Using Bulbs Successfully

Bulbs are hard to beat in any low maintenance garden – hardy, easy to plant and simple to grow.

While many of the usual annuals, bedding plants and perennials of traditional gardens are hard to accommodate in a design intended to minimise the amount of work required to keep things looking good, most of the old favourite spring bulbs are ideal. From snowdrops to many varieties of tulips, the low maintenance gardener can enjoy a typically colourful February, March and April – and the good news is that you don’t have to confine yourself to spring flowers. The trick to using bulbs successfully lies in choosing the right ones and knowing how and where to plant them.

What To Plant

Not all kinds of bulbs are ideally suited to the low maintenance garden; most kinds of gladioli, garden tulips – as distinct from those known as “species” or “botanical” ones – and hyacinths, for instance need to be lifted and stored after flowering. The best bulbs for this kind of gardening are those which can simply be planted and then forgotten about in the sure and certain knowledge that they will keep coming back, year after year. Of course, this includes the likes of crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, bluebells and botanical tulips, but there’s a healthy number of summer and autumn flowering varieties to choose from too.

Some of the best of these include:

  • Alliums – members of the onion family, they offer a range of flower colours and sizes in early and mid summer.
  • Lily of the Valley – a firm favourite with a delicate scent, though once established it can be invasive.
  • Cyclamen – choose one of the hardy types; there are varieties which flower in each of the four seasons, so you’ll never be lost for some colour.
  • Iris – although most kinds like sunny, well drained sites, the native Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus) naturally occurs in and around ponds, so it will do well in a boggy site.
  • Crocosmia – sometimes known as “montbretia” , these plants aren’t everyone’s favourite, but they are hard to beat for injecting plenty of early autumn colour year after year.
  • Colchicum – the “autumn crocus” flowers from late August through to early November.
  • Kaffir Lily – a really showy plant with pinkish red flowering spikes which develop between September and November.

It’s even possible to have gladioli if you pick one of the hardy varieties, such as Gladiolus byzantinus which has reddish flowers in early summer.

Where And How To Plant

Having decided on the kinds of bulbs that you want to include in your low maintenance garden’s planting scheme, it’s obviously important to make sure that you plant them in appropriate places – and properly.

For most kinds of bulbs, this means a well drained soil, usually in either full sun or light shade, though some like things a little damper or a little shadier, so it’s important to read the label thoroughly and make sure you give them the best chance. Both Lily of the Valley and the Dog’s Tooth Violet, for instance, prefer partial shade and a humus-rich soil, while as mentioned before, the Yellow Flag Iris enjoys the sort of damp conditions to be found where it grows in nature.

When it comes to planting, again it’s important to follow any instructions provided, but as a general rule, large bulbs such as narcissi or tulips need to be buried twice as deep as they are high, while crocuses and other small bulbs need only be covered to around their own height. Since most bulbs like freely draining soils, it’s often a good idea to slightly “over-dig” the hole and fill up the bottom with a little grit or sharp sand before planting.

Incorporating Bulbs In The Overall Design

Many of the spring bulbs lend themselves to being naturalised and allowed to multiply. If your garden can accommodate it, few things look more attractive in spring than groups of narcissi growing amid a little rough grassland, while crocuses, winter aconite and bluebells too seem to have been made to grow wild amid grass and under trees. If you do decide to adopt this look, you’ll need to leave cutting the grass until the flowers are finished and leaves have begun to dry, but that shouldn’t be too much hardship – this is a low maintenance garden after all!

The same sort of effect can be achieved with summer and autumn flowering bulbs by growing them through ground-cover plants such as Thyme, Ajuga or Euonymus, and with a little thought, bulbs can usefully be incorporated in almost any sort of planting scheme.

Bulbs are the ultimate low maintenance plants – provided you choose them wisely. If you pick the right ones and meet their fairly modest demands, few things in the garden will repay you quite so well.