The spring garden has always been my favourite. It’s the time that after a long winter, usually grey and persistently wet and stormy here in England, that the garden begins to come alive again and persuades me to pop out and have a walk around, often doing five minutes weeding as I look for things to re-appear.
The main joy for me are the containers of bulbs that I plant in the previous autumn months. Even when without a garden of my own I still planted bulbs. Shallow pans of Iris reticulata / histroides, crocuses, hyacinths and dwarf rockery narcissi, scilla and muscari can be planted singularly or mixed and matched. In pots the secret is to cram them in so you get a good display.
Then there are the tulips.
In the autumn of 2019 I veered away from my usual mix of tulips – coppery oranges, caramels, golds, deep reds and purples – to trial six lily/flute varieties (10 of each) as they seem to cope well with April showers and winds. I planted them in individual pots so I could mix and match by simply moving the pots. They were all successful flowering in the spring of 2020.
I then decided to trial how well they would return in 2021 by leaving them in their pots in a hot sunny part of the garden all throughout the summer allowing their leaves to die down naturally. None of the bulbs were removed and none of the compost was replaced and the bulbs were not fed.
The results have been poor.
- Lasting Love – a lovely deep red, planted in a glazed pot (one flower returned)
- Red Shine – glossy red that deepens with age (nothing returned)
- Ballerina – orange and scented, reliably returns. (Six from last year, but several from earlier years, all in pots)
- China Pink – pale pink (two flowers returned)
- West Point – bright yellow (three flowers returned)
- Queen of Night – deep purple, almost black, planted in a glazed pot (two very small flowers)
- Green Star – white and green (two flowers)
- Dolls Minuet – magenta red and green (five small flowers)
- Flaming Spring Green, white with red and green stripes, planted in the raised bed (only one decent flower, a few very tiny ones)
- Tres Chic, pure white lily tulip. Nothing showed this year.
Also planted in 2019 in a raised bed were Narcissus ‘Thali’, ‘Sir Winston Churchill’, ‘Geranium’ and ‘Pueblo’, Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Alba’ and four types of iris reticulata. ‘Alida’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Pixie’ and ‘J.S.Dijt’ and an assortment of Muscari bulbs. Tulipa ‘White Triumphator’ – pure white which starts out with a green tinge, was planted in a raised bed (five flowers returned)
The Narcissi all returned well in March/April 2021
Chionodoxa increased and mingled with self-seeded forget-me-nots looking delightful
Muscari returned well
Irises did not flower except a couple of Harmony in early February, though leaves did appear so maybe they might return next year.
Iris reticulata ‘Danfordiae’ a yellow flower and Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’ were planted in a shallow pots. Neither flowered this year. Tulip ‘Tres Chic’ and Narcissus ‘Thalia’ were planted together in a container. The Narcissus have flowered again, but no sign of the tulips.
Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’ was planted in a shallow pot. Two out of the three bulbs flowered, one with two spikes. They have now been planted into the dappled shady bed.
I also planted several rockery narcissi in shallow pots – ‘Canaliculatus recurvus’ – white with a yellow cup; ‘Tete a tete’; ‘Sundisc’ – white with a yellow cup; ‘Minnow’ also white with a yellow cup; ‘Martinette’ in a deeper pot – yellow with an orange cup and taller than the others, very similar to ‘Falconet’ and Narcissus ‘Recurvus (Pheasant Eye)’ in the shady border which was late flowering.
Some new crocuses were planted in the new shady border, but didn’t do too well in 2020 because of all the rain during February. In 2021 a few of the C. sieberi ‘tricolor’ and ‘snow bunting’ did appear, but not in the numbers that were planted.
I didn’t plant as many bulbs as I wanted to see how well the older ones did. Many of the irises and narcissi were removed from their pots and replanted in fresh compost. I only bought a few new tulips: ‘Sarah Raven’, ‘Princes Magriet’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ for two containers; Tulip hageri ‘Little Beauty’ and Tulip clusiana ‘Peppermintstick’ both species tulips, for my small barrels and Iris reticulata ‘Katherine Hodgkin’.
I replanted last year’s rockery narcissi, mostly in pots, but some like the ‘Canaliculatus recurvus’ went into a sunny raised bed where they have done well.
Iris ‘George’ returned reliably in his pots for the third year and both ‘Alida’ and ‘J.S. Dijt’ which were replanted and have flowered well, as did Katherine Hodgkin. Though I felt she was a bit insipid on her own. I think she needs some Muscari – maybe Valerie Finnis – and a white Tete a tete.
The new tulips have done well, though Sarah Raven and Princes Magriet are much shorter than I expected so Paul Scherer towers above them (incidentally very much the same colour as QofN) . I like the fact that Princes Magriet has quite neat leaves and lovely sunrise colours which works well with the wallflowers I planted in the same containers, though they are only just beginning to flower now (end April).
Little Beauty deserves its name and looks fabulous with the self-seeded forget-me-nots and Peppermint Sticks really does look like a stick of the old-fashioned mint pink and white rock. This is quite a tall tulip and might look nice with some pink ones and a white Narcissus. I hope they return next spring, if not I shall definitely order them again.
I think it is best to buy Iris reticulata, hyacinths and tulips as large fresh bulbs each year for container planting and treat them as annuals. You can try planting the finished bulbs in the garden if you have space for them, I don’t, though I do keep squeezing some of the smaller narcissi into beds.
Narcissi / Daffodils and Muscari and Chionodoxa seem to come back well if planted in the ground, or even in the case of dwarf narcissi, if removed from pots after the leaves have died down and stored in a dry spot until being replanted into pots using new compost in September.
I will mention that I have several containers from 2017 and 2018 that have never been emptied and yet the bulbs such as Iris reticulata ‘George’ and tulips such as ‘Ballerina’, ‘Ronaldo’, ‘Whittallii’, ‘Brown Sugar’, and ‘Bruine Wimpel’ keep coming back each year. Also Tulip ‘Orange Emperor’ which was planted in the raised bed in the autumn of 2016 still makes an appearance, this year producing 10 flowers! And I was surprised to see ‘Belle Epoque’ make an appearance this year – planted in 2018, flowered in 2019, but missing in 2020.
I think where bulbs are concerned you just have to try and see what works for you and your garden. Some reappear, others don’t. I have found that large, heavy flower heads like parrot tulips and doubles don’t do well because of the wind here. The same applies to tall daffodils. Although they do better planted in the ground where they presumably make stronger roots and can grow deeper.
Favourite tulips of mine are
- Red – ‘National Velvet’, ‘Red Shine’ and ‘Lasting Love’; ‘Sarah Raven’ (slightly darker red and darkens with age)
- Dark purples/black – , ‘Paul Scherer’, ‘Havran’, ‘Ronaldo’, ‘Queen of Night’ (very tall)
- Mauve – ‘Purple Dream’
- Copper / Orange / Caramel – ‘Ballerina’; ‘Orange Emperor’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Cairo’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, ‘Whittallii’ which naturalises well; ‘Princes Irene’ and ‘Princes Magriet’
- Green – ‘Greenland’ which is pink and green; ‘Flaming Spring Green’ green and white with a red stripe, ‘Spring Green’ green and white
- White – ‘White Triumphator’; ‘Tres Chic’;
- Yellow – ‘West Point’
I may try some peony tulips again next year and I fancy mixing some dark ones with a shocking pink, but I must confess that the jewel-like colours of the oranges, coppers, deep reds and purples remain my favourites.