It’s approaching that time of the year again. The bulb catalogues are landing on the door matt. I love flicking through these rather than trawling through endless websites. Garden designers and gardeners will already be thinking about next year’s schemes. Do they go with what worked this year or create a totally different scheme? As a garden designer I love the selection process, looking at colours and what works together. If you find this part challenging, seek inspiration from paintings by artists that you admire. I like looking at other cultures and traditions for inspiration. Creating an inspirational mood board can be helpful followed by another board of your selected bulbs.
Bulbs encompass all plants that have a swollen underground storage organ that helps a plant survive the dry or cold season. This includes corms, tubers, and rhizomes. However, a true bulb is the fleshy base of leaves. Most bulbs generally tend to originate from areas of the world that have wet winters and hot dry summers. These include the Mediterranean stretching towards Central Asia, California, Central Chile, Southern part of South Africa and Western and Southern Australia.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
A drift of Allium hollandicum Purple Sensation at RHS Wisley. The small flowers create a perfect purple globe head on top of the stem. The seed heads look equally interesting.
Most bulbs should be planted in their dormant state. Spring flowering bulbs are planted in autumn from around late august onwards. Avoid planting tulips until late October to early November. Tulips planted whilst the soil is still warm are susceptible to tulip fire which is fungus. Planting tulips when it is colder prevents the spores from spreading and attacking the bulbs. Summer flowering bulbs should be planted in early spring.
There are some exceptions to the rule. Snowdrops, Bluebells and Erythroniums are best planted in the green where the leaves are still on the plant. Often when you order these bulbs they arrive dried out or mouldy and are not likely to grow. It is important to prepare the soil for bulb planting. If you have heavy clay soil, try and open it up by adding gravel, horticultural grit or sharp sand (not builder sand as this holds water). Bulbs are likely to rot if they sit in claggy wet clay soil. Bulbs prefer a well-drained rich soil with lots of sand and humus.
A loamy soil is perfect. Bulbs also prefer a slightly chalky, alkaline soil to one that is acidic. This more important for bulbs that are in permanent planting places in borders. If bulbs are in containers and treated as annuals, then it is less important. The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs three times deeper than their own height.
The sculptural head of Allium schubertii that look like exploding firecrackers.
In this blog I have chosen to write about a few of my favourite bulbs.
Alliums grow on a clean stem and produce a spherical blob on top made up of small individual flowers. They are related to garlic, onions and leeks. There are some 200 varieties of alliums in cultivation. The flower colours range from various shades of purples, lilacs and blues through to reds, pinks and white. Majority of alliums prefer a sunny spot and well-drained soil. Alliums tend to have untidy leaves. The trick to planting them is to plant them between other plants so the leaves are disguised.
Allium hollandicum Purple Sensation grows to 60 – 80cm tall with a mass of starry purple flowers forming a perfect globe. Plant these on mass. They look beautiful when they are grown coming up through grasses like stipa tenuissima (Nasella tenuissima). Flowering period is May to June, but the seed heads also create interest in the garden.
Allium schubertii have very sculptural looking flowerheads which always reminds me of exploding fireworks. It has small pinky-mauve flowers on slender green curving stems. Half of them stay close to the centre and the others extend outwards creating flowers heads that can almost measure 40cm across in a spherical form. Hence the bulbs need to be spaced out. They grow to a height of 45 – 60cm flowering in early June. Make a show of them by growing them closer to the front of the border. The seed heads make stunning Christmas decoration sprayed silver, gold or copper.
Camassias grow naturally in damp marshy fertile meadows. They are perfect for clay soil. If you like flowers that naturalise in the lawn, then these are the bulbs for you. However, you have to keep in mind that the lawn cannot be mowed until July. Camassias will multiply by offsets or seed. The flower spikes of Camassia rise above the grass like foliage with the buds opening into 6 petal star shaped flowers up along the stem. Camassias are available in deep
The deep mauve flower spikes of Camassia leichtlinii caerulea. These can also be used as cut flowers in a floral display.
shades of purple through to blue, mauve, white, pale pink and plum. They can be planted in sun or dappled shade. They also look great along woodland edge. Like Alliums, Camassia do tend to have untidy looking foliage. Best to disguise the foliage by planting them amongst other plants which will hide the leaves and allow the flowers to show at their best.
Camassia quamash grows to 40cm in height and flowers in May. The flowers appear on thin wiry stems in a bluish-purple colour.
One of the finest Camassia is Camassia leichtlinii caerulea growing to a height of 70 – 90cm with deep mauve flowers in June.
Camassia leichtlinii Pale Pink grows to a height of 60 – 70cm. It has the softest pale pink flowers from May to June.
Credit: Beth Chatto Gardens
Camassia leichtlinii Pale Pink has the most delicate colour and is starting to become quite popular in planting scheme as it is a little unusual from the purple mauve Camassias
Erythroniums are commonly known as Dog’s Tooth Violet. A carpet of Erythroniums is a sight to behold. Plant them in the green. Do not order bulbs. In the wild Erythroniums grow in both coniferous and mixed evergreen forests on the edges of bogs and wooded streams. They therefore prefer damp humus-rich soil that is slightly acidic and dapple shade. In the right conditions Erythroniums will multiply.
Erythronium dens-canis is one of my favourites. It has beautifully mottled leaves, so it is not just the flowers that provide interest. The flowers having nodding heads, are a purplish pink in colour with petals swept right back. The stamens are purple colour and there is one flower per stem. Erythronium dens-canis is the only one that will tolerate a slightly alkaline to neutral soil. These will flower in early April.
