Bulbs are high impact, low maintenance plants - they grow, flower and then disappear back into themselves to wait for next year’s show, all with the minimum of fuss.


A bulb is a modified version of the plant; leaves, stem and basal plate (from which the roots will sprout), packaged up and ready to grow.  A rhizome is a fleshy, water and energy storing root and a corm is a swollen underground stem.  A tuber can be either, but they all have a similar energy saving device in common, which can be used to our advantage, as, once they’ve finished flowering and stored enough energy for next year, they disappear under the ground and leave space for other plants.

Many bulbs originate from countries that have hot dry summers and this gives a clue to cultivation.  Most will need good drainage and will not sit through the winter in wet, soggy soil.  It’s worth incorporating some grit into the planting hole if you’re on claggy clay.  Bulbs from woodland will tolerate shade and slightly damper conditions, but those that come from more arid climates will prefer a sunny and very free draining position.  There is one exception to this and that’s the Snake’s head fritillary, which thrives in damp meadows and won’t readily reappear in dry conditions.

Historical significance

A little like the ‘Dot com’ bubble that occurred in the 1990’s; a similar phenomenon happened with bulbs – tulip bulbs in the main, in the 1630’s.  Known as Tulipomania, some very fancy and highly coveted tulips were grown (sometimes this happens as a result of being infected with a virus - tulips are very prone to viruses and the viruses can have interesting side effects on the flower’s colour and form, often producing striations and frill and breaks in the flower).  The result was that certain bulbs became highly prized.  Tulip dealers and speculators moved in and formed a market, where at it’s peak a single bulb was said to have sold for the price of a house.  As quickly as the market in tulip bulbs boomed, so it crashed, with prices tumbling overnight as people either came to their senses or (and this is probably more likely) the bulb just went out of fashion.

Border Design and succession Planting

Because of the small amount of space bulbs take up when they’re dormant, they are very useful in borders that need to look good all through the year, or in small spaces.  Winter and spring bulbs ‘disappear’ and make way for annuals and bedding plants, those that flower at other times of the year can be used among foliage plants, or to pop up in between flushes of summer flowers.  I find lilies that flower in early to mid July quite useful here, as much of the early summer colour is over and the late bloomers haven’t yet started.

Through the Seasons

There is a bulb (corm, rhizome or tuber) for nearly every month of the year.  They do come in a mad rush in spring though and it’s easy to forget that there are other times of the year when they appear.  Spring is naturally the main season – many are making the most of the light in woodland spaces, before the canopy of leaves closes over them, others are making the most of spring rain before the drought of summer.  But from a gardening point of view it’s worth finding bulbs that will perform outside the peak time and there are quite a few.

Bulbs through the year:

Jan –     Aconites, Snowdrops, Iris outside, Amaryllis. Forced

              hyacinths and narcissi inside

Feb –    Narcissus, Crocus, Snowdrop, anenome

March – Narcissus, Crown Imperial, Tulip, Allium, cyclamen,   

              Hyacinths, Scilla, Anenome

April –   Tulip, Allium, Iris reticulata, Anenome blanda, Muscari

May –    Bluebell, Tulip, Allium, Trillium,Snakeshead frittilary

June –   Allium, Iris, Camassia, Eremurus (Foxtail Lily)

July –     Lilies, Freesias.

Aug –     Agapanthus, gladioli, Dahlia, Dierama

Sept –    Crocosmia, Eucomis, Nerine, Schizostylus, Sparaxis

Oct –     Colchicum, Cyclamen hederifolium, Autumn crocus

Nov -     Nerine, crocus, Iris ungulicularis

Dec –    Cyclamen coum, Narcissus ‘Rjinveld’s Sensation’

Tips for success with bulbs:

In general, as previously mentioned, bulbs prefer free draining situations and are quite happy to sit out a dry summer under the ground.  It helps if you know their origins, as this gives a clue to the conditions they’ve evolved to live happily in.  Bulbs from mountainous regions will manage very low temperatures, but may also need a summer baking.  If you lift them (and some people find the time and inclination to do this) be sure to store them somewhere dry and away from pests until it’s time to plant them again.  Bulbs will always perform when first bought, but after that it’s up to the prevailing conditions and the care they receive to ensure that they keep on flowering.

Once the flowering is over, dead-head to stop them wasting energy making seed and let the leaves die back naturally.  Some people give them a feed at this point, but I would just sprinkle some general purpose fertiliser over the ground where they’re about to emerge in spring.  Many bulbs bullk up and spread quite readily, others seem to diminish, depending on the variety.  I treat tulips as annuals, but find that alliums multiply quite well, although the colours can fade a little from the original if they seed themselves. 

A tip for mixed beds and borders – plant bulbs really deep to avoid slicing through them once you’ve forgotten where you planted them …


Will colonise and naturalise more esily when planted ‘in the green’.  They’re not really worth growing form bulbs.


If growing in lawns, make sure you don’t mind waiting 6 weeks before cutting the grass.  I tend to only grow smaller types like ‘Tete a Tete’ or ‘Thalia’ in borders, as the huge ‘King Alfred’ style daffodils, have lots of foliage that flops about looking unsightly once the flower is over.


Many of them can’t be trusted to come back reliably each year.  As a general rule, the closer you are to the species, the more perennial they are and seem to be less prone to viruses too.  The worst disease affecting tulips is Tulip Fire, which is a fungal infection that spreads easily (like fire??) among the bulbs.  This is the reason it’s advisable to plant your tulips late – as late as January has been known without any ill effects.  That way the cold weather should kill off any spores before the bulbs go in.

Bulbs that bulk up and naturalise well

Wild plants like bluebells and garlic rampantly cover the ground so are best left to run wild outside the garden.  Snowdrops, crocuses and narcissi are well known for spreading themselves around and seem to enjoy the edge of woodland and even meadow situations.  Anemone blanda will carpet the ground in shades of blue, white and pink – watch how after flowering the seed-heads bend down to the ground and almost bury themselves (cyclamen do this too).  Beware of the Grape Hyacinth (Muscari), which will become a weed once it gets going in the garden.  The flowers are attractive, granted, but the foliage that tends to linger for way too long, is just like grass and sprouts up all over the place.

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Spring bulbs