For bursts of colour, buy bulbs

Early planted bulbs bring a burst of colour to gardens when it’s most needed, in early spring, writes JANE POWERS

Early planted bulbs bring a burst of colour to gardens when it's most needed, in early spring, writes JANE POWERS

EVERYONE LOVES AN allium. Don’t they? A few are blobby affairs, but most have spherical blooms that – depending on the variety – may be ping-pong or tennis or soccer ball size. There is something so cheering and perfect about a bouncy-ball bloom.

Alliums have been wildly fashionable for more than a decade, which is quite a stint in the horticultural world. Some plants are faddy and fussy, so both they and their voguishness die off in a season or two. But the ornamental onions are easy to grow, a treat to look at, and they flower year after year if the soil is not too soggy in winter. And, although I can’t vouch for this myself, they are supposed to be resistant to both rabbits and deer.

‘Globemaster’ is one of my favourites: on its first outing the flowers are almost too large (about 20 centimetres across), but they reduce a little in subsequent years. It is a sterile cultivar (that is, it doesn’t produce seeds), so the blooms last at least four weeks. In common with others of its genus, it is full of nectar, and is a hit with the bees.


I’m always on the lookout for new alliums, and two have taken my fancy in Mr Middleton’s autumn catalogue. Both were selected by the Dutch bulb man, Wietse Mellema. ‘Graceful’ has white flowers and pinkish pollen, and stands at about 40 centimetres. ‘Summer Drummer’ is a monster, with huge violet orbs borne on dark stems, which can grow to nearly two metres. It commands a hefty price of €9 for a single bulb, or €22 for three.

In the main though, autumn-planted bulbs are an inexpensive way of bringing colour and life to the garden – from February’s crocuses and snowdrops, through the daffodils and tulips of spring, to the alliums of early summer. And if you pick the right varieties, they will “perennialise”, that is, reappear each year. In fact, most bulbs do come back. The exceptions are some of the tulips and the larger daffodils. Returnee tulips belong to the following groups: Darwin Hybrid, Fosteriana, Greigii, Kaufmanniana and the “species” or “botanical” tulips. Plant them deeply – at least 20 centimetres – and make sure that they are not water-logged in winter. In their native habitat, tulip bulbs are baked dry in the summer. A post-flowering feed will help to bulk up the bulbs for next year (this goes for all bulbs, especially those in poor soil).

But, even single-season tulips are worth the expense. There is no other plant that can create the same insanely cheerful splash between late March and mid-May. If you leave them in the ground for a second year, they might bloom, but, equally, they may produce nothing more than a sheaf of leaves. So, the best thing is to be ruthless, pull them up after flowering, and fling them onto the compost heap. If you plant tulips in large containers, you can pop them into blank spots in the border, or use them to illuminate a doorstep.

In fact, containers offer a practical way of growing many bulbs, especially if you don’t have a huge garden. Plant them up in autumn, and stick them in an inconspicuous corner where they receive some gentle rain (in a moist county such as Kerry this will need to be more sheltered than in a drier place such as Dublin). When the first sprouts show in spring, keep the compost nicely moist. Move the containers to a more prominent position as soon as they start looking interesting. Smaller bulbs, such as snowdrop, crocus, miniature iris, dwarf narcissus and species tulips can be brought indoors when they flower (to a cool room where they won’t get blown too quickly) to be admired for their jewel-like perfection.

Unless you are very good about feeding and minding things, it’s best to replant potted bulbs out into the soil after their first year. Most miniature iris, however, tend to split up in their second year, instead of flowering, so they should be treated as expendable.

Bulbs are in the shops now, and available by mail order (see below). Buy now, even if you don’t have time to plant. They will keep in a cool dark place (remove from polythene bags) for several weeks.

Buying and planting bulbs

Choose big, plump and unblemished bulbs.

Write labels for all your varieties before you plant them.

Plant bulbs pointy side upwards, at a depth of at least three times their height. Perennial tulips can be deeper. If the soil is heavy, add grit to the planting hole for drainage. Plant in shoals, rivers, or naturalistic shapes, rather than in rows. If your garden is contemporary and angular, blocks look good.

Mark with a label after planting.

Diary date

Wednesday and Thursday, September 21st and 22nd: Autumn Fair and Rare Plants and Bulb Fair at Lodge Park, Straffan, Co Kildare. Admission: €5 (for Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust). See, tel: 046-9242455; 01-6288412.

Where to buy bulbs

Bulbs are available in garden centres and by mail order from these Irish companies (order online, or phone for a catalogue):

Mr Middleton:; tel: 01-8603674

Heritage Bulbs:; tel: 01-8600400