Bulbs are on sale in shops and garden centres before you’ve even gone on your summer holidays. Those catalogues have been coming through the letterbox, and you can certainly order early on the internet.
My advice is always to shop early, while the selection is at its best. The supply of flower bulbs is finite: so the varieties you want may run out if you don’t get in early. But if you buy your bulbs now, do you plant them or store them?
The answer is that you plant small and vulnerable bulbs as soon as possible after purchase. If you don’t they dehydrate, shrivel and lose viability. Chances are, if you struggle with a particular bulb, like the snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, you are buying too late and planting too late.
These are small, waxy bulbs that shrivel and often become affected by mound in storage, especially in a nice warm garden centre. Get them into cool moist soil as soon as possible and they start to make roots and plump up in the ground.
I said that small, vulnerable bulbs were the ones to buy and plant early. There are exceptions. All other fritillaries have soft, waxy bulbs. Fritillaria imperialis, the crown imperial has huge bulbs that smell strongly of fox. These too deteriorate out of the ground, as do all lilies.
Their waxy scales do not have the protective outer coat that many other bulbs possess. Crown imperials are expensive bulbs to buy; don’t leave your investment out of the ground for too long. Do remember to plant these deep enough: if you don’t they will produce short, stunted flower stems.
The erythroniums fall into the same category of soft, waxy bulbs. These have small tooth-like bulbs and are natives of moist, woodland conditions. Imagine being lifted from the nice cool, moist soil where you’ve rested since last spring, then hung up in a packet on sale in a garden centre.
You want to get home to the soil as quickly as possible. If you are buying from a catalogue or on the internet your bulbs should have been stored in cool conditions up to despatch. As soon as they arrive, unpack them and keep cool and reasonably dark and plant as soon as possible.
Snowdrops vary in the size of their bulbs according to variety. Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is the most widely planted. Make sure bulbs are nice and plump and firm when you buy. I like to plant these in small groups of 10-15 bulbs, allowing about a bulb or two space between them.
They like reasonably moist, humus-rich soil, so under a deciduous hedge or the light shade of deciduous trees is ideal. Don’t expect great things in the first year until the bulbs get established, but the sooner you plant after purchase the better they will be. Water well after planting.
The snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, is a much larger bulb and much less vulnerable. It is not always easy to find and deserves to be a lot more popular.
Buy or order it when you find it and plant it somewhere where its delicate blooms carried on tall, green stems can be enjoyed to advantage.
Although I is supposed to cope with dry conditions, I find if it’s too dry the stems fold over annoyingly. So plant in a sheltered spot in good soil if possible.
Dwarf iris varieties, especially Iris reticulata, have small pear shaped bulbs with light papery outer coats. They look tough, but left unplanted the middle of the bulb shrivels and the outer coat becomes loose. If you squeeze them and they feel soft on the outside and hard in the core they have been out of the ground for too long.
They like good drainage and seem to grow surprisingly well under vinca and hedera, adding shots of jewel-like colour in early spring.
The bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta has become one of the scarcest flower bulbs in recent years, demand often greatly outstripping supply. The move to naturalistic planting schemes and woodland plants is responsible. Bluebells can be tricky.
The bulbs are small, narrowly pear-shaped and should be firm when planted. As they naturalise best by seeding it isn’t necessary to plant thousands at the outset. It is necessary to have patience to create drifts of them.
However a few will still deliver those wonderful sapphire, fragrant flowers. If your bluebell bulbs are round, fat and light in colour they are probably Spanish bluebells, return them to whence they came.
Chionodoxa forbessii and C. luciliae (I can never tell the difference) are known as glory of the snow. In reality they flower in early to mid-spring, sapphire blue with white markings in the centre of the blooms.
These little bulbs are great for naturalising and perfect under trees. Plant where they will be undisturbed, to allow them to spread by seeding. Another delicate little bulb that doesn’t like to be dried out.
Ipheions vary in stature, but most of the bulbs are pretty tiny. Ipheion ‘Rolf Fiedler’ is a real little gem with tiny delicate bulbs. It grows to only a couple of inches in height, each bulb producing one or two flowers.
Clear, sky blue they are amazingly conspicuous but easily lost in the garden due to their diminutive stature. I like to tuck them in around the edges of permanently planted pots so I can enjoy the detail. Be careful you don’t squash the bulbs doing this; make a hole with a cane first.
Most daffodils and narcissi can be planted at any time from early autumn into winter. However Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. lobularis should be planted as early as possible. The bulbs are tiny, even by dwarf narcissus standards.
They resemble snowdrop bulbs and are just as vulnerable. They can be tricky to establish so choose humus rich soil in light shade for best results.
Of course the flowerbulb season is only just starting. If you are growing prepared hyacinths indoors and want them to flower for Christmas, buy and plant as soon as available and keep them really cool. Tulips won’t need planting until mid to late fall, but buy now while the choice is good.
If you want to learn more join me on my course on Spring Flowering Bulbs – it’s my favourite topic!