early C. tommasianus. Choose bulbs that look good in bud as well as when the flowers magically burst open in the sun. ‘Ladykiller’ and ‘Orange Monarch’ are both prettily streaked on the outsides of the petals.
One of the best spring blues is Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’. Each bulb produces several stems over about five weeks with 3 or 4 flowers to a stem.
Muscari, Grape hyacinths, also have great blue flower spikes but are slightly taller so might need a deeper pot. Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ and Mascara aucheri ‘Blue Magic’ are tidy growers and less likely to flop.
So what kind of pots and compost to use?
I think you get best effect by using wide, shallow pots, with a diameter of at least 30cm and a minimum depth of 15cm. The bulbs need around 10cm of compost under their roots and each needs to be planted with three times the height of the bulb in depth of compost above it. For best effect, I cram bulbs in so they almost, but don’t quite, touch.
Finish off with a layer of horticultural grit to prevent rain splashing the compost on to emerging leaves and flower buds.
A truly frost-proof terracotta pot always looks best, even if it won’t last as long as an environmentally damaging plastic one. And in the all-too-likely event of a wet winter, terracotta does absorb some of the excess water. Slightly raise the pot above the surface to allow for drainage.
Ensure the pot or pots do not freeze solid, especially if the compost has been saturated with rain. A sheltered corner against the house wall will be a couple of degrees warmer than the open. Pots can also be grouped together and wrapped in jute, hessian or wool.
Some of our garden visitors prefer the bulbs before they start growing. So I use a circle of galvanised wire netting to stop squirrels, mice and badgers trashing the pots and eating the bulbs. Make the cover slightly wider than the surface and poke it in round the inner perimeter. Then cover with coarse grit.
Feed the bulbs once they have finished flowering so that they can recharge. Put the pot in an out of the way place and next autumn tip out, put in fresh compost and replant the bulbs.
Plant of the week
Cornus mas, Cornelian cherry, is a large shrub or small tree with lance-shaped, pendent leaves that turn a pretty shade of claret in autumn. In early spring it produces fluffy, yellow flowers followed by shiny, bright red fruits. These are edible when ripe.