Over the coming weeks we’ll all be reminded by the garden centres that it’s nature’s planting time, and they’ll be backing it up with tempting hardy plants.
In essence, the period from October, well into November, coincides with leaf-fall in deciduous trees and shrubs, and it’s a good time to plant newcomers or move existing specimens about in the garden.
Although the air may remain cold, there is enough warmth in the soil to encourage new root growth, allowing them to become established before winter sets in. Beyond that lies an open window of opportunity for planting, frost permitting, until the point of spring.
Garden centre shelves are groaning under the weight of displays, and the national press is full of special offers. It must be bulb planting time!
But before buying anything, pause to think about the predicted flowering time, height and colour. It’s perfectly possible to have a continuity of bloom from late January to May, even extend it with the addition of summer and autumn-flowering bulbs.
This begins with the late January appearance of aconites (eranthis), followed closely by snowdrops. February sees the appearance of crocus with dwarf narcissi and Iris reticulata hot on their heels. These shine through the March-April divide, then allium and tulips take over.
Examine the bulbs before buying to check they’re sound at base and neck, but only after donning protective polythene gloves or improvising with a bag, because some may cause a skin irritation, others contain poisonous alkaloids. Be especially careful when handling hyacinth, tulip, narcissi, scilla and iris.
Spring bulbs should be planted between now and mid-November. The rule of thumb for planting depth is; bigger types such as narcissi, up to twice their depth in soil, smaller bulbs, crocus for example, no more than once their depth.
With a little effort you can have hyacinth bulbs in bloom before Christmas but it means buying them ‘prepared’ which costs a little extra. Start without delay by planting three or five to a bowl, with bulb fibre if there’s no drainage, with ordinary compost if there is. Avoid fungal disease by making sure they don’t touch, and store them in a cold dark place to encourage root development. At the end of November gradually wean them into the daylight and warmth to encourage shoot development and eventual flowering.
For a succession of bloom from December into the new year, plant up a few bowls and retrieve them from the cold in stages. An easier but more costly alternative is to look out for hyacinths planted individually in pots later in the year and group them in a bowl. Help extend the flowering period by keeping the room temperature as low as possible.
Dwarf narcissi, iris and crocus also lend themselves to this form of early pot cultivation but if you simply wish to pot up a few bulbs and let them grow naturally on the bench in an unheated greenhouse that too is possible. Best choice is the multi-headed tazetta Narcissus Paper White, whose fragrance is out of this world in the depths of winter.