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New Ways with Spring Bulbs

By 9 September, 2020No Comments

If your doormat is not already six inches thick with bulb catalogues, it will be soon. We are in peak bulb-buying season and planting time is just around the corner. This makes it the perfect moment to plan some stunning schemes for spring. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Planning, scheming, experimenting with new looks, combinations and approaches. Not all of them work but the fun is in the trying. There are thousands of different bulbs available which can feel a bit overwhelming so here are some of my tried and tested ‘recipes’ and a few unusual ideas to try.

Dwarf Iris

One of the first groups of bulbs out of the ground in late winter (usually feb-march) are the dwarf reticulata irises. Because they flower so early they tend to be little more than 10cm tall, to avoid the blasting winter winds. This diminutive trait does mean you really need to consider where you plant them, so they are not overlooked or splashed with soil in heavy rain. The classic approach is to grow single species in low bowls topped with gravel. This works well as the pots can be moved around and brought to the fore when they are at their best, which incidentally is for about 3 weeks. The image below shows a moss-clad apple box theatre I knocked together a few years back to show them off. But how about trying something different? Instead of growing single species in isolation why not mix three together – say a deep purple such as I. ‘JS Dijt’, a pale blue such as I. ‘Harmony’ and the vibrant yellow I. danfordiae. The effect is lovely as the paired colours make each other appear brighter and more radiant. Alternatively, why not plant multiple groups of one cultivar, say I. ‘Sea Breeze’ with its amazing blue, yellow and white flowers, across a rock or gravel garden? Another approach I’ve tried with these bulbs is to grow them in a shallow container or window box in association with a short grass or squat alpine species. I. histeroides looks positively other-worldly emerging through the short near-black grass Ophiopogen planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

A mix of dwarf reticulata Iris in a moss-clad apple crate theatre

Reticulata Iris cultivars with a yellow crocus


Daffodils are often dismissed as little other than the bright yellow harbingers of spring, but their colour range and season is far more varied than that. The first daffodil of the year actually appears the year before, in November! And there are narcissus with white, cream, orange, peach and pink in their blooms! So, how to make the most of these easy-to-grow bulbs? Well, a good start is growing Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’. It comes into flower in later autumn with downturned primrose-yellow flowers suffused with green at the base of the bloom. They are a bit pricey, so you might need to call in an early Christmas present from someone. Next into flower are the ‘forcing narcissus’. These bulbs have been treated to trigger them into growth at breakneck speed. They are intended for indoors rather than the garden. Planted into a shallow pan on a warm windowsill or conservatory with their noses sticking out of the compost they’ll come into bloom in around six weeks. The likes of Narcissus papyraceus ‘Ziva’ (often known as ‘Paperwhites’) with their elegant clusters of highly scented white flower make a brilliant Christmas present if you start them mid-October.

By the end of February some of the earlier flowering daffodils are doing their thing outdoors. Narcissus ‘February Gold’ would seem an obvious choice here but ironically I’ve only ever seen it in bloom in March. A more reliable choice and a daff I really love is N. ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’. Unlike N. ‘February Gold’ it does just what it says on the tin – its early and its sensational! I like to dot it in clusters of six or more bulbs through borders or it can be naturalised in long grass.

On a smaller scale, several of the other early daffs are dwarf forms such as the ubiquitous but useful Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’. These short small-flowered mid-yellow bulbs work well in little pots, toughs, window boxes and even big hanging baskets. Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ is on a similar scale and can be grown in the same situations but has the most intense orange cup backed by yellow petals. Both plants look best grown in groups of seven or more. There are endless other early short forms but the next group of daffs I get really excited about are the triandrus and tazetta types. Both bear small flowers in cluster held on elegant stems. They tend to return for many years in the right conditions and pair well with other spring bulbs such as tulips and hyacinthus.

