How to Create a Spring Bulb Theatre

One can never plant too many spring-flowering bulbs. However tedious the chore may seem in late summer and autumn, planting spring bulbs is one of the most reliably rewarding gardening activities I know. Bulbs are, by-and-large, inexpensive, readily obtainable, easy to grow and pest free. Chosen with a little care one can enjoy colourful flowers and delicious fragrance from late December until May.

Neither of our gardens is blessed with much open border space, which means most of my spring bulbs must be planted in containers. This is no bad thing. Planting in pots, troughs or window boxes offers endless opportunities to experiment with bulbs of different varieties and colours without disrupting the rest of the garden. It also means containers can be tucked out of sight before they start to bloom and again when they start to wither and die, although a decent amount of sunlight is a prerequisite for growing most types of flowering bulb.

Compare this image of 2014's display in March with the photographs taken in April, below
Compare this image of 2014’s display in March with the photographs taken in April, below

I’m incapable of doing anything by halves and like to plan big. Despite having two very small gardens, each autumn I plant forty or more terracotta pots of varying sizes with over a thousand narcissus, hyacinth, tulip, crocus, iris and fritillaria bulbs. This takes several weekends from late August to early November, but it’s worth the effort. As soon as the first flower buds start to show colour in spring I move the pots into position to create a bulb theatre – a rather grand description for an assemblage of planted containers arranged to display flowering bulbs to their best advantage. Bulb theatres can be small-scale, or vastly ambitious, subtle or showy: the choice is yours. The glory of growing and displaying spring bulbs this way is that individual containers can be shifted about as each ‘goes over’, creating new scenes each time. Gardens are, after all, theatres for plants, and we are the directors. And provided one is fit and healthy this serves as marvellous exercise and an opportunity to enjoy a front seat in your very own playhouse.

By placing larger pots of taller bulbs at the back and smaller pots of miniature bulbs at the front, a nicely tiered display can be created
By placing large pots of tall bulbs at the back and small pots of miniature bulbs at the front, a tiered display can be created

Getting Started

There are no real rules for creating a bulb theatre, but here are a few pointers:

  • Order your spring bulb catalogues in plenty of time: late May, directly after Chelsea, is often when they are published. Choicer varieties will sell out quickly, but if you are brave enough to hold back until September you may bag bargains. In my experience, mail-order companies offer a wider range and larger sized bulbs than your average garden centre.
  • Choose carefully to get the best results:
    • Even two or three pots can reward with weeks of colour and scent if you select varieties that flower at different times. Crocuses, snowdrops and narcissi such as N. “Cedric Morris” and N. “Rijenveld’s Early Sensation” can be in flower at Christmas, whilst Tulipa “Queen of the Night” and Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus will see you through until early May.
    • Choose bulbs that produce plants of different heights for a dramatic tiered effect. Alliums and Fritillaria imperialis (crown imperial) are perfect for the back of the stage, with miniature irises, scillas, crocuses and snowdrops to the fore. Cultivars with an upright, sturdy habit that don’t flop around work best in a bulb theatre, unless they are positioned in the front row where a little laxness may be tolerated.
    • Pick a colour theme for your bulb theatre if you want to create a masterpiece rather than a melee. Sacks of mixed colour bulbs may seem like a bargain but will at best place a limit on your artistry. Bags of single colours cost little more and give you control over your palette. I’ve gone for a mix of oranges, purples and plums for the last few years, but combinations of two or three colours, for example yellow, white and pink, or red, magenta and lime green, work well too.
  • There’s no need to restrict yourself to bulbs. Evergreen ferns, euphorbias, hellebores and wallflowers will add a different dimension to your theatre and help to break up and vary the display.

 

Tulip bulbs are best purchased afresh and planted once the weather turns cold in autumn or early winter
Tulip bulbs are best purchased afresh every year and planted once the weather turns cold in autumn or early winter

Planting and Growing On

  • Bulbs of narcissi should be planted in late August because they start to produce roots whilst the soil is still warm autumn. At the other extreme, tulips should not be planted until the weather gets cold to prevent diseases from weakening the bulbs. Tulips can be planted as late as December and will still produce a good display. Planting bulbs of the same variety a few weeks apart can also stagger the flowering period, although bulbs have a habit of catching with one another up over winter.
  • Bulbs of different types can be layered within an individual container to create an extended display period or give a greater density of flowers (Sarah Raven refers to this technique as creating a ‘bulb lasagne’). As a general rule, larger bulbs should be planted deepest in a pot (but still with at least 6 inches of compost beneath them), covered with compost, then overplanted with mid-sized bulbs and finally small bulbs and corms. This method requires a lot of bulbs, but the result will pack a punch for weeks, if not months.
  • Use a free draining, multi-purpose compost for spring bulbs. The last thing you want is for your precious bulbs to be sitting in a soggy growing medium, so avoid soil-based composts unless you live in the drier parts of the UK or have a particular concern about your pots being blown over in a gale. I’m a fan of Westland’s Jack’s Magic, which is a blend of peat and wood fibre. Peat is naughty, but bulbs like it.
  • If you have a problem with squirrels unearthing your bulbs then cover the top of the compost with chicken wire, tucked down the inner sides of the pot, before top-dressing with coarse grit. This should deter all but the most determined critters and even then they will need a good dentist.
  • Until signs of life can be seen, usually in January or February, pots can be tucked away in a garage, shed, unheated basement, under a hedge or in a cold greenhouse. They certainly do not need to be on show, but if they are a planting of winter pansies, violas or cyclamen will provide a little interest before the main event begins. Avoid growing on in exposed locations where pots might freeze. Potted bulbs are very much more vulnerable to cold damage than those planted in the ground.

