Beginners Guide To Garden Bulbs

Bulbs pay a rich dividend in the garden nearly all the year round. It’s possible, too, with their help, to have a fair succession of colour indoors. They will flourish in almost any soil, provided it’s well-drained, and are tolerant in most situations, in sun or shade. They’re also easy to cultivate and maintain – and cheap to buy. On top of all this there are very few casualties involved, a fact which ought to encourage the beginner. They’ve been around a long time, too. King Solomon’s garden, it is said, boasted crocuses and lilies. So full marks to the Dutch, who are really responsible for making the world bulb-conscious!

But to business. Be selective when buying bulbs. Go to a good dealer and buy healthy, good-sized types. They should feel firm and dry. Avoid those with dents, cuts, bruises and signs of mildew. And keep clear of those with patches or bulbs that are starting to shoot.

Daffodil bulbs may have two or three ‘noses’, which makes them ideal for indoor growing; these can produce up to six flowers. Single-nosed bulbs are suitable for permanent bedding, and if you’ve a good-sized site allow about five hundred bulbs for an area twenty by two yards.

When you buy tulips don’t worry if bulbs have lost their outer brown skins. And hyacinth bulbs, remember, feel hard and rather heavy in relation to their size. For exhibition blooms choose those eighteen or nineteen centimetres round. These are best for indoor pots and bowls. You can, of course, buy smaller bulbs for bedding outdoors. Nine centimetres round is a good size for corms of crocuses for indoor pots.

All bulbs should be planted as soon as possible after buying, bearing in mind that the time to plant is important. Spring-flowering types can be planted any time from September to mid-December, although in the case of daffodils it’s best to get them in before the end of October. Plant autumn crocuses and colchicums (called ‘naked ladies’ by some because they flower before their leaves develop!) in August. Summer-flowering bulbs should be planted in early spring; lilies in late autumn.

Planting depths are important too. As a general guide, bulbs are planted with their tops about three times the diameter of the bulb below ground. Plant with the pointed end uppermost, although some tubers have to go horizontally. Anemones can be tricky as there isn’t much indication of which end is which, so it’s necessary to look carefully for clues showing signs of previous stem or roots. Hyacinths, daffodils and tulips are planted at a depth of six inches; other smaller bulbs about four inches. Spacing is a matter of personal inclination, but it’s worth remembering that bulbs planted in clusters look most spectacular.

Many bulbs can be planted and left undisturbed to increase naturally in grass, among the shrubs or round trees. Daffodils do very well in grass. Crocuses like full sun. But in all cases avoid too formal an array of bulbs; it’s a good idea just to throw them down (gently, of course) and plant them where they fall. They can be grown almost anywhere in the garden. Most like partial shade. Flowers must be removed when they fade, but foliage left. Some spring-flowering types should be lifted after flowering and, when foliage has died down, stored somewhere frost-free until it’s time to replant them. Lilies, anemones and ranunculuses should be lifted and protected.

Bulbs can also be forced in frames or greenhouses, but after one forcing they’re no use again for indoor display, although they’ll bloom quite happily and add to the scene, planted out in the garden.

Words must be said regarding bulbs in bowls, grown in fibre, which you should be able to buy without too much trouble. If you want to make your own, however, the usual ingredients are six parts peat, two parts oyster shell and one part crushed charcoal. The fibre must be moist before going into the bowls, but not excessively so. Bowls need have no drainage holes, by the way, unless you plan to grow bulbs in sandy soil; in this case drainage is essential, otherwise your bulbs will rot. Don’t pack the soil or fibre too solidly under bulbs or their roots may force them out of their containers. With the exception of stem-rooting lilies, bulbs should have their tips exposed. Do not bunch bulbs together, or place them too near the side of the bowl. And leave an inch between the top of the fibre and the rim of the bowl to allow for watering.

After planting put the bowls (or whatever container is used) somewhere cool, dark and well-ventilated, or plunge them outdoors under about six inches of soil, sand, ashes or peat, until their root systems have developed; this usually takes a couple of months. You can also force bulbs by enclosing the containers in black polythene bags. When shoots appear bring containers out, first into subdued light, then a week or so later into full light. The height of the shoots on removal from dark conditions should be: crocus-half an inch; daffodil, iris, tulip and hyacinth – one to one-and-a-half inches.

Some bulbs grow well on small pebbles in shallow containers’. Insert them about half way down in the pebbles and keep them watered below bulb level. Various other containers are available for bulbs – for example, you can buy special crocus pots and a variety of water containers.

It’s as well to keep an eye out for trouble. Yellowing of leaves means incorrect watering or draughts. Buds failing to open means the temperature at the forcing stage was too high. Stunted growth, limpness or collapse means the bulbs were removed into the light too soon. The correct temperature during the forcing period is about 50°F.

All in all, though, bulbs are fairly trouble-free items. While seeds have a habit of disappearing without trace, and new plants give you that uneasy initial period when you wonder if they’ve ‘taken’, bulbs can be expected to do their stuff nobly.

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