BULB planting time generally runs from September to the end of November, and if you keep within this time-scale it is reasonable to expect a handsome display next spring.
This said, should you run out of time as often happens, far better plant and get them growing than storing in a garage or shed where they might rot, sprout or simply shrivel.
Although perceived best gardening advice is against December planting, get them down to the correct depth and there’s still a good chance of success, as we discovered last year with last-minute placement of narcissi and tulips.
Bearing this in mind, we were pleasantly surprised to see the full range of spring bulbs on sale at reduced price last weekend, and came away with some dwarf favourites; Iris reticulata and danfordiae, plus Scilla siberica and Narcissus Hawera.
Tempting though it is to approach bulb planting in cavalier fashion just because they’re late and at knockdown price, treat them like gold dust and the reward will follow.
As a general rule dig the hole up to three times the height of the bulb. This means that a large daffodil will have 15 centimetres of soil covering the tip when planted, and a small scilla up to 10 cms.
Plant bulbs, narcissi especially, too shallow, and they have a tendency to produce leaves at the expense of flowers.
Should you throw them into a planting hole in haste, the shoot will head towards the surface eventually but why put obstacles in the way of good development!
Immediately after flowering continue to offer plant food and give the leaves a chance to build up the bulb for the following year.
With Christmas fast approaching it was also interesting to see a choice of bulb packages, receptacle and all, available as potential presents. Hyacinths grown indoors don’t all have to be in bloom for yuletide.
It’s a cheerful thought that some form of continuity can be organised for the dark days of January and February.
Most impressive of those on display was the amaryllis lily (hippeastrum). With a little care after flowering these large bulbs will last for years.
A wide selection of colour variations has arisen from the original H. hybrida, even some with streaks running through them or with tinted petal edges. It takes circa two months from potting up to flowering so timing the event to coincide with a desired date is quite possible.
Start the growth process by placing the bulb into moist compost and stand the container on a windowsill.
The shoot appears before leaves and this signals that it’s time to begin regular controlled watering. When the flowering buds form, start weekly feeding. Anticipate anything from two to six trumpets on a stem.
As the blooms fade the leaves start to turn yellow, a sign that the plant would appreciate a rest period.
So oblige by letting it dry off in the pot and store it until the autumn.
Way back in the 17th century, the herbalist Gerrard, was warning that ‘appearances are not always to be trusted,’ a truism that could be applied to many things but he was relating it to plants and their poisonous properties.
The advice is especially pertinent right now as we are drawn to the late bulb displays at some gardening outlets. We are constantly being advised, rightly so, to handle each one during the selection process to ensure it is sound. But be aware that some people may have an allergic reaction to handling them. This is why you occasionally find a supply of polythene gloves thoughtfully offered by the proprietor. If there are none, use a spare paper bag when handling.
Is this a case of your gardening friend going health and safety mad? Certainly not! Several fatalities have been recorded over the years as a result of gardeners mistaking bulbs such as narcissi for onions, shallots, or garlic. And it can happen so easily in a garden where ornamental and edible plants are grown in close proximity, then perhaps lifted and stored.
The problem with daffodils is that they contain the deadly alkaloids narcissine and galantamine plus a glycocide – scillaine. The eye-catching snowdrop displays of February carry a similar dark secret. Glycocides and alkaloids run through their sap stream, yet we are advised in spring to dig them up ‘in the green,’ pull the clumps apart, then replant. Bluebell (Hyacinth non-scripta) is another villain of the piece. In keeping with the floxglove, it contains harmful scillarins. Don’t forget to wear gloves when handling any of them.
Tulip bulbs have become a fixed item in mixed borders over time, and that is their current role in this garden. But it was not always so. Traditionally, it was the public parks that show-cased them in spring bedding displays, and this fellow is all too familiar with that. Forget-me-not (myosotis), wallflower or polyanthus made ideal bed-mates, depending on the colours, and when June arrived we`d dig every bulb up and consign it to boxes in a shed over the summer months. What a palaver.
In this garden they remain firmly in the ground, deep enough to escape severe frost, yet shallow enough to reappear when conditions dictate. We have groups of yellows, reds and pink tulips emerging each spring in between shrubs and herbaceous perennials, and labels to mark the spot so they are not disturbed when a plant bought on impulse, needs a slightly deeper planting hole than usual.
Spring bedding schemes with tulips remain a strong part of public displays in the Tyne and Tees areas. It’s a pleasure to see them whilst performing Northumbria in Bloom judging duties, and a reminder of the tulip mania that once existed, with must-have single bulbs selling for the price of a dwelling house.
This same feeling of looking at history extends to the stunning orchard of Prunus x subhirtella Taihaku trees in The Alnwick Garden. Also known as the great white cherry, when mature, they are capable of growing up to eight metres tall and 10 wide. What a blanket of colour that canopy will form.
Had it not been for a 20th century enthusiast this stunning cultivar would now be gone forever. When a certain young Captain Ingram returned from service in the WW1 Flying Corps he was looking for a peace-time hobby and eventually became interested in flowering cherries. He travelled widely to places such as Japan searching out new varieties, but it was in an overgrown English garden that he found the Taihaku, originally from Japan, struggling to survive. With the owner’s blessing he took home some bud-wood and successfully propagated it.
The paradox is, by this time it had become extinct in its native country, and Cherry Ingram took great pride in reintroducing it. A clear example of carrying coals to Newcastle!
Footnote: Alnwick Garden Club meets next Tuesday in the Town Hall at 7.30 p.m. All are welcome.