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Bulbs: planting

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last updated Oct 17, 2011
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Planting bulbs in a container

Bulbs make a fine display planted in containers or borders, especially daffodils, snowdrops and tulips in spring. They are one of the easiest and most rewarding garden plants to grow.

Suitable for... Back to top

Bulbs are useful for adding colour to spring borders. Tulips come in all shades, from dark purple to white, and bloom at a time of year when many plants offer muted colours. Other bulbs, such as snowdrops and scillas, are some of the earliest flowering plants in the garden, brightening up the short days of very early spring.

Planting summer-flowering bulbs such as lilies and gladioli can provide dramatic, tall blooms that are scented.

Autumn-flowering bulbs, such as nerines, can brighten up the late season with unexpectedly colourful displays.

When to do it Back to top

Autumn

  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, crocus and hyacinths, preferably by the end of September
  • Plant tulips in November
  • Plant hardy summer-flowering bulbs, such as lilies, alliums and crocosmia, in September and October

Spring

  • Plant tender summer-flowering bulbs, including gladioli, in early spring

Summer

  • Plant autumn-flowering bulbs, such as nerines, by late summer

Where to plant bulbs Back to top

Some bulbs need specific siting;

  • Most hardy bulbs, including tulips and daffodils, prefer a warm, sunny site with good drainage as they come from areas with dry summer climates
  • Bulbs from cool, moist, woodland habitats, such as Cardiocrinum, need similar garden conditions. Improve light or sandy soils with garden compost and heavy soils with compost plus grit

How to plant bulbs Back to top

Most bulbs are acquired and planted when dry, in a dormant, leafless, rootless state. Plant as soon as possible. They may flower poorly following later than recommended planting or after lengthy storage.

Planting in borders

Aim to plant in groups of at least six, as the more bulbs that are grouped together, the better the display. Typically, 25 to 50 bulbs may be needed to make an impressive show.

This method applies to spring-, summer- and autumn-flowering bulbs:

  1. Dig a hole wide and deep enough for your bulbs. Work out the planting depth by roughly measuring the bulb from base to tip and doubling or tripling this length – this figure is the rough planting depth. For example, a 5cm (2in) high bulb should be 10-15cm (4-6in) below soil level
  2. Place the bulbs in the hole with their ‘nose’, or shoot, facing upwards. Space them at least twice the bulb’s own width apart
  3. Replace the soil and gently firm with the back of a rake. Avoid treading on the soil as this can damage the bulbs

Some bulbs, such as winter aconites, bluebells and snowdrops, are thought to be best planted, moved or divided ‘in the green’, when flowering is over but they are still in leaf. However, dried bulbs are often offered and can be successful.

In containers

Most bulbs are ideal for growing in containers, but this especially suits those with large, showy flowers, such as tulips, lilies, arum lilies and alliums. Here are some tips for success:

  • For bulbs that are only going to spend one season in their container, use a mix of three parts multi-purpose compost with one part grit. For long-term container displays, use three parts John Innes No 2 compost mixed with one part grit
  • Plant at three times their depth and one bulb width apart
  • Water bulbs regularly when in active growth, but you can reduce watering once the leaves start to die down and then through the dormant season. However, continue to check pots in winter, ensuring they do not dry out completely
  • To promote good flowering next year, feed the bulbs every seven to ten days with a high-potassium fertiliser such as a liquid tomato feed. Begin feeding as soon as shoots appear, and stop feeding once the foliage starts to die down at the end of the season
  • If you bring pots of hardy bulbs indoors during flowering, put them in a sheltered spot outside as soon as flowering is over

Problems Back to top

There aren’t many problems to watch out for, apart from checking that the bulbs are healthy to start with (discarding any that are soft or show signs of rot). However, pests to look our for include slugs, snails, squirrels (particularly with tulips and crocus) and diseases such as daffodil viruses, grey mould in snowdrops, narcissus basal rot, tulip fire and tulip viruses.

Quick facts

Timing Plant spring-flowering and hardy summer-flowering bulbs in autumn, tender summer-flowering bulbs in early spring, and autumn-flowering bulbs by late summer
Difficulty Easy
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