When I worked on Gardeners’ Question Time, around now we would always be deluged with questions about spring bulbs. Naturally, as a resident of South Lincolnshire, I would always extol their virtues. This would be followed every year by a torrent of abuse from one listener, who said I had no business to recommend spring bulbs of any sort, as their flowering time was so limited and they looked such an untidy mess afterwards.
Of course, this is nonsense, as the flowering season of spring bulbs in general can extend from late January in some years, to May and beyond; the knack is to plant for successional flowering to ensure a show for 4-5 months at a time of the year when not a lot else is happening to take one’s breath away.
As for the untidy mess, the secret is to plant thoughtfully, either in planting crates so the bulbs can be lifted afterwards and transferred to somewhere less obvious to die off naturally, or in beds and borders where other plants – shrubs, perennials and bedding – will take over and catch the eye so the bulbs can get on with building themselves up at their own pace without making the garden seem untidy.
Even bulbs in containers don’t have to look untidy if the same planting principles are applied – either mix with other types of plants, or if you want to have pots containing all bulbs, make it possible to move them to a less conspicuous place after flowering and replace them with summer bedding for the coming season.
To me, it would be unthinkable to have a garden without spring bulbs as they never disappoint. This year, however, with the long, dull winter and late spring, we have a phenomenon rarely seen, when snowdrops were still in flower as early tulips were opening up, and narcissi with various flowering periods were all in bloom at the same time. This has been particularly noticeable in our garden, where there are at least eight different kinds of bulbs in flower as I write this, from crocuses, Iris reticulata, aconites and chionodoxa, to scillas, mid-season tulips and many varieties of daffodils and other narcissi. After long spells of wet weather, followed by sunless, searing east winds, the day when something like spring arrived it was as if these little power-packs of colour were just bursting to get on and do what they do best.
Every year, when summer drifts imperceptibly into autumn and the bulb catalogues start falling through the letterbox again, I order more spring bulbs. Many bulbs always perform best in their first season after planting and need a year or two to re-establish before they give a good performance; by adding a few new ones every year, those that have gone before get their chance to recover unnoticeably. So as I enjoy the magnificent display they have put on in our garden this spring, I am already planning what I should be ordering later on. Am I a slave to the garden, I wonder, or is this just a sign of a dedicated gardener?