If you want lots of colour in your garden next spring you need to start planning and planting now
Get your timing right and prepare well
Garden Centres often sell bulbs for autumn planting from the end of July and want them out of the way by September to make room for Christmas-tree decorations. The message is: don’t be rushed. October is the best time for daffodils; November for tulips.
Prepare the soil properly. Remove weeds and incorporate lots of compost or other organic matter when planting bulbs. On heavy soils, dig in horticultural grit. Bulbs grown in pots need good drainage so put plenty of crocks in the bottom and use a well-drained compost. For pots use two parts John Innes No 2 with one part horticultural grit. Specialised bulb composts are expensive and only necessary in pots with poor drainage.
Plant bulbs in pots
Most bulbs are ideal for growing in containers, but this especially suits those with large, showy flowers, such as tulips, lilies, arum lilies and alliums.
For bulbs that are only going to spend one season in their container, use a mix of three parts multi-purpose compost with one part grit. For long-term container displays, use three parts John Innes No 2 compost mixed with one part grit.
Plant at three times their depth and one bulb width apart.
To promote good flowering next year, feed the bulbs every seven to ten days with a high-potassium fertiliser such as a liquid tomato feed. Begin feeding as soon as shoots appear, and stop feeding once the foliage starts to die down at the end of the season.
Fill large plastic pots with your favourite bulbs and, just before they are about to flower, use them to plug holes in the border. Plastic pots can also be slipped inside more elegant terracotta ones and whipped out when the bulbs are over. Store the pots behind a shed to allow the foliage to die down, keep them weed-free, top-dress with a layer of compost in the autumn, and bring them out again the following year.
Try some shade loving varieties
Not all bulbs need full sun. As well as woodland bulbs such as the dog's tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis), and the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), many Mediterranean bulbs grow well in shade. Scilla peruviana has blue flowers the size of tennis balls and soon forms large colonies in cool, shady situations. Its relatives, the squills - Scilla siberica and S. bifolia - seed themselves everywhere, but the pools of blue they form are irresistible on dull spring days. The star-shaped flowers of Ipheion uniflorum create a similar effect but are less invasive.
If you have rich soil with plenty of added leafmould you will be able to grow the sumptuous black flowers of Fritillaria camschatcensis. The most majestic bulb for the dappled shade provided by deciduous trees is F. imperialis. A friend has masses of the deep orange form growing against a red-brick wall underneath a fig tree.
Beware of the enemies
The biggest destroyer of bulbs is the squirrel. Although they dig up daffodils they don't eat them. But they have a voracious appetite for crocus and tulips. Planting the bulbs deeper than normal can help. Bulbs are most vulnerable after planting, when the soil is easy for squirrels to dig. Chicken-wire placed over the pot, or the freshly dug soil, will deter them.