Narcissus ‘Minnow’ (tazetta) and Hyacinthus ‘Woodstock’

Narcissus ‘Hawera’ (triandrus) with Tulipa ‘La Belle Époque

Numerous other narcissus appear through March and April, but my favourite daff of the lot comes into bloom in May. Its Narcissus poeticus var. recurves. Its an exceptional plant with clear white reflexed petals and a scent so powerful that six cut stems can fill a room. Its useful grown in spring borders as a final hurrah but is equally happy in grass where it will slowly naturalise. I planted a few thousands for a client last year in roughly circular groups of different sizes from 50cm wide to 2m across an area of rough grass. It worked a treat, but most of us have a lot less space so I’m pleased to say they are happy with container culture, too. Below is a ‘Late-Lasagne’ pot I created a few years ago featuring N. poeticus. What I mean by Lasagne by the way is simply planting layers of different bulbs in a pot at their required depth and with a range which will bloom over several months. This particular pot started with Tulipa ‘Pink Diamond’ blooming in April and as they faded the Narcissus, Fritillaria and Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’ burst into flower. I posted the image on Twitter and people seemed to think it was a bunch of cut flowers, but these bulbs really are live bulbs populating a large pot.

Late Lasagne – Narcissus poeticus var. recurves, Tulipa ‘Pink Diamond’, Fritillaria persica & Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’


To say I’m obsessed with tulips is an understatement, so much so that when I was running Chelsea Physic Garden we ended up with a ‘budget line’ called Tulips! They are the most glorious of plants and every year ever more enticing cultivars arrive. There is just something so lovely about plunging these brown papery nuggets of potential joy into a border in November in the knowledge that come spring they’ll set your garden alight with rich, luxuriant colour. Apart from blue its possible to find tulips in virtually any colour you can imagine so they are great fun to experiment with and try out your own mixes. There are numerous ways to group and mix up tulips but here are a few of the approaches I’ve taken in the past to mid-season varieties.

  • One + Two
    This technique starts out by selecting a multi coloured tulip. In the image below I chose T. ‘flaming Spring Green’ – it has a white base with ‘flames’ of red and green. I then replicated the red tone with T. ‘National Velvet’ and the white with T. ‘Purissima’. This brought all three tulips together as a ‘family’. Equally, you could do the same thing with Tulipa ‘Abu Hassan’ which carries brown-burgundy and orangy-yellow tones. By adding T. ‘Brown Sugar’ in yellowy-orange and T. ‘Inderland’ in brown you’ll create a close-knit community of colour which just fits together.

T ‘Purissima’, T. ‘Flaming Spring Green, and T. ‘National Velvet’

  • Saturation
    To get a saturated effect calls for two different elements – 3 or 4 very richly coloured tulips and a contrasting plant to highlight the hues. For example, you could put together deep purple, orange, cerise and chocolate brown tulips and then use Euphorbia palustris as the contrast with its zingy lime tones.
  • Pastels
    Grouping together pale tulips creates a gentle palette of harmonising romantic colours. Try pairing a primrose yellow tulip with a soft pink and a washed-out lilac – dreamy. And if want a little splash of drama try dotting a very dark tulip such as T. ‘Queen of Night’ or T. ‘Black Hero’ through the pastel palette.
  • Shock!
    Creating a scheme with a bit of shock factors calls for throwing together what some make think of as clashing colours. How about pairing a strong orange with a rich pink and a purple and white striped form?! Or using black, white and orange together? These groupings will certainly turn heads. Go on, be brave and try out your wildest idea.

Tulipa ‘Ballerina’, Tulipa ‘Spring Green’, Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’ and Euphorbia palustris

  • Earthy
    The idea of an earthy palette of tulips might sounds dull with the right tones it can look fabulous. Deep browns such as T. ‘Absalon’ and T. ‘Black Parrot’ look great with dirty oranges such as T. ‘Brown Sugar’ or T. ‘Brownie’.

Don’t miss the blog next month when I’ll be taking about autumn colour in the garden and the structural, contrasting plants you can use to compliment it.

Tulipa orphanidea ‘Whittallii Group’, Fritillaria meleagris var. unicolor subvar. Alba & Muscari armeniacum

Mixed lily-flowered tulips