Despite efforts to cling to any straggling remains of summer, the turning back of the clocks asserts that autumn is undeniably in full flow. We northern hemisphere dwellers begin a rush of activity to prepare for the darkening, colder days ahead. First the conkers drop, littering paths and pavements with shiny, chestnut duelling gear to be threaded onto string and swung at opponents. Pumpkins are picked and carved into menacing faces and alarming bangs, fizzes and pops erupt in the night as the fortnight of fireworks commences.
Just as the team here at Pehrsson Scott can breathe a sigh of relief when the seemingly never-ending growth of weeds finally relent to the cold, the signs and sounds of autumn kick us back into action. This is because every autumn we hurry to distribute and plant thousands of bulbs into our clients’ gardens with the aim of achieving year-round flowering plants in borders, pots, lawns, woodlands and scattered to line paths. We pick our preferred ‘weapon’ of choice – Henry uses a rather threatening looking long, solid iron bar sharpened at one end, perfect for stabbing holes in the soil to drop a bulb into. Then we set about burying countless unassuming dormant little compressed plants, each containing a pop of floral magic to be conjured up in spring.
Bulbs are the sweeties of the plant world
There is a bulb in every colour, size and shape for every location and each season. Choosing bulbs for a garden can feel like choosing pick’n’mix sweeties. Bulbs range from delicate low nodding clusters of pure white snowdrops in February, to tall shots of showy bright orange Crown Imperials in spring. The common Daffodil emerges from lawns across the land signalling the end of winter and the popular spherical, purple heads of Alliums decorate frothy borders in summer. With such a massive range of bulbs to choose from, including the many different varieties within each type, it can be easy to get carried away or overwhelmed by choice. The first step is to decide which bulbs will work best and where in a garden. We plan for bulbs early on when we design a new garden, including bulbs in planting plans, along with trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials. For established gardens, keep a record of the garden through spring and summer, noting what works and what doesn’t. Carry a notebook when you go out or take photos, because when bulbs go over and disappear underground you don’t see them at all, and when it comes to buying bulbs in the autumn, you won’t be able to remember where the best spots were or where there were gaps in planting.
The trick to having flowers in the garden all-year-round
The aim is to have bulbs in flower for as long as possible, and that really means February to June, with June you’re talking about alliums, but with daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, camassia, crocus and others flowering can be kept going from February through to May. Daffodils and other bulbs are very good for borders because they come up and flower when not much else is around. As their leaves die back and go over, they’re concealed by the perennials and other plants that come up later, which makes for low maintenance as most bulbs can be left in the ground from year to year. Tulips often reduce in size and vigour each year as they don’t like sitting in the wet and are prone to tulip diseases if left in the ground too long – they can be dug up each year after flowering or will need replanting every 3-4 years.
There’s a bulb for everywhere
Bulbs can be used in borders, lawns, pots, containers, woodlands, shady spots, beneath trees, scattered lining paths, and in window boxes. You may have seen them used in formal bedding as a mass of intense colour in a parterre at an old historical garden. These are usually carefully coordinated, high maintenance schemes which are planted out and dug up after they have flowered every year. A looseness can be introduced into these types of bulb designs by deciding on a colour scheme and getting bulbs that flower from February through to May within that colour scheme. Then put them all in a bucket together, throw them about and plant them where they land, so they go in mixed giving a ‘naturalness’, even though very much man-made and formal.
At the other end of the spectrum are the naturalistic drifts of bluebells, snowdrops and daffodils on a woodland floor. Pretty much all daffodils will naturalise, and snowdrops as well. The difficulty with naturalising bulbs in lawns and woodlands is making them look natural. The human eye can see patterns very easily. If you decide to plant your bulbs at random, it just won’t look random – you will finish up doing patterns. Take a handful of bulbs, throw them across the lawn, plant them where they land, and that will give you a natural look.
The ‘bulb lasagne’ is another popular method – in no way edible and nothing like a lasagne, but it refers to the layering of bulbs in the ground or in pots. The basic method is to put larger bulbs at the bottom getting smaller as you go up, so you get a sequence of bulbs emerging in the same spot over time. Pretty much all bulbs grow well in pots. But watch out for heights. For example, if you have a hyacinth which is low, or an allium is very tall then the low plants won’t show over the edge of the pot and the tall ones will get blown over in the wind.
You can plant all sorts of bulbs under deciduous trees and shrubs. Many bulbs have evolved so they are perfectly timed to take advantage of that window of time when daylight hours get longer but before the trees put on their leaves. Therefore, most of the time the bulbs are up, there are no leaves on the trees and bulbs show up beautifully against old or colourful bark such as the pure white bark of birches. If you want to grow bulbs near evergreen trees, go on the edge of the canopy so they will get sunlight. If you’ve got very deep shade, choose a different sort of plant to get flowers in spring, for example hellebores and pulmonarias. Primroses and primulas are out at the same time as daffodils. They come in many different colours, so it works well to match up the colours of primroses to the daffodils. Or go with contrast of a bright blue muscari with a yellow daffodil.
The best thing about bulb planting is it gives us all something to look forward to over the long cold winter. Thousands of bulbs the Pehrsson Scott team have planted this autumn are preparing to pop out of the ground to display the vast array of colours, patterns and forms over spring and summer next year.