Now that we’ve finally rolled into October, and the characteristic nip in the air that I’ve been waiting for has arrived, it’s the ideal time to start planting spring bulbs.
I’m going to be out on the balcony over the weekend clearing out and replanting a selection of the many bulbs I’ve picked up in the past few months. In honour of this great spring plant-off, I’ve put together five ridiculously simple and useful tips to help you get the most out of your bulbs and prepare your garden for a much-needed burst of colour in early spring.
1. Time it right, and big is beautiful
As soon as their summer bedding plants are beginning to look a bit tired and unappealing, garden centres will whip them away and replace their seasonal displays with racks upon racks of spring bulbs. This usually happens around July and August time, which is much too early for planting. However, it is sensible to start picking out what you want early on, as these stocks will get depleted and then removed altogether come October when Christmas decorations and displays will start to take over.
When choosing bulbs, the rule of thumb is “big, fat and firm”. Rummage through the bulb bins and instantly reject any that are soft or showing signs of mould. Bigger bulbs are much more likely to flower in their first year, whereas small bulbs may not.
Bear in mind though, differing species will naturally have different sized bulbs: crocuses tend to be much smaller than daffodils, for example. Compare bulbs with others from the same species to pick the best chaps for the job. Some personal favourites of mine include irises, narcissi, crocuses and the classic daffodil.
2. Choose the best location
Whether you’re planting straight into the ground or into pots, your bulbs will need well-drained soil. One of the main causes of droopy, disappointing flowers in spring or no flowers at all due to rotten bulbs is water having nowhere to escape. This is particularly important if your intended planting spot is susceptible to the elements and could get lashed by heavy rain. Place crocks (broken up bits of the terracotta plant pot, rocks or bricks) in the bottom of your planters to aid drainage of well-compacted soil, or consider choosing a location that is less open to wind and rain if you’re planting straight into the ground.
It’s important not to worry too much though, as bulbs are usually pretty hardy and will find a way, even against the harshest of odds. I was concerned about growing bulbs on the balcony because of the short spells of sun each day, but many species will still thrive, even when situated in areas of dry shade. Periwinkles and snowdrops are a godsend for sunless gardens.
If in doubt, follow my mantra: if it doesn’t work this year, at least you’ve learnt something and you won’t try again the same thing again next year.
3. Know your bottom from your top!
Have a little gander at your bulb. The pointed part is the stem of the plant, and that’s the top. The flatter side is the bottom, and that’s where the roots will eventually grow from. For obvious reasons, it’s best to plant bulbs with the top facing upwards, but occasionally bulbs come along that just look plain odd, and it’s impossible to tell which way is up. If you find yourself in this situation, just plant the bulb on its side.
When you dig a hole in which to place your bulb, whether it’s in the ground or in a pot, make sure it’s roughly about three times deeper than the overall size of the bulb. When you cover it with soil, gently compact the earth around it, making sure there are no air pockets.
Most gardeners agree that the best way to grow flowers is in clumps rather than in regimental rows, so throw a handful of bulbs in the air and plant them where they fall. Just be sure to leave a little gap between them if they fall too close.
4. Don’t over (or under) water
In theory, you only need to worry about watering your bulbs if you’re having a particularly dry season. However, if like me you’re planting your bulbs on a sheltered balcony which does not have access to natural rainfall, the suggestion is to water your bulbs gently, about three times a week for the first six weeks. Too much water will rot your bulbs, so keep it light, but don’t forget about them if they’re not able to get their own H2O.
It’s best to use a rose-shaped sprinkler rather than a harsh garden hose to give your plants a drink, as it’s much gentler and won’t cause big puddles of water to settle around your bulbs.
5. Don’t forget about your bulbs
Bulbs in pots tend to need more care than those in soil, so keep an eye that they don’t get too wet or too dry, depending on the weather. Frost too is a major killer of spring bulbs if they are not prepared for it. Try covering your pots with bubble wrap if you get harsh frosts.
Squirrels, mice and voles can pose a threat to dormant spring bulbs, as they have a tendency to uproot and stash them for winter fodder. If you fall victim to this, cover your pots or ground with chicken wire to prevent any further digging. If this isn’t an option, consider choosing bulbs like daffodils, as they tend to be ignored by rodents and obviously aren’t as tasty.
Don’t forget to mark your bulbs! This is especially important if you’re planting straight into your garden. It’s unlikely (especially if you have a large garden) that you’ll remember exactly where your bulbs were planted, and imagine your frustration if you accidentally uprooted them when planting something else! All it takes is a few name cards to deter you and your soil-happy shovel to avoid undoing all your hard work.
I’ll be documenting my own planting process next week, so be sure to check back on Friday! I’m looking forward to getting my tiny balcony garden in order now that we have finally kissed summer goodbye. What preparations are you making for a big and beautiful garden next spring?