Whilst tempting to lament the summer that never was, now is the time to be looking ahead and planting your spring-flowering bulbs. The first 2022 catalogues seemed to arrive earlier than ever this year, some of them well before the last tulips had faded in our garden. With no opportunity to impress customers at the Chelsea Flower Show in May, bulb merchants no doubt wanted to tempt us away from their competitors with an abundance of new varieties and ‘early bird’ offers. But there’s more to my sense of urgency than that. Unprescedented high demand for bulbs and plants has not diminished, as some predicted it would, following the easing of lockdown restrictions. This is not just the case in the UK, but in all countries where gardening is a popular hobby. The ongoing surge – or maybe it’s a new normal – has placed huge pressure on growers, who can’t simply magic up stock overnight. It might be easy to ramp up the production of annual plants, but bulbs, rhizomes, perennials, trees and shrubs can take several years to reach a saleable size. Furthermore, bulb production in The Netherlands has suffered from a particularly cold spring followed by hot and then wet weather, to the extent that the 2021 harvest is down by as much as 30%. The quality of bulbs is still good, but there are less of them to offer for sale. Then we have Covid and Brexit, which have both impacted the amount of labour available to harvest and pack bulbs over the last eighteen months.
High demand, a reduction in the number of bulbs available and difficulties in bringing them to market amounts to one thing – a potential shortage. If you’ve not placed your spring bulb order yet, I would advise you to do so without delay, since many of the newer and most popular varieties have already sold out.
If you are worried that you might have missed the boat, don’t panic, as we only placed our bulb orders over the Bank Holiday weekend and could still find 95% of what we wanted. As thrilling as each new variety may be, there’s always a decent substitute that probably has a longer track record: we are careful to have plenty of old faithfuls alongside the promising newcomers. There is usually a handful of varieties that elude me, and this year that includes a tulip called ‘Brown Sugar’. There will be other years, and only I will know what’s missing from my display.
We are both complete plant geeks and I am a control freak when it comes to our garden, hence we plan our spring displays using a spreadsheet. (Please don’t imagine I am in any way competent when it comes to spreadsheets, but the glory of them, versus my lovely old scrapbook, is that I can access my planting plans when I am out and about.) Below is this year’s plan for the Gin & Tonic Garden. We always opt for ice white and lemon yellow in this space, this year adding a daring dash of purple to change things up a bit. Choosing a highlight colour also gives us scope to trial new varieties. They will complement the decoration of our library should we choose to pick a bunch or two in April or May. Creating a plan, in this case for planting up terracotta pots, helps to ensure we have the balance of colour right, although beware the gross inaccuracy of many online images. What’s more, mapping out when each variety will flower helps to ensure a succession of bloom from February through to late May.
We all have our favourite bulbs suppliers and that’s a good thing for commerce. Happily we are blessed with many good ones in the UK. Over the last few years I have not been able to fault J. Parker’s Wholesale, who have consistently sent us excellent bulbs. I suspect they are not the largest bulbs money could buy, but we need a lot of them as we start afresh every year. For reasons of economy as well as reliability, we place a substantial order here. For top-sized bulbs and new varieties, Dutch Grown is our favourite bulb merchant. A family business since 1882, the new generation know their business back to front and sell direct from their farms in Holland. If I’m searching for special colours and forms, then Sarah Raven is hard to beat. Her prices are high – always look for a discount code before checking out – but there are some varieties that only Sarah’s discerning eye has alighted upon. It’s a great place to ‘top up’ if you only need a few.
Assuming you’re planning to grow daffodils (narcissus), then these are your top priority as September looms. Daffodils should be planted immediately, whilst the soil is still warm, so that their roots can become established before winter arrives. Unlike tulips, blooming may be compromised if daffodils are planted too late in the year. Then it’s time to plant your hyacinths, spring-flowering irises and crocuses. For hyacinths at Christmas, you should plant prepared bulbs now. These will have been temperature treated to coax them into growth sooner than standard bulbs. The same immediate planting advice goes for saffron crocuses and colchicums that flower in the autumn rather than spring. You are safe to leave tulips until last, planting these from November onwards, or when the ground is much cooler. Later planting helps to reduce the risk of tulip bulbs picking up diseases from the surrounding soil, although in pots filled with sterile compost this is less of a necessary precaution. We have often planted the last of our tulips early in the New Year and they’ve flowered as well as those planted two months earlier.
I’m keeping this post deliberately short so that you have ample time to go and browse your chosen catalogues and websites in search of your favourite varieties. September is a busy month for the bulb merchants, so expect to wait a little while if you shop online now. Visit your local garden centre for immediate satisfaction, accepting the choice may not be as great. If you’re on holiday in Cornwall, then there is nowhere better to buy daffodils than there, where so many great cultivars originated.
If choosing your own bulbs, always pick plump, healthy looking specimens and leave behind those that feel soft or look a little shrivelled. Store them in a cool, dark, dry place – we use our spare bedroom – but keep them well ventilated until you are ready to plant . Never store bulbs in plastic bags as the humidity that builds up inside may cause them to rot, and if you shove them in a cupboard, make sure you leave the door ajar to let the air circulate. As a general rule it’s best to plant bulbs as soon as you receive them, as they are happier under the ground than they are above it. Most of all, enjoy the process, which can be extremely therapeutic, and look forward to the riot of colour you’ll be enjoying come the spring. TFG.