Bulbs and Corms For The Beginner To Gardening

Bulbs and corms – what a glorious picture they bring to my mind! I can see the drifting mass of bluebells in a wood at Cranbrook; I bring to memory the wealth of yellow and gold of the daffodils in the park land which I used to see in the spring as I drove up to my office at the Cheshire School of Agriculture. I can picture the mass of tulips inter-planted with Indigo Blue forget-me-nots which I once tended with care on the terraces of the Swanley Horticultural College and then as I write there comes to my mind the visit paid to a Royal Garden in the north in order to see the baby narcissus only 25 mm (1 in) or so high in the rock garden.

Bulbs and corms have a very great part to play not only in the formal beds but in the wilder or more natural parts of the garden. I am going to discuss the planting of the bulbs in the open and intend to use the word bulb to cover corms and on occasion perhaps even tubers. The true bulb when cut across has those layers of flesh which overlap each other in a similar manner to the onion. The true corm such as montbretia or gladioli has a fleshy body and does not consist of a number of layers of flesh like the bulb. It produces a new corm each season, usually above the old one. The tuber is like the potato, being solid and having a number of eyes growing in it. Begonias and anemones are typical tubers treated as bulbs.

Bulbs can be regarded as an investment. If they are treated properly they will last for years. Start by buying good bulbs from a reliable nurseryman. Don’t stick to the ordinary kinds of bulbs like the daffodils and tulips. Be ambitious and try some of the more unusual types.


Most readers will have seen in parks or big gardens how bulbs can be used in formal beds – square, circular, cut out of the lawn, or surrounded with crazy paving – the sort of beds that you have in a rose garden. In the suburbs formal bedding is very popular in the front garden of the modern house. These beds are usually shaped to suit the outline of the house and are generally planted out on the square system with say, dahlias 300 mm (1 ft) apart or geraniums at the same distance, or even antirrhinums 225 mm (9 in) square.

When bulbs are used they are usually planted in parallel lines and parallel to the edges of the bed if square or rectangular. When the bed is circular or half-moon shaped, then a diagonal planting scheme is usually adopted. It is never wise to attempt to carry out complicated systems of planting. Stick to one colour and get a really good mass or if you must have more than one colour, arrange for a quarter of the bed to be red, one quarter white, one quarter mauve, and one quarter pink. This is the sort of thing that can be done with tulips. Personally I would never use four colours in this way in one bed. I would much rather use, say, just red and white – either the two opposite quarters red, and vice versa, or else white tulips interplanted with red. The same sort of tricks may of course be played with hyacinths.

In the case of a circular bed it is possible to plant up the centre with a mass of one colour and then to plant another lighter colour in ever-widening circles all round. In the ordinary way, you will arrange to have one type of bulb in one bed but there are exceptions that prove the rule – for instance you can have a centrepiece of an early flowering tulip and the surround could be rows of hyacinths.

This bedding out has to be done properly. Straight lines must be straight lines, or the whole effect looks hideous. Circles must be exactly round and they should radiate from one central point. Spend time in marking the actual spots where the bulbs have to go. See that the right angles are right angles or otherwise when the bulbs come up every-one will see how careless you have been.


Though bulbs can be used by themselves they always look better when what are called ‘carpeting plants’ are growing in between. See that the bulbs are planted exactly the same depth so that they all come up and flower at the same period. Bulbs planted deeper than others flower later and so spoil the whole effect. Little bulbs like Chionodoxas and Scillas can be planted 75 mm (3 in) deep or so around the edge of a border and left there to come up year after year. I have planted them around the edges of the beds in my rose garden and the effect in the spring is very pleasing.


All kinds of tulips may be used for bedding. There are those that flower in April and those that bloom later in May, like the May flowerers, Cottage and Darwins. Plant in October in good soil enriched with properly composted vegetable refuse, dug in a spade’s depth, at the rate of, say, a half bucketful per square metre. Fork a good fish manure into the top 75 or 100 mm at 105 g/m2 (3 or 4 in at 3 oz per sq yd) and apply a top dressing of hydrated lime at a similar rate.

Plant the bulbs 300 mm (12 in) apart in the rows and 225 mm (9 in) apart between the rows. Then put out the carpeting plants in between. There are all kinds of tulips that can be used but I can recommend the following:

Early Doubles

Madame Testout, a pink; Beach Blossom, a bright pink; and Marechal Niel, a shaded orange.

Single Earlies

Pink Beauty, a soft pink; Prince of Austria, a scented scarlet; Marshal Joffre, a bright yellow; and Brilliant Star.

Paeony Flowerers

Parisian Yellow; Eros, an old rose; Lilac Perfection; Grand National, a golden yellow; and Orange Triumph, a bright orange.