Erythronium revolutum has deep green leaves with a brown mottling which really makes the flowers stand out. There are up to 4 purplish pink flowers per stems with yellow stamens. These take a while to establish and will also self-seed. They look beautiful flowering April dotted through the emerging foliage of shuttlecock ferns.
Credit: J. Parker’s
The pink nodding heads of Erythronium dens-canis rising above the striking mottled foliage.
Once settled and happy in their location these plants will slowly start to multiply. These are plants for shade.
Credit: Avon Bulbs
Erythronium revolutum also has pink nodding flowers but note how the petals are not swept backwards. This Erythronium also has mottled leaves but can also have up to 4 flowers per stem.
Eucomis are exotic looking plants that originate from South Africa. They are commonly known as pineapple lillies due to the tuft of leaves on top of the flower column. Eucomis make more of an impact through their shape and form rather than their colour. I grow mine in pots although they can be grown in borders. Eucomis like a sunny spot with fertile soil. They like plenty of water through summer. Their flowering period ranges from late July through to September. The bulbs are large, the flowers stems get heavy and are not easy to stake. It is best to plant the bulbs 15cm deep. Eucomis are perfect for growing on sunny balconies.
If you are a novice with Eucomis start with Eucomis bi-color which will start flowering in late July and will continue until September. It looks dramatic even with seed heads attached to the stem. It is a strong plant that does not tend to flop. The plant has fleshy, glossy leaves. It has a string fleshy stem that is mottled. The flowers start to open from the bottom. They are a celadon green colour with the edges of the petals blushed in burgundy. Eucomis bi-color grows up to 60cm in height.
Eucomis bi-color orginates from South Africa and it does have a lush tropical look. The tufts on top resemble the top of a pineapple hence the common name Pineapple Lily.
Credit: Avon Bulbs
Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy is a much taller plant than bi-color. The pale pink flowers that stand out against the dark stem, look at you right in the eye unlike the shy nodding heads of Eucomis bi-color.
Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy is a very handsome plant. The new leaves appear a rich purple fading to a bronze as they mature. This is a much taller plant growing to a height of 90cm. The stem is a maroon colour which sets off the flowers. When they first open, they are slightly creamy in colour but mature to a pale pink. Unlike Eucomis bi-colour where the flowers nod, Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy flowers look at you in the eye.
Fritalleria imperalis commonly known as Crown Imperials and there is something very regal about these plants. The originate from south-east Turkey, western Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. They should be planted in late summer or early autumn, preferring a humus-rich, well manured, well-drained soil that is slightly alkaline. It is best to set each bulb on its side in the planting hole. This prevent water ingress into the centre rotting off the heart of the bulb.
If your soil is heavy clay use grit at the base and surround the bulb with the same. The bulbs of Fritalleria imperalis are big and should be planted 30cm deep. Failure often happens when they have been planted very shallow. They are greedy plant. Mulch them every year with mushroom compost or organic compost. They do take a while to settle but once successful they will thicken up quickly.
Cheerful yellow nodding flowers of the Fritalleria imperalis Maxima Lutea. Not commonly seen in the wild as much as the orange flowering varieties Although both are becoming quite rare in the countries they originate from, as the local people are selling them as cut flowers to try and make a living.
Credit: Avon Bulbs
Impressive flower heasds of Fritalleria imperalis William Rex
Fritalleria imperalis Maxima Lutea are the yellow flowering forms. They have thick green stems and whirls of shiny, pale green leaves. It has nodding bell shaped flowers and flowers in early April. Plant them dotted amongst drifts of dark coloured tulips such as Black Parrot or Black Hero and you will get your rewards
Fritalleria imperalis William Rex is the orange flowering form and have thick dark bronze stems with whirls of pale green leaves. They flower in early April looking stunning between peach double form tulips such as La Belle Epoque or Copper image with a few Tulipa Sarah Raven dotted through.
Tulips make beautiful cut flowers. When the petals spread open to show the centres and the stems bend and sway, I am reminded of the paintings by the Dutch masters. Tulips are abundant in colour and range from the singles to the doubles, parrots, viridiflora, botanical and lily forms. In all there are 15 different groups of tulips. They flower from late February to May. If you want your tulips to look perfect every year, treat them as an annual and plant new bulbs. Tulips prefer a well-drained soil that is slightly alkaline. I tend to plant mine in pots with a mix of loam and grit and position them in a bright spot but not direct sunlight.
Once the bulbs are planted I either put a layer of grit on top to finish it off or plant violas from which the tulips will emerge in Spring. This prevent weeds from growing and also stops the birds from pecking at the compost. A trick to stop squirrels is to dip the bulbs in chilli powder or to cover the top of the pot with chicken wire until the leaves emerge in spring. Tulips are great for There are so many tulips that I love but the blow are some of my favourites
Tulipa Princess Irene
Is a sunset orange with a maroon purple flame through the middle of the outer petals. It looks stunning paired with Tulipa Pretty Princess.
Tulipa La Belle Epoque
Is a stunning tulip with old world charm. A double form tulip in a peachy cappuccino colour flushed with pink. Teamed with Tulipa Princess Irene or Hermitage creates a real opulent look.
Is similar to Princess Irene but richer tones. It is blood orange with maroon purple flame through the middle of the outer petals.
Tulipa Turkestanica is a multi-headed specie tulip. The bulbs are tiny in comparison to many other tulips. They will last for many seasons and continue to multiply. Grow them at the front of borders and they are small. A white tulip with pointed petals that gradually open to show the yellow centre. These can also be planted in lawns to naturalise.
Is a wild native tulip that is perfect for naturalising in lawns and meadows. It is a cheerful bright yellow colour with thin dainty stems. Once planted the bulbs will last for decades. Another one to grow at the front of a border or even in containers mixed with other plants.