Bulbs: Back-Breaking or a Pleasure to Plant?

Tulipa ‘Ollioules’ and Brunnera ‘Jack frost’


As the nights draw in, the weather gets colder, and we have a month’s worth of rain dumped on us in a single week, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s time to lose interest in the garden and take your foot off the peddle. This time of year can seem a lot of hard work as we begin to cut down borders after their heyday, however, it’s often the most important part – or indeed the most inspiring.

As bulb orders start to arrive, gardeners across the country will be delving into their boxes to see what’s been delivered and how much of each plant there is. Personally, I’ve always found a big bag of bulbs really exciting as I begin to imagine the wonderful displays I know they’ll produce next year, and bare root bulb orders are just as interesting to me as when they arrive in flower. Of course, I do take a moment to wince at the thought of the thousands of bulbs that need planting individually (we plant about 32,000 bulbs in Aberglasney each year!).

Tulips and Forget-me-not in Aberglasney’s Pool Garden display


It’s pleasing to see the wide range of bulbs on offer is getting larger all the time. Garden centres stock and an increasing amount of rarer and unusual varieties, however, the best place to buy bulbs is undoubtedly at specialist nurseries where you can be given expert advice that makes a tangible difference to your chances of success.

How well will they do? How long do they last? Are we buying the right ones? Are we doing it right?

A question I’m frequently asked is how deep should bulbs be planted, and does it vary, especially with South African bulbs which often like to be planted with their necks on the surface? Generally speaking, I go by a simple rule: Narcissus (Daffodil), Tulips, Crocus and Colchium should be planted at two and a half times the height of the bulb, and for any others, I make sure to check the books – although more often than not the advice remains the same.

Colchicum autumnale ‘Plenum’


Another question I’m asked is how should you space them and set them out? Well, in formal bedding they should generally be a trowels length between the bedding plants. With naturalistic planting in grass, if using large bulbs, they should be thrown over the area and planted where they lie. In borders, they should be planted in the gaps between your perennials. Smaller bulbs such as Crocus in lawns should be inserted under the turf in groups; simply cut flaps and slide the bulbs underneath.

Crocus ‘Vanguard’ in the Cloisters


When mixing bulbs such as Tulips I like to put them all into a bucket, give it a good shake, and plant them how they fall out. Tulips are usually the only bulb I’d mix as their colours blend so beautifully. It’s also important to think about the plants you’re mixing with your bulbs. For instance, Narcissus can be quite vigorous and may crowd out other plants making it difficult for them to get going. Likewise, many perennials will come into growth very early and can do the same to the bulbs. Planting Narcissus and late Tulips next to later starting perennials can work well as you’ll get an excellent succession of flowering in the same spot.

Narcissus ‘Rignfelds early Sensation’ on the North Lawn looking towards the Mansion


Bulb planting can be tough, yet very rewarding work with some careful thought and planning. The secret is to do the research first because as with most plants, it’s all about finding the right one for the right place in your garden.

Tips for the Week:

  • Go bulb shopping and planting
  • Clean out the pond for winter to stop leaves blocking out the light
  • If you’ve cut back your perennials then it’s a good time to put down protective mulches ready for winter
  • A final autumn weed is a good idea as many weeds, such as bittercress, will grow and seed through winter 
  • Harvest carrots before they get frost damaged
  • Pick the last of the fruit before they get frost damage
  • Put fleece over late salad crops to get a little longer out of them 
  • If your squash fruit does not have a white underside then they are ready to pick 
  • Keep pruning currant bushes for next year