Bartigon, a bright red; Golden Harvest, a yellow; Pilgrim, a mauve; Queen of Night, an almost black; and Clara Butt, a shaded pink.

There are a large number of other varieties that could be used. Those who are keen will consult the catalogues of reliable firms and make their own choice.


The name narcissus really includes all the daffodils, but the man in the street tends to call the daffodil, the one with the yellow trumpet, and the narcissus the one that bears smaller flowers either white or yellow. Daffodils on the whole are not so popular for bedding as tulips or hyacinths, but when they are used those with the long trumpets are preferred. Daffodils with shorter trumpets are sometimes interplanted with white narcissus and in both cases the beds look at their best when carpeting plants are set out in between.


Varieties that have been used for bedding include Dawson City, a golden yellow flower of perfect shape; Godol-phin, with a large widely-expanded trumpet; Beersheba, a white and lemon; Imperator, a pure white of exquisite beauty, Mrs R. O. Backhouse, commonly called the pink daffodil because the cup is a pale apricot colour turning to pink; Oliver Cromwell, a bi-colour; Victoria with a rich yellow trumpet and pure white petals around; Fortune, with its large orange-yellow cup and clear yellow surround – very early; King Albert, a deep golden yellow, widely flanged; Spanish Gold, a bright celandine yellow; Cheerfulness, the only double Poeticus narcissus, a creamy white with yellow centre, and Aetata, a large Poeticus narcissus with a canary yellow cup edged with red and pure white perianth.


Crocuses are invariably used as edgings and the great advantage is that they can be left in year after year. I have some crocuses myself on either side of a path down by the cordons: they must have been there eight or nine years now and I have never touched them, yet they come up bright and smiling each spring with great success. Plant them 50 mm (2 in) apart and about 50 mm (2 in) deep. You can always plant violas or pinks in between them or even over them if you wish.


These are grand bedding bulbs and always look at their best when they are planted close together. The small types may go in as close as 150 mm (6 in) square and the taller ones at 225 mm (9 in) square. Never plant the double varieties outside as the flower heads are too weighty when soaked with rain and so tumble to the ground. Tend to buy varieties with short stalks rather than the very tall ones. There is no need for instance to have the top size bulbs.

Good seconds are quite good enough. Miniature hyacinths are very pretty indeed. Make a hole with a trowel 50 mm (2 in) deep in the case of heavy clay soil and 75 mm (3 in) deep in the case of light sandy soil. See that the bottom of the bulb sits firmly in the bottom of the hole and cover it over.

Good varieties to use for bedding are: Ann Mary, an old rose; King of the Blues; Queen of the Whites; City of Haarlem, a deep yellow; Purple King, a rich dark violet; and Lady Derby, a lovely rose pink.


There are three types of Irises which can be used for bedding. (I am referring of course to the bulbous kinds.) (a) The Dutch, (b) The Spanish, and (c) The English. The Dutch irises flower from mid-May to the end of May and can be bought in various colours – Wedgwood, a lovely blue; White Excelsior, a pure white; Golden Emperor, a deep dark yellow; and Imperator, a deep blue. The Spanish irises flower towards the end of May and can be had in various colours, bearing orange, yellow and purple flowers. The English irises follow the Spanish and are really too late for spring bedding in consequence, but if you do not mind them hanging on late they make a splendid show. There are blue, mauve, white and purple varieties. The Spanish irises should be planted 40 mm (1½ in) deep, and as close as 75 or 100 mm (3 or 4 in) apart, the Dutch about the same depth and distance, but the English should be planted no deeper than 50 mm (2 in) and must be 150 to 200 mm (6 to 8 in) apart. You can space out the Spanish and Dutch irises 225 mm (9 in) apart if you are going to interplant with forget-me-nots or wallflowers.


Measure the beds up beforehand and work out the exact number of bulbs required as well as the number of carpet ing plants you will need. It is always better to order more bulbs than are necessary, so that you can gap up if any should fail.

Plant late in September for daffodils and narcissus, if possible, and some time in October in the case of other bulbs.

Dig the beds over a spade’s depth. Bury well-rotted organic matter at the rate of one bucketful per square metre in the bottom of the trench. Tread well afterwards to firm and rake the surface level. Before putting in the carpeting plants see that the soil is sufficiently moist and if possible give the plants a good drink before transplanting them.

Start planting the outside rows of the beds and the corners first, working inwards. Stick to a simple scheme, say 150 mm (6 in) square, 225 mm (9 in) square or 300 mm (1 ft) square. It is nice to be able to use a plank across the bed to step on, as this prevents heel marks being made. After planting, water well if the weather is dry.

Hoe the beds regularly in the spring when the weeds start to grow. Go over the beds after a frost and firm the plants. Watch out for damage done by strong winds to tall plants. Firm the roots.

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