For easy summer colour don’t forget bulbs, says Gardening Editor Ruth Hayes
If you are looking for lazy, low-maintenance gardening then look no further than summer-flowering bulbs. Yes, a few varieties – gladioli and dahlias – often need lifting for winter, but even this isn’t arduous.
The next few weeks are peak bulb-planting time and there are so many available you really can’t go wrong. Whether you like voluptuous brassy flowers that shout out and demand attention, or more delicate shades and shapes that bring quiet and dainty colour and scent to unexpected places, there is something for everyone.
The only caveat is that most bulbs do best in free-draining soils, so if you are gardening on cold and heavy clay you should leaven it by digging in plenty of organic compost or manure and a generous amount of grit. If all else fails, grow your bulbs in containers in a sheltered, sunny spot where they will be extremely happy.
Bulbs are usually bought singly or in multi-packs. Some garden centres let you pick-and-mix your own, and many stock packs of mixed bulbs that follow a colour theme or are chosen for a specific charm, such as autumn flowering or “perfect for pollinators”.
I have planted a pack of nectar-rich, colour-coordinated bulbs that will supposedly attract bees and butterflies. The varieties include gladioli, liatris, anemone and dahlias. I have dotted the bulbs around a border and will let you know how they get on.
Whatever bulbs you plant, there are a few guidelines to follow to help you get the best results. They should be planted with the pointed end facing upwards, at roughly three times their own depth. Bulbs in groupings should be placed one bulb’s width apart and where possible plant in odd numbers – they look less formal and regimented than even numbers.
Don’t discard forgotten healthy-looking bulbs as they can go in the ground at any time, though they may not flower as well in their first year.
Ixia bulbs in a bed
1 Dig a hole approximately three times as deep as the bulbs and fork in some well-rotted compost or farmyard manure.
2 Place the bulbs so the plants have room to grow. Arrange them randomly so they don’t look too regimented when they flower.
3 Cover with soil and lightly firm it down using the back of a rake head. Spray with a chemical pest deterrent or overlay with twigs to keep cats away.
4 Label the site clearly so you don’t accidentally dig up the bulbs, and water well. Don’t let it dry out.
A quartet of bulbs to try
Bright and unusual beauty for the garden
1 Nectaroscordum are dainty beauties with nodding pale umbels. Plant them in a sunny site. The seed heads are lovely for flower arrangements.
2 Big, bright and bold, Stargazer lilies add a blast of colour. They are toxic to cats, so if you are a feline household get pollen-free varieties.
3 Heavenly scented Polianthes tuberosa flower abundantly and look delightful with agapanthus and ferns. Perfect for cut flowers, they will fill a room with their delicate perfume.
4 No-nonsense alliums come in many sizes and are as happy in pots as in the ground. The pom-pom seedheads make wonderful indoor decorations for autumn and Christmas.
Plants to leave a little longer
• Although it’s warming up, I would still be cautious about planting new and lifted dahlias.
• New tubers should be happy for another week or so in a cool, dry shed or garage, away from pests.
• Tubers lifted and stored last autumn should be checked over and any rotten ones disposed of.
• Dry tubers should be soaked in water for a couple of hours and then potted up in general-purpose compost.
• When the tuber starts to shoot and the growth is 3in (7.5cm) long, take cuttings and grow them on in cuttings compost, kept damp with a plastic bag tied over their pot.
• Harden off all your dahlias and plant them out at the end of May or after the threat of frosts has passed.
Planting Mirabilis jalapa tubers in a pot
1 Line the base of the container with crocks to help drainage. You can make compost more free-draining by mixing in some grit.
2 Add compost and position the bulbs. They should be roughly three times their own height from the top.
3 Cover the bulbs with more compost, making sure there is a gap of around 1in (2.5cm) between the rim and compost.
4 Label the pot and water it well. Make sure it is raised on feet so excess water can easily drain away.