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How to . . . plant bulbs

by Rhiannon James

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Snowdrops in the gardens at Audley End House

If you’re looking for a quick, easy and inexpensive way to inject some colour into the garden, bulbs are hard to beat. Spending most of their time underground and popping up only for their moment of glory, bulbs need very little attention to keep them flowering happily year after year.

Bulbs also offer heaps of choice in terms of colour, shape and flowering season. Even just amongst the spring-flowering bulbs, there’s everything from delicate snake’s head fritillaries to statuesque alliums to choose from.

When it comes to planting bulbs in the garden, there are two main choices. You can either plant them in grass, where they’ll add a delicate wash of colour through the green or in bold drifts amongst other plants. If you don’t have a lawn or flowerbeds, bulbs also work really well in pots.

Things you’ll need

1. A spade, a small garden fork and a trowel or a bulb planter (pick a good quality bulb planter with a sharp edge and a substantial handle).

2. Your selection of bulbs. If you’re planting bulbs in grass you’ll need small but sturdy types such as snowdrops, snake’s head fritillaries, crocuses (such as Crocus tommasinianus), Anemone nemorosa or dwarf daffodils such as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’. For borders, you can plant any bulbs that suit your garden conditions. Bulbs tend to look best when they’re planted in drifts so buy as many as you can. Give them a quick check and steer clear of any that look damaged, feel soft or are showing signs of rot. Buy from a reputable grower so you can be sure your bulbs haven’t been collected from the wild.

Step by step

If you’re planting a large number of bulbs or small bulbs such as crocuses or snake’s head fritillaries, it’s much easier to plant them all in one go, than to attempt to put each one in individually with a bulb planter. If you’re planting in a flower bed leave out step 2.

1. Choose a spot for your bulbs. If you’re planting in the lawn, pick a patch of longer grass, perhaps around a tree.

2. Lift or roll back the turf from the area where you want to plant. Start by cutting down into the turf with a sharp spade. Then, gently work the spade in under the roots, gently lifting or rolling the turf from the ground as you go.

3. Check the planting depth and spacing for your bulbs on the packet. If this information isn’t provided then a rough rule of thumb is to double or triple the bulb’s length from base to tip to get the planting depth and to double its width to get the spacing.

4. Use a garden fork to break up any large clods in the soil. This is particularly important where the ground under turf is compacted, not least because it’s no fun trying to force a hand trowel into a rock-solid surface. You can also incorporate a slow-acting fertiliser to add nutrients to the soil if necessary at this stage. Alternatively, you can dig out the soil to make one large hole to plant your bulbs in.

5. Unless you’re aiming for a formal look, scatter your bulbs across the area you have prepared rather than carefully placing each bulb individually. Some bulbs will fall too close together – shift these slightly so they’ve got enough room to grow.

6. Then plant each bulb at the correct depth, using a trowel to make the hole. Try to make sure you plant each bulb the right way up – sometimes this can be trickier than it sounds! In many cases, last year’s roots are visible so you can use these as a guide.

7. Gently roll back the turf, firming it in by hand or with the back of a rake and you’re done!

Planting bulbs using a bulb planter

If you’re planting small numbers of larger bulbs like daffodils, you could use a bulb planter to make individual holes.

1. Scatter your bulbs across the area you’ve chosen in a random pattern. Adjust any that are too close together.

2. Check the planting depth for your bulbs and mark it on your bulb planter. Push the planter blade down into the soil and twist until it reaches the required depth. Pull out the plug of soil.

3. If the soil at the bottom of the hole is compacted, use an old screwdriver to loosen it. Place the bulb in the hole and backfill around it using the soil you’ve extracted. Replace any turf on top, aiming to make it level with the rest of the lawn.

Looking after your bulbs

Once they’ve appeared above ground, bulbs may need to be watered if the soil is dry but for the rest of the year you can leave them alone. When flowering finishes, deadhead if you’ve got time as this can help to produce a better display the following year.

Wait until leaves go yellow (or for a minimum of six weeks after flowering) before cutting them back or mowing over them as leaves produce energy to help the bulbs to grow and flower the following year.

If you leave bulbs in the same spot, most will gradually multiply, creating a more and more dramatic display each year.

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