Order spring bulbs now! (I know it feels a bit early)

First published by Rattan Direct on 31 July 2016.

Spring bulbs on my mind

It seems a long way in the future but this is the time to order spring bulbs for planting in the autumn. I’d like my new bulbs to do two things:

  • provide early nectar for insects after their long hibernation
  • answer the question of what on earth I’m going to do about my small, shady and challenging front flowerbed.

Spring bulbs for nectar

Nectar is essential food after insects’ long hibernation. And insects are essential for our gardens and for agriculture. How can we help out in our choice of spring bulbs?

Snowdrops do provide very early nectar for bees but are best planted ‘in the green’ (just after flowering) in January and February rather than as dry bulbs in the autumn. Winter aconites are the same.

I love the strong blue flowers of grape hyacinths and insects love the nectar in the bell/cone shaped flowers. They were in my garden when I moved in and I certainly don’t have the problems of long, messy leaves that Alys Fowler mentions. Perhaps this is because they’re in the poor, stony ground near the hedge. The wind blows straight through here so, except on still days, I usually miss their lovely fragrance. I’ll plant more to create that wonderful blue haze. It would echo the wonderful blue haze of the (English) bluebells – also loved by pollinators – in the fertile soil under the hedge on the other side of the garden. Oh, and grape hyacinths are great for pots too.

Colourful daffodils and grape hyacinths on a Cornish hedge beside the Gannel, Cornwall. Spring bulbs
Colourful daffodils and grape hyacinths on a Cornish hedge beside the Gannel, Cornwall. © Rod Allday, licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

A crocus is a crocus is a crocus, isn’t it? No, there are different types although they’re all variations on a theme of saffron yellow, blue/purple and white. They’re all loved by insects and look at their best in large numbers, naturalised in lawns or rockeries. They like a sunny rather than a shady spot.

A bold crocus near Woolhampton, West Berkshire. Spring bulbs
A bold crocus near Woolhampton, West Berkshire. © Pam Brophy and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

Spring bulbs for the challenging flowerbed

This front flowerbed faces north-west, it’s by the hedge with next door (which protects it from the prevailing wind) and it’s a bit dark. Quite a few plants I’ve tried here have disappeared, one way or another.

In the spring, though, bulbs flower beautifully. Snowdrops are well established and perfectly happy. I’ve had daffodils here but the leaves tend to look a mess afterwards.

One answer to the messy leaves problem is to combine bulbs with perennials as ground cover: as the bulbs are dying down the perennials are growing up. Their foliage can be a lovely complement to new bulbs coming on. Some people use hostas or daylilies but that’s obviously no go for me, living in a slug zone. Perhaps I could use lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, which does well here but is, as Helen Yemm calls it, an ‘old cottage garden thug’. Or perhaps I could use the even more invasive periwinkle which also does well for me. Neither of these are at all bothered by the slug and snail contingent. I’m also wondering about Siberian bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla. It looks great with tulips and also comes in a variegated form which might brighten up the gloom.

Variegated Siberian bugloss by Wouter Hagens. Spring bulbs
Variegated Siberian bugloss by Wouter Hagens. Worldwide public domain


[Of course, there’s no foliage problem worth speaking about if the bulbs are in pots. After the flowers are over, just tuck the pots away somewhere sunny.]

So what about the bulbs for my small bed? I still have very successful snowdrops around the edges of this tiny bed. I might add a few purple crocuses (despite what I said about being best in a sunny spot), and some of those pale white/yellow narcissi. I haven’t decided about tulips yet: something to think about on a sunny afternoon in a garden chair. Join me in looking for and ordering bulbs to suit what we want to do in our gardens and which suit their conditions.



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