 

Tulipa "Exotic Emperor", Narcissus "Reggae" and Fritillaria "William Rex" in 2014
Tulipa “Exotic Emperor”, Narcissus “Reggae” and Fritillaria imperialis “William Rex” in 2014

Curtain Up!

  • As soon as you can see an inch or more of growth appearing above the top of the pot it’s time to think about moving your pots into position. Larger containers should be placed at the back of the display to give height, with smaller bowls and pots to the fore. Hyacinths and some narcissi tend to flop, so prop with pea sticks before it’s too late.
  • During drier spells, don’t forget to water your containers, especially if they are small. Bulb flowering can be impeded by irregular moisture levels. At this stage it’s a pity to let all your hard work go to waste. It shouldn’t be necessary to feed potted bulbs until the flowers begin to fade, and only then if you plan to transplant bulbs into the garden for future seasons. I use bone meal or blood, fish and bone.

 

No longer waiting in the wings, potted bulbs wait to put on a show at The Watch House
No longer waiting in the wings, potted bulbs line up to put on a show at The Watch House in 2016
  • Guard against early attacks by slugs, snails and greenfly. In warm springs lily beetles can destroy pots of fritillarias within days. If spraying any kind of insecticide avoid doing so when bees are active, and avoid slug pellets if you have birds in the garden that are likely to feast on poisoned slugs and snails.
  • Now it’s time to enjoy all your hard work. As soon as the mercury rises your bulbs will grow rapidly. Cooler weather will prolong blooming whilst a warm spell can see potted bulbs go out in a blaze of glory. Either way they will be a joy to behold.

 

Tulipa 'Red Shine" and T. 'White Triumphator', in spring 2014
Tulipa ‘Red Shine” and T. ‘White Triumphator’, in April 2014

After the Show

  • Once the flowers begin to fade, daffodils and tulips should be deadheaded. This ensures the plants put all their energy into producing big bulbs for the following year, rather than seeds.
  • When the foliage starts to yellow, it’s time to move containers somewhere light but inconspicuous to die down completely. Never remove or tie up old foliage as the plants are still generating energy which will be stored in the bulb.
  • Even your finest endeavours may not guarantee a display of similar magnitude the following year. Big bulbs exhaust themselves and may diminish or divide into many smaller bulbs, resulting in smaller flowers or just leaves the next year. Apart from some daffodils, I would not recommend leaving bulbs in pots to flower again. Either plant them out in a quiet but bright corner of the garden where they can build themselves up to flowering size or put them in the bin. Tulips are never worth the bother of replanting. Be thankful for the happiness they gave you and start again with fresh bulbs from a reputable source in autumn.
  • Bulbs left in pots need a dry summer rest, with the exception of snowdrops than like moist conditions year-round.

 

Fritillaria imperialis "William Rex" at The Watch House
Fritillaria imperialis “William Rex” at The Watch House

My bulb theatre favourites

Back of stage (not backstage!)

  • Nectaroscordum siculum (Sicilian honey garlic) – ugly leaves but elegant, lofty, bee-friendly flowers.
  • Fritillaria imperialis “William Rex” – handsome, compact crown imperial with brick-red flowers.
  • Tulipa “Queen of the Night”, T. “Redshine”, T. “Menton”, T. “White Triumphator” and T. “Brown Sugar” – these are all magnificent, strong, tall tulips for the back of a bulb theatre, but would look pretty frightful all mixed together!
  • Narcissus “Cragford” and N. “Geranium” – both tazetta class daffodils which means one thing – glorious scent!

 

Tulipa "Flaming Spring Green" mixed with T. "Spring Green" in our London Garden
Tulipa “Flaming Spring Green” mixed with T. “Spring Green” in our London Garden

Centre stage

  • Hyacinthus “Woodstock” and H. “Gypsy Queen” – deep violet-purple and peachy orange respectively. I always wish I had planted more.
  • Narcissus “Jetfire”, N. “Tresamble”, N. “Felindre” and N. “St. Keverne” AGM. The latter is an absolute classic, yellow daffodil and is worth planting out in lawns or borders post flowering.
  • Tulipa “Purissima”, T. “Flaming Spring Green”, T. “Havran”, T. “Prinses Irene”, T. “Recreado”, T. “Exotic Emperor”, T. “Request” …. I could go on!  All mid-sized, stocky tulips for centre stage.

     

    Tulipa "Czar Peter" at The Watch House
    Tulipa “Czar Peter” at The Watch House

In the Footlights

 

Iris histrioides "Lady Beatrix Stanley" at The Watch House
Iris histrioides “Lady Beatrix Stanley” at The Watch House

Favourite Bulb Sources

Over a number of years I have found the following companies to offer good quality and reliable, helpful service.

Sarah Raven – A woman with an eye for a good variety and eye-catching colour combinations.
Avon Bulbs – not the cheapest, but great quality and well edited range. Known for snowdrops.
Living Colour Bulbs – a fabulous selection of bulbs, many of which are not available anywhere else.
All the ingredients for success!
All the ingredients for success!