The Citizen Gardener: Bulbs

An illustration from John Weathers’ The Bulb Book, 1911.

The siren call of spring bulbs lures me and my purse with yet another ‘end of season deal’. End of season? I’ve only just accepted that summer is over, but the acknowledgement of the long stretch of winter looming is made easier with the thought of planting bulbs.

Dreaming of the dopamine rush administered via the first green shoots of spring bulbs pushing through the soil, just as the last drop of vitamin D leaves my system, makes the long toil of winter that bit easier.

Like little time capsules of autumn’s bounty, I bury my haul and think of new beginnings.

This year, it’s all about muscari for me. I have developed a fondness (read: obsession) with the first bee that begins to buzz in spring: the hairy footed flower bee. Arguably the cutest bee – little hairy feet, c’mon! – this pollinator is the first to emerge from hibernation to look for nectar in those grey days of late winter. So muscari (also known as grape hyacinth), which flowers from March to May, is the perfect early bloom to provide a source of food to see them through.

As is the rule of thumb when it comes to bulbs, I plant mine at three times their depth. Muscari do well in light sun or shade, and as long as they are in fairly free-draining soil, they will happily come back year after year. I put them in pots, along the front of borders and also let them naturalise in the lawns of Daubeney Fields, where I work with a group of volunteers to make the space more pollinator-friendly (head over to the Postcode Gardener social media pages to find out how to get involved!). Over time, they will spread both by bulb multiplication and by seed.

To encourage this natural-looking style, I like to toss mine haphazardly, letting them fall in drifts, and dig their holes where they land. They go in basal plate down (that’s the side with the hair-like roots) and the pointy side, where the shoots emerge from, pointing upwards.

‘Whichever way gravity tries to pull a bulb, it will stubbornly grow the other way’

One of the magical things about bulbs, though, is that they will correct themselves via something called negative gravitropism. This means that, should you accidentally plant them the wrong way up, the shoot will emerge from the pointy end, and rather than growing down into obscurity, it will quickly change direction and grow upwards. It reacts negatively to gravity, so whichever way gravity tries to pull it, it will stubbornly grow the other way. The clever little things.

Like most bulbs, muscari require little care. I water mine in after planting, but can rely on the winter rains after that.

If planting in pots, you may have to water them a little more as there isn’t ground water access to rely on, and a feed of fertiliser to the soil in your pots is always a good habit to keep – my favourite is comfrey liquid. Good quality compost in pots is also a must to ensure your bulbs come back year after year.

One important care note is what to do after the bulbs have flowered. Fight the urge to cut the plant back to its base. The green leaves will live on a little longer after the blooms have died back. They may look dormant but are in fact busy photosynthesising like little solar panels, and drawing energy back into the bulb, giving it life for the next year. So if you must cut the leaves back, wait until they have turned a yellowy brown.

If spring still feels like too long to wait, then paper white daffodils will provide a boost of floral joy this side of the festive season. Through a process called ‘forcing’, you can plant these bulbs indoors and expect to fill your home with their heady scent within a month.

Choose a container that is three to four inches deep and has no drainage holes. Spread two inches of stones, glass or bulb fibre along the bottom of the container. Position the paper white bulbs, pointed end up, on top of the stone layer. Make sure you pack them in well as they not only look better in a large group; the tight fit will help keep them from toppling over (apparently adding alcohol to the mix also helps with this, so if you’re feeling generous pop a slug of vodka in there). Add another layer of stones or compost to fill in any gaps and cover the bulbs up to their shoulders. The pointed tips should still be showing. Add water so that the level just reaches the base of the bulbs. Allowing the bottom of the bulb to sit in water will stimulate growth. Covering the entire bulb with water could cause it to rot.

The bulbs don’t need light at this point and they prefer to be kept on the cool side. Check your bulbs daily to see if they need more water. When you see roots developing, move the container to a sunny window. The sunnier the better, but try not to let them get too warm or they’ll grow leggy.

Once the plants flower, they will last longer if moved out of direct sunlight, to a cool spot with indirect light. You will have blooms popping up within a month. I like to start pots of paper whites every couple of weeks, for a continuous display throughout the winter.

There are so many bulb varieties to choose from that it can feel overwhelming, so I like to focus my hunt around a few key criteria.

Firstly, I like to order an assortment that will provide blooms all the way from early Spring to the beginning of Summer. A selection of winter aconite, muscari, crocus, fritillaria, english bluebells and alliums will provide you with abundant bulb exuberance all the way through the colder months.

Secondly, I am always sure to buy my bulbs from an organic retailer. Bulb growing is big business, and all manner of pesticides and fungicides are used to ensure high profits. These chemicals are bad for biodiversity, and are almost impossible to get out of your garden soil once planted.

Inorganic bulbs are usually drenched in neonicotinoids which have been shown to impair earthworms’ ability to tunnel, to kill off the mycelia in your soil, and to poison visiting pollinators. The bulbs are also less likely to continue growing year after year.

My favourite organic suppliers are Natural Bulbs, The Organic Gardening Catalogue and Crocus has a good variety too.

Help WestMead Community Garden

For the past 10 years, residents have been volunteering their time to create a vibrant, beautiful community garden on the Kingsmead Estate in Clapton, where residents can connect with nature and grow their own food.

Sadly there was a devastating arson attack at the garden in the early hours of Friday 4 August. The garden shed was burnt to the ground with all the group’s tools and equipment inside. The group have lost everything they need to care for WestMead garden.

Please help support this crowdfunding campaign, so that the residents can raise funds to replace their equipment and can continue gardening with their loyal volunteers and the wider community.

Any donation, however small, will be incredibly valuable, as well as support with sharing the campaign.

You can support the crowdfunder here.