Caring for Hardy Bulbs

Whether set out on a patio or forced for indoor display, hardy bulbs produce some of the most enjoyable plants. Luckily, they’re also among the easiest to grow!

Hardy bulbs are perfect patio plants, providing a tidy, colourful show all year round. Hybrid Tulips, Daffodils and Hyacinths are popular for spring displays, but there are also dwarf hardy spring bulbs, such as Squills and Grape Hyacinths. For a summer show, try Lilies; for autumn, Cyclamen and Autumn Crocus (strictly corms); and for winter, Snowdrops and dwarf Iris.

hardy-bulbs-hyacynthsHardy bulbs or corms withstand normal winter weather outdoors, and come in a wide range of sizes and flower colours and shapes. Popular bulbs are sold in garden centres, garden sections of DIY centres and high street chain stores. Specialist bulb importers stock rarer types; most have colourful mail-order catalogues, available free or for a small charge.

Off to a good start

Choose a sunny, sheltered spot Few plants survive fierce wind, and tall-growing plants are especially vulnerable. Luckily, many bulbous plants are compact and strong-stemmed. In light shade, grow Cyclamen, Daffodils, Lilies and Snowdrops.

Buy the best bulbs Choose firm, plump, unscarred bulbs, without any sign of grey mould. Bulbs should feel heavy for their size. Large bulbs usually give more and/ or bigger flowers than small ones of that type.

Buy bulbs early in the season The longer you leave it, the less choice, and the longer the bulbs may have been in unsuitable storage conditions.

Planting bulbs

The sooner you plant bulbs after buying, the less risk of rot or shrivelling, and the sooner they settle in. Packaged bulbs come with their own instructions, but as a rule, plant winter- and spring-flowering bulbs in September and October; Tulips can be planted in November. Plant Cyclamen and Autumn Crocus in summer, and Lilies in summer and autumn, according to variety.

Use a soil-based potting mixture; it’s easier to water and contains a longer-lasting food supply than a peat-based one. With tall-growing bulbs, such as Lilies and Crown Imperial, soil-based potting mixture helps prevent the stems toppling over.



Use containers at least 15cm (bin) wide, with drainage holes. For dwarf bulbs, alpine or half pans are best. Place a layer of drainage material in the bottom, followed by a layer of potting mixture. Place the bulbs, one type per container and spaced close together but not touching, on the potting mixture. Cover with more potting mixture, firm, and water lightly. Most bulbs need a cover of potting mixture equal to their own height.

Caring for bulbs

Water lightly until growth is visible, then gradually increase the water. Provide a steady supply during the growing season, but be careful of waterlogging, especially In winter or their rest period. When preparing bulbous plants, remove faded or dying flowers but allow the stems to die back of their own accord. Some bulbs will then need lifting and drying off.

Give an annual feed of bonemeal in late autumn. Feed every 10-14 days, once flower buds appear, and until after the flowers fade, using dilute liquid fertilizer. Tall plants may need staking; protect bulbs from slugs with slug pellets, if necessary. In prolonged frosty spells, lag the container and mulch resting bulbs with peat, to prevent frost damage.

After flowering

If possible, remove faded flowers, but leave the stems to die back naturally. Many bulbs, especially species and dwarf types, can be left undisturbed for 4-5 years before they become too crowded and need lifting, dividing and replanting. Others, such as hybrid Tulips and Hyacinths, need annual lifting once the leaves die back, otherwise the bulbs grow weak and eventually stop flowering. Dry them off in the sun, store them dry, and replant in autumn.

Planting hardy bulbs

  • Always start with a good layer of drainage material in the container. Cover with a layer of soil-based potting mixture.
  • Set bulbs on the potting mixture, making sure they are not touching each other. Choose firm, weighty bulbs, free of disease.

Forcing prepared hardy bulbs

For a winter and early spring display indoors, grow prepared Tulips, ‘Paper-white’ and ‘Soleil D’ Or’ Narcissi, and Dutch Hyacinths. Growers put these resting bulbs through a series of controlled temperature changes to ‘trick’ them into acting as if spring has come. They flower up to 4 months early, with Christmas-flowering bulbs especially popular.

Buy and plant prepared bulbs as soon as possible in autumn. Use bulb fibre or potting mixture, and a 15-20cm (6-8in) bowl or pot, with a layer of drainage material in the bottom. Plant bulbs almost touching, and just below the surface of the compost. Plant Hyacinths with their necks showing. Water lightly, then place in a cool but frost-free dark spot, such as a garage or shed. If you keep forced bulbs too warm, they produce shoots before the roots are ready, and results are disappointing.

Keep just moist; when shoots are 2.5cm (1 inch) high, 5-8 weeks after planting, move them to a brighter, slightly warmer spot. When colour shows in the flower buds, move to their final display place.

Care after flowering

Forced bulbs cannot be forced a second time, and many people discard them after flowering. You can gradually dry them off after flowering, then plant them out in the garden. They take several years to recover.

Forcing ‘unprepared’ hardy bulbs

It’s fun to force dwarf bulbs: Crocus, Glory-of-the-Snow, Snowdrops, Winter Aconites, Squills, Grape Hyacinths, miniature Daffodils and Dwarf Tulips. You can also force ordinary Tulips, Daffodils and Hyacinths to flower a few weeks early. Buy and plant as soon as possible; keep cool and slightly moist until there’s plenty of top growth. With dwarf bulbs, wait until the flower buds show before moving them.

Mixing and matching

Hardy bulbs look very attractive on their own, bur you can combine them with spreading plants, to hide the potting mixture. You could grow Tulips, Hyacinths and Daffodils with Forget-Me-Noss, English Daisies, Polyanthus, Pansies or DwarfWallflowers. Dwarf hardy bulbs look lovely when displayed in a sink garden, with small rockery plants, such as Saxifrage, Aubrieta and Stonecrop.

If you have tubs with Bay, Spotted Laurel or other shrubs, liven them up with bulbs planted round the base. This is especially effective with deciduous shrubs, such as Hydrangea, and winter-or spring-flowering bulbs.

Brighten up tub plants by planting flowering bulbs around their base.

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