Spring bulbs for containers

by Drucilla James


When the autumn turns to sepia, it’s a good time to plant up a promise of spring. Bulbs are a cheap and easy way to bring life into the garden in the early months of the year – from the shy purity of snowdrops in February to the sleek glamour of tulips in April. And if you put your bulbs in pots, you can whisk them out when they reach their peak and then tuck them away in a secluded corner when their colours start to fade or over-plant ready for the following year. Our panel of experts share their favourite container combinations:

Iris reticulata and histrioides

Bulbs iris Kate px

Credit: Manuel Ramos

Bulbs are fabulous in pots. Some of the earliest, most intensely-coloured blooms come from the Iris reticulata varieties. These tiny plants pack a real punch and provide colour as vibrant and rich as you could want, which is especially welcome as they flower in February and March. Although these Iris can be used in a mixed scheme poking through the lower leaves of small bedding Skimmia or against the lime-green dwarf conifers often used in containers, they look equally effective if not more so when planted on their own. Iris histrioides ‘George’ has plummy purple petals with yellow splodges. It flowers at about 6″ high and when planted in a pot that can be elevated to table-top or windowsill height you can really appreciate its charm close up. What this little plant lacks in height it makes up for with eye-watering colour and a wonderful scent. 

A simple terracotta pot suits these plants well and the bulbs should be planted about 5-10cm apart and about 8cm deep (or twice their depth) in well-drained, rich soil in full sun. Some horticultural grit across the top of the pot helps with drainage and also looks good. 

Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com)

Crocus, and Rockery, Lily- Flowered and Double Tulips

When it comes to containers, you must appreciate that they get both very wet and yet, under different circumstances, very dry. The bulbs planted in them must tolerate these two extremes. We recommend, and indeed practise, planting containers in layers – planting about 6 inches down, the bulbs that will flower in April, 4 inches down those that will flower in March, and about 2 inches down those bulbs that will flower in February. This practice gives colour from February until well into May. Furthermore the emerging bulbs cover up the ones that are dying back and thus the dead leaves.We would plant double tulips at the bottom, what are called rockery tulips in the middle layer, and something like specie crocus on the top. Some recommended varieties are as follows: 

  • Specie crocus: Tommasinianus – ‘Whitewell Purple’ or ‘Ruby Giant’, or Sieberi ‘Firefly’.
  • Rockery tulips: Kaufmanniana -‘Fashion’ (salmon pink), or ‘Heart’s Delight’, (pink flushed white),or Tulipa ‘Pinocchio’, (red and white)
  •  Doubles: ‘Abba’, (red), ‘Mondial’(white), or ‘Angelique’, (pink),  or parrot tulips ‘Libretto’, (pink and white), or ‘Rococo’, (red with green flashes) 
  • You can also add lily-flowered tulips, which do really well in containers such as ‘Claudia’, (purple and white), ‘Pretty Woman’, (red), and ‘West Point’, (yellow)

Try planting the more traditional Darwin tulips too, such as ‘Apeldoorn’ (red), ‘Prince Charles’, (mauve), ‘Upstar’, (pink), ‘Apricot Impression’, (pink), ‘Queen of the Night’, (black), and ‘Inferno’, a multi-headed red. All these are about twenty inches tall and look good in containers, and will last right through to May in a good spring.

bulbs - clare

Tommasinianus,Pinocchio,Mondial:Credit: Colford, Apteryx, Idernexus

Andy Bone, owner, The Clare Bulb Company, Suffolk (www.clare-bulbs.co.uk)

Allium and geranium

Allium set against a carpet of a perennial geranium such as the pretty pink macrorrhizum or cranesbill creates a very attractive picture. Plant the bulbs deep about two to four times their depth; it is the smaller species of allium which suit growing in pots.

For autumn and winter drama try Crocosmia with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus

bulbs clifton px

Credit: Elfleda and jacilluch

Matthew Wilson, garden designer, writer, broadcaster and Managing Director of Clifton Nurseries (www.clifton.co.uk)


Tulips, hyacinths, iris reticulata and violas….. and more

The ‘lasagne’ or layering method provides you with a continuous flower display over a period of weeks or months. The different planting levels are determined by size and flowering time – for example the largest and latest flowering bulbs will need to be planted first at the bottom of the planter.

The decision as to what to plant can be down to personal choice even to mixing bulbs with plants. We would suggest that the bulbs chosen do not have too much foliage, and also that you take into account the different growing heights as this helps with the overall result.

A suggested arrangement:

  • 12 tulips (Tulipa ‘White Parrot’)
  • 5 hyacinths – blue and white, mixed (Hyacinthus)
  • 25 Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’
  • 6 violas (3x Viola ‘Endurio® White’ and 3x Viola ‘Endurio® Lavender’)

Begin by putting a layer of potting compost in the bottom of the pot. Plant all the bulbs with the points facing upwards. Cover each layer with potting compost before planting a new layer. Start with the largest bulbs first – the tulips, and then plant the hyacinths followed by the iris bulbs. The violas come last in a deeper layer of potting compost.

Alternative suggestions for layering:

  • Top (small-flowering) – Crocus, Anemones, Muscari, Freesias, Iris, Chionodoxa, Scilla, Fritillaria
  • Middle (medium-flowering) – Hyacinths, Tulips, Narcissi
  • Bottom layer (large-flowering) – Allium, Lilies, Narcissi, Tulips

Try out these combinations too:

  • Pink Tulip  ‘Synaeda Amor’ with Daffodil ‘Spring Beat’;
  • Pink, scented Tulip ‘Angelique’ with Narcissus ‘Tete–a-tete’ and small white flowers;
  • Red Tulip ‘Van Tubergen’s Variety’ and the Anenome’ White Splendour’
  • Purple and white Tulips ‘Tres Chic’ and ‘Claudia’ with low-growing forget-me-nots or Anenomes.

Cultivation tips:

The rule of thumb for the planting depth of bulbs is approximately 3 times the height of the bulb. They need good drainage – so include a layer of gravel at the bottom of the pot. Protect bulbs against frost by placing pots in a frost-free area or covering with bubble wrap. Water pots in dry periods -you can buy special pots that have an integrated reservoir to save you daily watering or you can create your own.

bulbs splading

Synaeda Amor/ Spring Beat: Angelique/ Tete-a-tete

Ann Rowell and David Chisnall, Marketing Manager, Spalding Plant and Bulb Company, Lincolnshire (www.spaldingbulb.co.uk)


Bulb mini iris culpeper px

Credit: andreas

In terms of bulbs – some of my favourites are mini iris as they are quite easy to grow and are beautifully delicate. Layering containers with tulips/ daffodils and then crocus on top will prolong the flowering season for your container.

Martha Orbach, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www. Culpeper.org.uk)

And finally:

bulbs broadfield pxIn mixed planters, the basic rule is that later flowering varieties should be taller than earlier ones and that the leaves of the first should not swamp the second- note that bulb leaves tend to expand after flowering.

When choosing daffodils choose short varieties and for tulips ensure that the size of the container you have selected is appropriate to the height of the flowers.

Christine Skelmersdale, Broadleigh Bulbs ( www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk  )

2 Responses to “Spring bulbs for containers”

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