Now a gardener's thoughts turn to springtime
We've enjoyed a lovely summer with its sensible mix of sun, warmth and moisture. The flowers have been plentiful and so wonderful for the bees and butterflies. Crops have grown abundantly and the harvest looks good.
Looking forward to a colourful spring seems so far away, but believe it or not, spring flowering bulbs have already arrived! Most of them look dull and dried up, but don't be deceived: they are full of hope and promise for a riot of colour next spring.
The colourful packets are full of details of height, flowering season and planting depth to help you plan your spring display.
In the broadest sense, spring flowering bulbs include a range of tubers, rhizomes, corms, and true bulbs. These are plants that form underground storage roots or stems which allow them to survive through their dormant season.
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They are incredibly easy and a joy to grow. The majority are normally planted during the early autumn, when they will make extensive root growth. Tulips, however, should be planted during November.
In many gardens bulbs can be left in the ground to naturally increase from year to year. Alternatively, they can be lifted and replanted each year.
Positioning is important: some species, such as Cyclamen, Galanthus, (snowdrops) and Erythronium (dog's tooth violet) originate from cool, moist woodland habitats and are best grown in shaded positions under trees, shrubs or the like. Others such as crocus, tulip, narcissus and scilla are from drier, warmer climates, and prefer more open sites.
Most bulbs prefer a humus-rich but well drained soil. If the soil is too wet and heavy some bulbs are likely to produce poor growth or simply rot away. Dig in a generous amount of horticultural grit or sharp sand to improve the drainage.
The best fertilisers for bulbs are low in nitrogen but high in potash and phosphate. Prior to planting, rake in bone meal at the recommended rate.
The different sizes and shapes of bulbs can make it difficult to identify the right way up for planting-always plant with the growing point uppermost. The planting depth for most bulbs should be three times the height of the bulb with a similar distance between each bulb. All bulbs are more effective and eye catching when planted in clumps rather than regimental rows.
For the mixed border, choose a selection of early, mid and late flowering tulips and daffodils to give an extended season of colour from January to the end of May.
There are so many different forms and colours to choose from. My favourites include Narcissus 'Jetfire', the very early flowering N. 'January', and N. 'Pheasant Eye'. I am passionately fond of the rich almost black flowers of Tulip 'Queen of the Night'. Last year I fell in love with the orange, red, and yellow of T. 'Sunlover' whose fascinating full double blooms were huge and changed colour with age.
This year I'm going to try a white and purple bicolour T. 'Blueberry Ripple'. I adore the late flowering nature of many alliums and I shall be planting purple A. 'Gladiator' which should grow to well over a metre high! I find the spiky mauve pink flowers of A. 'schubertii' intriguing and fun.
If you are not sure which varieties combine well together, there are Lovely or Classic Combination packs which contain two or more varieties that will complement each other either in the borders or in pots, and take away the guess work. 'Strawberries and Cream' look delightful, a mixture of red tulip 'Escape' and a very pretty white marbled red variety 'Carnival de Rio'. 'Morning Sunrise' is perfectly named and contains a deep orange almost red centred yellow narcissus 'Red Devon' and the beautiful tulip Orange Emperor.
There are many dwarf forms suitable for exposed gardens, rockeries, pots, troughs and hanging baskets. Tulip 'Red Riding Hood' is very reliable and a beautiful rich red with pretty striped leaves. T. 'Johann Straus' has red margined yellow flowers. Both are only 20cms (8in) high. Narcissus 'Minnow' will reach 18cms(7in) high each stem can produce up to five attractive small cream flowers; N. 'Pipit' is slightly taller and bears two or three sweetly-scented lemon-coloured flowers on each stem. Muscari armeniacum is more familiar as 'Grape Hyacinth'. M. 'White Magic' is a change from the usual blue form. Scilla sibirica may only reach 15cms ( six ins) high but it has the most gorgeous blue flowers. The blue, pink or white forms of Anemone blanda are only ten cms high ( four ins) and flower a little later.
Grass areas can be transformed by planting flowing drifts of bulbs. As the bulbs have to compete with grass they must be robust species. Classic varieties of large flowered narcissus (daffodils) such as 'King Alfred', 'Carlton', and 'Fortune' come to mind. Groups of Fritillaria meleagris (Snake's head lily) look stunning swaying in the gentle spring breeze. In shorter grass areas the many species and varieties of crocus reliably flower early and are finished by the time the grass begins to grow.
The drifts of bulbs need to look as if they were planted by nature, so here's a tip: scatter large bulbs on to the grass and plant them where they fall.
Use a bulb planter to lift out a circle of turf and a core of soil to the correct depth. Mix a little bone meal in with the soil at the base of the hole. Place the bulb in position and replace the core and turf to cover the bulb.
Smaller bulbs can be planted by lifting a flap of turf, loosening the soil beneath and adding a small amount of bone meal. Randomly place the bulbs into position and replace the turf taking care not to dislodge the bulbs. Gently firm the turf back into position.
Regular removal of faded blooms will extend the flowering season and prevent bulbs from wasting energy by producing seed.
Bulbs rarely suffer any problems: given the correct growing conditions they should go on for years. Lack of flowers can usually be attributed to overcrowding and older clumps; it's easily rectified by lifting clumps, thinning them out and replanting. Apply high potash feeds in spring to encourage flower production.
Once bulbs have finished flowering their leaves need to be allowed to die down naturally, or at least to the point where they are starting to turn yellow. The goodness from the leaves go back into the bulb where energy is stored in readiness for the next season.
Plant expert Rose Clark has worked at Otter Nurseries, theregion's leading garden centre chain, for more than 30 years. To find your nearest branch, visit www.otternurseries.co.uk or call 01404 815815.